Ambar Agnihotri is a trained product designer from NID Ahmedabad and is presently teaching part-time at the Vasant Valley School. He has taught and juried several art competitions at schools and colleges. He has been an avid sketcher, is passionate about pottery, and has designed and executed several large-scale architectural murals and installations.
1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?
AA: Though I was interested in art, craft and architecture since I was very young, my awareness and passion were rekindled when I went to NID to study product design. At the institute, I came in contact with a bunch of Malayali students – being in their company expanded my vision of art, music and philosophy. I started visiting the library to see the works of masters and started maintaining a sketchbook for drawings and observations. For me art was something intangible which is what prompted me to become an artist. I was lured by the notion that to become an artist one needed to peel through the layers of who we are to reveal the truth. So, I experimented with line, colour, texture, form and contour – both figurative and abstract. The act of sketching and drawing was liberating – they refined my sense of proportion and helped me develop new ideas. I was mighty impressed by artist Himmat Shah whom I’d the opportunity to observe as he explored various materials and mediums with their unique sensibilities.
After completing my course in product design, when I came to Delhi, I searched for pottery masters who could further my growth as a clay artist and help me develop, understand and refine my clay modelling and pottery making skills. While drawing and sketching kept me grounded and growing, I continued my passion in pottery as well as sculpture, employing slip-work, glazing, brush-strokes and marks.
Later, I married Monica, who was also learning pottery and we set up a studio and a kiln with the help of her father. It was difficult to make the studio work because people didn’t understand studio-pottery art and sculpture and were unwilling to pay for it. Initially, it was rather difficult to sustain ourselves from our pottery or sculpture and we had some lull periods which were very stressful. In search of stability and revenue to make our ends meet, we did FAB India orders as well as worked on other commissions. We participated in the Osho world pottery exhibitions and many group shows. In 2007 I received the AIFACS award for my clay sculpture “The Universal Man”. Fortunately, we received some support from our homes, which helped us to focus on our work and continue with our life – trying to find new commissions, growing in our art-craft-design, and selling the works.
I taught in many colleges and schools and juried their art exhibitions, such as that held during the IIT Delhi Festival. I also conducted courses in form, drawing and clay-basic materials at IILM, IICD, IIAD, etc. I was invited to a “porcelain painting” symposium to Cesky Porcelan, Czech Republic, in 2008 to represent India. In 2009 we were felicitated by Balvienie for our “contribution to tradition and preservation of heritage”.
Monica and I have made several relief and mosaic murals. I have made a monumental “Mahavir” sculpture as well as designed a wading pool and fountain mural.
Outdoor Garden Mural
We have held exhibitions twice a year from our home gallery “Ambarka” and managed to sell sufficiently to help us eke out a living. I went through dark periods feeling very despondent and discouraged, when people didn’t understand my artworks and products and were reluctant to pay decent money for them. Things are better now. We have a regular clientele who appreciate and are ready to pay for it.
I am trained in music, product design, pottery and am aware of architecture. For me the installations, exhibitions and lighting come together in the spirit and life. I was instrumental in designing the stage of the sets of “Ali Baba and Chalis Chor” at the British School where I taught. I worked with my architect-professor father in working out the layout of the sets and execution of props, which was coordinated with the lighting team, while costume design was a separate and integral entity of the production. The colour scheme, materials, textures and props and spaces were detailed with an eye for movement, visibility and storyline, for maximum impact and viewership. I am also exploring digital media for drawing, illustrations and video making.
In our journey we were fortunate to get large-scale mural commissions. In spite of no knowledge and experience, we accepted the architectural installations and art-design commissions with relief work and mosaics. As they say “luck favours the audacious” – these projects were hugely successful and beautifully executed to the surprise of everyone.
Monica and I have also started our Ambarka Centre for sculpture and pottery where we taught adults and free souls of Mirambika, who came to learn from us. I work through storytelling, clay modelling and acting in a very organic and informal way.
2. What art projects are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?
AA: I am working on several projects simultaneously; figure and form, landscapes and architecture, masses and voids. I have been drawing and developing ideas about meaningful and interesting negative spaces between solid forms. I am inspired by Gaudi’s skeletal balcony designs both for function, metaphor and aesthetics. My drawings and sculptures are becoming more stylized and cubist in character, having earlier experimented with geometrical and linear simplification. I have been working on stoneware figurative sculptures as well as those that I call “face pots”. I sketch a lot to develop my thinking and sense for art and design. My inspirations are face and figure and I feel motivated because it helps me express myself about the visual experiences of different people I have met – their characters, moods and personalities.
