‘We women, we need to go a little mad, sometimes’. This is what Reena Rai, the first woman potter in the Northeast with a studio of her own, tells me at end of a long chat about life, family and work. From her rented apartment in Gangtok, she’s been wheeling out owl banks lately. The former banks – piggy banks – are on the shelves lined up with the other exhibits. Few waiting to go into the fire; others waiting to go out into the world.
Daughter of a former politician and a government servant, Reena Rai says that she’s never had too much art in her upbringing. Other than a few needlework attempted here and there as little girl, she was completely new to the world of art and craft. But the idea of pottery, to her, held immense appeal. And that’s the kind of madness – a love for something entirely new – that took her across different worlds to gather skills, and brought her back to her roots.
‘We come from the earth and that’s where we return’, ergo Maato. In Nepali, Maato means ‘mud, soil, land of belonging’, and for its logo, Reena has chosen the silhouette of the Chorten – the traditional Sikkimese stupa that embodies the five basic elements of being – earth, water, air, fire and ether. ‘All the elements I need for my work’, she concludes.
Reena Rai built her first pottery studio at Sorok, Kitam. Some 6 kilometres away from Namchi – a district headquarter in Sikkim– her choice of location, wasn’t an accident. For one, it took her away from the obligations and chaos of Gangtok; second, the weather was dry and just perfect for pottery; and third, her ancestral roots and home lay there. A complete state-of-the-art ceramic studio with a blunger, pot mill, gas kiln and glazing and firing equipments, she needed solitude – far away from the sane crowd – to pursue her passion and love.
Functional pottery, she tells me, is her niche and expertise. ‘There has to be beauty in functionality, so I had to make it beautiful and I had to make it functional’ she says, as she shows me her creations – art objects, souvenirs and high quality home decor that double up as kettles, incense stick holders, hip flasks, ashtrays, mosquito coil stands, serving platters.
‘I’m setting up the studio at Pakyong next’ she says, from her temporary rented apartment in Gangtok. The move from quaint little Kitam to the capital recently was because of her 4-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, who now study in a reputed school in the city.
Following her Heart
A hands-on mother, Reena has been quite the rule breaker. Not one to play it safe, she ventured out into the world of pottery, dissatisfied from a Montessori school teaching job. From a small-town and a reputed family, Reena refused to crumble under the pressure of her background. In a small town like Gangtok – where imitating someone else’s life is thoroughly encouraged – Reena’s choices are wonderfully refreshing. Homeschooling her daughter up untill now, cooking from her own kitchen garden, to leaving her ‘secure’ job are just a few examples.
‘Teaching was a wonderful experience, but I felt the need to do more. Self-sustenance appealed to me, especially when I took a trip to the United States and saw the Amish community’, she tells me. ‘Grow your own vegetables, work with your own hands, you’ll sleep better if you toil’ she believes. Little wonder why, her first choice was a Master Potter course at a pottery village in Khanapur, located on the Goa-Maharashtra-Karnataka border. While painting is the stage in pottery that women are generally associated with, Reena enjoyed breaking that stereotype. Making clay from scratch and sweating it out, she’s learnt it all the way. Next she moved to Goa to learn the exquisite Azulejos, Portugal tile painting.
A woman, with an intention of bringing up other women, she’s trained over 30 young girls. ‘I wanted to work with women, especially women from the villages as lesser opportunities come their way’ she says. But the challenges that women face remain the same everywhere. ‘Married women usually leave the job or leave at 5 pm. Pottery requires more than that. Also, their husbands want their wives to depend on them’. However, she remains undaunted and plans to work with Self Help Groups next.
Her own challenges continue too. A work-from-home mother, Reena shoulders the responsibility of looking after the kids for the better part of the day and then resumes her work in the studio when they’re asleep. These aren’t tasks easy to juggle, so she does one thing at a time. She believes that both need all her heart and focus. Her favourite part of it all, is making clay from scratch and then the wheelwork. ‘It’s almost therapeutic to see wet clay transform into a defined shape within seconds. I do it every day and it never ceases to amaze me. I love the thrill of creating new designs’.
From the Road Less Taken to Here
‘People are starting to understand the value of handiwork. They don’t mind paying the premium. The demand is increasing too, it’s a pretty good thing’ she says, about her market. Recently, Reena was one of the admired speakers at the Entrepreneurs’ Meet 2017, organised at Sikkim Manipal Institute of Technology. Standing next to biggies of giant companies like Naukri.com, Brillio, Flipkart and the well-known Sonam Wangchuk, Reena is an example of where following your heart can take you to.
To keep herself updated, she takes inspiration from exhibitions and browses through the finest work galleries. Today, her products are showcased at festivals such as Namchi Mahotsav and Gangtok’s Winter Carnival, sold in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Gangtok or retailed from the shelves of her own studio.
Beautifully mad to do what she’s always wanted, her life is an original – formed and shaped all by herself. Surely, a work of art.
By Roshni Chetri