“My goal is not to make something pretty; my goal is to change the way you see glass,” says Anjali Srinivasan, a Post-glass artist who focuses on making her work in glass more experimental and unconventional.
From her beautiful, reflective, pinkish-peach glass dress that created a stir when it debuted at 2010 UrbanGlass auction and later at Fashion Week’s NightOut at Heller Gallery, New York, to creating glass that ‘breathes’ and most recently, the creation of a glass sculpture that glows on response to touch, Srinivasan has ventured into uncharted territory, pushing the boundaries of design and artistic expression while exploring new frontiers in form and technique.
It was in the mid-90s, in the dusty environs of a small industrial town on the outskirts of India’s capital, New Delhi, lined with factories where chimneys bellowed black smoke, that Srinivasan had her first encounter with the incredible magic of glassblowing.
“As I watched the artisans at work, I was mesmerised,” she recollects. “Glass has a seductive allure; I was smitten by its fluidity, its beautiful rhythm. And I knew instinctively this is what I would like to do.”
As an Accessories Design student of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Srinivasan’s sojourn into the glass town of Firozabad in the state of Uttar Pradesh came about when her tableware designs were repeatedly rejected by the glass manufacturer she was interning with. “I had previously worked on wood, metal, cloth and clay, but when he reiterated that it was impossible to replicate my designs on glass, I had to see for myself why this was so.”
And it was here, in a traditional mud furnace factory employing age-old techniques of glassblowing that she first realised the utter ruthlessness of glass as a creative medium. “The art is both beautiful in its simplicity and yet extremely complex,” she says. “Unlike other materials, it seemed to me that I have no control over glass with my hands because I couldn’t touch it.”
Hard but fragile
Srinivasan fell in love with the flaming orange molten glass and found herself drawn to the inherent contradictory nature of the material. “Glass is hard but fragile and transparent,” she explains. “It behaves like a solid yet is as luscious as honey in molten state. I was fascinated by the way it transforms itself from solid to liquid and back to a solid. It had such interesting dynamics that my heart was set on exploring this medium.”
Yet, gaining hands-on experience in the export market of Firozabad was easier said than done as her gender weighed heavily against her. “Factories were not open in those days to a girl wishing to learn the art of making glass. I remember women were not even part of the work force in these factories nor were they to be seen in public spaces. Also, as an export hub, factories wished to keep their designs ‘secret’ and any outsider was viewed with suspicion.”
Srinivasan kept alive her relationship with the glass artisans in Firozabad when she worked with the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, a government agency under the Ministry of Textiles, following her course at NIFT in 1998. Here, she worked at introducing research and design initiatives aimed at socio-economic empowerment of the artisans in the handicrafts sector.
Although her love affair with glass continued, Srinivasan was still confined to being an observer, not a participant. The dearth of glassblowing courses in India led her to the United States in 1999 to attend a course for glass art at a reputed university. It was here, before her course commenced, that Srinivasan had her first tryst with blowing glass.
“My friend suggested I visit her husband’s glass studio to ascertain if the hands-on process of using a blowpipe and working in 1,200 degree Celsius heat was something I really aspired to do. He showed me how to make a snow man that required me to shape an orb, followed by a similar one in a smaller size. I bungled through every single step and ended up with a rather ugly-looking penguin but I thoroughly enjoyed every single minute of the creative process.”
Srinivasan has come a long way since her first clumsy and amateurish attempt. Overcoming the initial challenges of working with the material, she has gone through a very long and steep learning curve and now meticulously handcrafts artistic creations including 3D installations and sculptures that suggest not only a mastery of the medium but are also the interpretations of her perception of the world and its reality.
“I have a certain way of seeing the world that is unique to me and so I have my own language in the art of glassmaking,” says Srinivasan who learnt the basics and honed her skills at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. Later, she chose glass and digital media at the Rhode Island School of Design from where she completed her Master’s degree in 2007.
She also apprenticed in Sweden and worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But it was while working as Projects Manager with visual artist Ann Hamilton, that she imbibed the valuable lessons of managing a studio, says Srinivasan, who burst into Dubai’s vibrant art space with the opening of ChoChoMa Studios in 2014 in the art hub of Al Quoz.
In this commercial studio, Srinivasan manages two parallel careers. “One involves custom designing based on orders from clients that incorporates my knowledge of glass and design skills,” she explains. “The other is me as an artist. I showcase at galleries and museums and for that, my approach to glass is very conceptual. I don’t make flower vases or paper weights or objects that people are familiar with. I invent techniques for glass that I can push the limits with.”
For instance, one of Srinivasan’s sculptures featured glass that is flexible. These were blown extremely thin to the point where the glass turned as flexible as cellophane; and in doing so, she managed to create “something that is beyond the cutting edge of glass.”
“Over the past few years, I have become very interested in the notion of collective authorship where I am not the author of the work; instead, I facilitate the work,” she explains. “The work is made by everyone else around, which is one step ahead of being interactive.”
In 2015, Dubai was witness to this bold idea when Srinivasan embarked on a ‘crowd-created’ project at Dubai Design Week where she worked with thin glass filaments and blow torches to build an ephemeral, transparent arch. “My assistants and I showed visitors who stopped by how to use the very hot flame to weld glass; we taught them the rules and gave them the experience of working with it. Untitled (Archway) was therefore a piece that I directed like a film director although I had no idea then what the final outcome would be.”
Standing tall at 11-feet, the sculpture not only turned out “bigger and taller than I imagined it would be”, but also attracted the attention of Austrian crystal giant Swarovski who liked the ethic behind it and named Srinivasan one of the Swarovski Designers of the Future, becoming the first Indian designer and also the first glassmaker to be chosen for the honour. What was special about this award, she says, “is that Swarovski commissioned the three chosen artists to do a work in collaboration with them combining Swarovski crystals and new technologies.”
For Srinivasan, this was precisely the kind of challenge that interested her and had propelled her growth as an artist over the past 15 years. “I come up with my own techniques; I experiment; I play around with glass. Sometimes it takes years to perfect a technique. For instance, I started playing with torch and filament glass in 2006 and it took me about four years to figure out how to build stable structures that are made only from thin filaments of glass.”
The collaboration with Swarovski led to the creation of Unda, an undulating wave of interactive tiles that called for the development of a special, touch-sensitive crystal tile which responds to touch with illumination. “Anywhere you touch on the piece, it glows. This is both unexpected and astounding for the viewer and these are the moments that I strive for,” says Srinivasan who used nearly 3,000 Swarovski crystals and 5,000 glass pieces that were cast and produced at her studio.
As an artist working with glass — one of the easiest items to recycle — Srinivasan is also passionate about upcycling glass. “One such project we did recently was with UAE-based Dulsco who provided us discarded bottles to be turned into trophies for a corporate event.”
For Srinivasan, working with glass is “about how I see the world and attempting to project it in a very playful way through the objects I create.”
What has further cemented her relationship with her working material is the way in which it has helped her grow as a person.
“When you are facing the furnace, you cannot afford to get frustrated; glass has taught me to be a lot calmer and patient. Working with glass requires you to make split-second decisions and I have learnt to be confident about the decisions I make, even though these may not always be the best decisions. So I don’t see failure as the end of the road. With energy, determination and patience, you can definitely create something better.”
Working with glass nurtures empathy, says Srinivasan, “for you are thinking of the material from the material’s point of view. Once you have invested in this relationship, it takes you to another level and for me, glass will always be special.”
- Sangeetha Swaroop is a writer based in Dubai.