3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?
AA: Contemporary art is embracing the sciences, economics, technology, machines, adopting many non-traditional art mediums like videos, multimedia, etc, and are fusing them all with music. I was inducted into designing a kinetic mural in a factory in Ghaziabad at the beginning of my journey. Though I am adapting technology to my personal engagement with art, I think my art is still fairly orthodox. I think as humans we are getting more and more technologically oriented, and one is growing to like interacting digitally. Today, it is one of the facets of the human mode of expression and communication that cannot be ignored. Technology offers a synthesis of many areas and domains of art, culture and social life, whether it is exhibitions, communication or self-expression. I welcome this change and look forward towards it.
I do welcome these trends and can see some virtues in them. Till now my skills and explorations in art and design activities have been formal or conventional. Monica and I have done some murals that can be termed as contemporary (modern). In the present times, interpretation of hands-on has evolved considerably. Even multimedia, drawing, and video art now understood as hands-on and they offer a new paradigm in representation, storytelling, narratives and expression, which I use in my art practice. I also express through digital portraits and landscapes.
4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?
AA: Art conveys the moods, values and struggles of the times it is made in. It is also about self-expression. My figurative sculptures depict pain and loss along with strength and resilience. They contain many facets of human life and emotions. I have often gone underneath the Nehru Place flyover to record the life of banjaras in pen and ink. For me my drawings of them help me reflect upon the human condition. It helps me observe and portray adversities in their lives and contemplate the value in them. I cherish the robustness and fortitude with which they face the challenges of survival. Being an avid sketcher, I’ve often gone to slums to record and write my impressions which I present in my poetry, photographs and drawings.
Art certainly has a social window for me. It helps me to objectively observe and record the life of people around. While at home I draw portraits of my family member snacking or drinking chai, listening to music or reading. l like to record people when they are not confined in rooms, who live in the open, like the banjaras.
These drawing activities keep me engaged – they convey the rich person’s privileges and comfort compared to the banjaras living underneath the flyovers. They are constantly stalked and punished by policemen, beaten, their women exploited by the truck drivers, peddled by their men folks for money, booze and food.
5. Where do you create your art (workplace/studio)? What is your process?
AA: As I mentioned earlier, I run a studio with Monica. We work with slab, pinch and coil methods, and use the pottery wheel process. We have designed and made ergonomically sensitive functional ware that are microwave proof and non-toxic. We have explored sculptures, relief murals, decorative, and figurative expressions. We have taught these skills to children and adults and done workshops at various schools and colleges.
6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?
AA: The post-Covid period has seen a surge in digital activities. Because of the Covid lockdown, we were forced to stay indoors and create and communicate from our homes. So, a lot of art communication and dialogue have become online and digital – many more people are presenting their worldview through Facebook and Instagram. They are communicating personal ideas, beliefs and a collective consciousness as well through their writing, photography and art creation.
Because of Covid, when physical art exhibitions couldn’t be held, digital exhibitions became a new reality. Arts could be viewed through digital walk-throughs. The digital platform has opened up the digital space using technologically modulated lighting, displays, creative environmental backgrounds, blended with music or humans in dialogue.
I think more exhibitions would be done digitally and seen online, but the actual buying will take place only with tangible seeing, feeling and viewing of the artwork. Nothing can substitute the real visual-tactile experience of an artwork. Through digital media one can create a lot of drama through lighting, super impositions of images, blending with background music or sounds. That makes it a very creative domain, and it will really change and compete with the physical scenario of art display in natural and artificial lighting. Yet the mood of colour, tone, texture, volume, mass and scale cannot be convincingly represented and displayed with technology very well.
7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected
in your art?
AA: I have been interested in both Indian and western classical music. There are many moods and facets to the music – some are chirpy morning ragas and others are sombre evening ones. Some of the expressions and moods of my drawings and painting convey the hues, textures and rhythms of life. They are both happy as well as sad. I like to walk, travel whenever I find the time; I find a comfortable spot and start drawing. There are many spontaneous sketch-pen and ink drawings that I’ve done while I was on vacation. I record my impressions in colour and fluid lines. I had wanted to become an architect before I went ahead to study industrial product design. I have keenly observed the rugged landscapes of Aravalis while travelling by train. While travelling I have encountered interesting rock formations, masses, voids, openings and vistas. These get reflected in my art compositions and I do give them a place in my imaginative recollection and representation through sketches and drawings.
(All images are courtesy of the artist, Ambar Agnihotri.)
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