Her face breaks into a smile as she picks up a unique blue vase and then points to a forlorn pink-and-blue salwar kameez-clad figurine sitting on a bench at a railway platform. For potter Shalan Dere, narrative plays a huge role in her ceramic works. As we move from one work to another at her studio, Potter’s Place, at Mahim in central Mumbai, her voice softens or becomes louder depending on the piece she is referring to. Dere points to a ‘group of people seated on a bench’ as her favourite. “Waiting for a train is always boring. But it’s interesting to watch people whiling away their time — maybe by dozing off, reading a newspaper or gazing vacantly at a passerby. It took me four attempts to get the right feel and look, especially of the bench,” explains Dere.
There is yet another piece that shows a group of people standing in a semicircle, engaged in animated conversation. “At nukkads in suburbs, you are likely to come across a group engaged in, what we call adda marna. It’s great fun to see them in a discussion’’, she says, pointing to the men attired in colourful trousers and shirts, kurta-pyjama and dhoti, standing in different postures.
At Potter’s Place, one can find everything that a well-designed home in an upscale neighbourhood needs — bowls, platters, murals and sculptures. Dere’s love for nature is reflected in the beautifully crafted leaves. My eye rests on leaves of a myriad plants such as mango, banana, rose and peepul in a profusion of colours, all crafted from ceramic. The glaze makes them look incredibly lifelike. Then there are bowls and platters of every imaginable shape and depth. Dere has also created elegant tiles that can be used as wall hangings at home or in offices. She admits that it has taken various levels of experimentation to get the hues right. The pieces can cost anything between Rs 150 and Rs 70,000.
It’s difficult to imagine this gentle sari-clad lady, with salt-and-pepper hair tied neatly in a small bun, as an entrepreneur running a small-scale venture. After getting her masters degree in management studies from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute in 1968, she started working with her husband in trading of textile machinery. Her spare time was spent tending to plants that she gathered from all over the country at her bungalow.
She was hooked from the word go and the first thing she did was invest in a potter’s wheel. As there was no kiln available in the neighbourhood, she would drive 70 kilometres with her unbaked works to the studio of the famous potters, Ajit and Pratima Vaidya, in Ishalgud, Karjat. It was there that she learnt the technique of firing and mixing the glaze.
“I am never happy repeating the same piece. After doing, maybe, 10 pieces, I start searching for new ways of expressing the idea. And perhaps that is one of the reasons that even after more than two decades, I am still fascinated by what my kiln offers me today,’’ says Dere, who is in her late 60’s now.
Earlier, she used to retail her pieces at a couple of stores in Mumbai, including the famed The Bombay Store, but she didn’t get a good response. So, she decided to sell them from her own studio. Actor John Abraham, a friend of her son Vikram, was the one who urged her to reach out to people more aggressively.
Today, several architects and interior designers visit her studio and buy what is on offer or commission special works. For instance, an architect wanted a special mural and willingly paid Rs 35,000 for it. Her tiles, used for decoration and not for flooring, too are in demand. Her ceramic pieces have found various celebrity admirers as well —Dimple Kapadia dropped in with her daughter Twinkle, as did Smita Godrej.
The studio has generated a lot of interest especially after she started conducting classes and workshops that are attended by people from varied backgrounds. And in order to make her art more visible, she has started participating in exhibitions and art festivals.
Dere admits that getting into full-time ceramic pottery may be costly, especially if one doesn’t have space to install a kiln. But if that isn’t a problem, the cost of starting can be Rs 2,00,000 to Rs 3,00,000 for a wheel, a kiln and, of course, clay. “But then every art form is a struggle. And if one has the passion then one can overcome all hurdles!’’ says Dere.