Hello, Ms. Varia! I am grateful that you could give us time for this interview. I really feel honoured. Let’s begin with you telling us something about yourself.
I am Avni Varia. I hail from a small traditional potter’s family. I am a great admirer of the culture of India and its legacy of arts and crafts. I have over fifteen years of experience in teaching and managing art, craft and design projects. I am very keenly interested in using my extensive management skills and knowledge to enhance the status of the traditional craftsmen and artisans.
Well, we will definitely touch these subjects, but before that tell us about your education. Where and what all did you study? What were your favourite subjects? And how is your education helping you in life?
Home is where the heart is. So, despite having travelled across the country, it is Ahmedabad that I call as my home, where I actually stay, and the place where I was born and brought up. I did my M.A. from London Metropolitan University, and one of my current work associations are visiting faculty and as Workshop Manager at the Varia Design centre (https://www.facebook.com/VARIADDESIGN), where I myself was a student once upon a time. I am also a Visiting Faculty at SVIT College, Architecture department and Secretary of aadhar, an organisation working towards revitalisation of traditional Indian arts and crafts. I hold a various diplomas in the field of arts and crafts.
My education helped with gaining knowledge and developing a basic understanding of the skills required in this field. Often the real life scenarios are very different from what we study in books and classes, but it is this very education that helps dissect the situations and understand them better.
My most favourite subjects were the ones that involved a lot of creativity and handwork like embroidery, photography, sketching, etc.
I do not have a bachelor’s degree due to which I often faced a lot of problems in my work, especially in the way the people in the industry looked and treated me. Determined to fight all that back and stand my ground, I decided to pursue a degree course after 12 years of professional experience. With this in mind, I applied to about 3-4 institutes in the U.K. for a bachelor’s degree. I feel proud to tell you that my biggest achievement was that all of the institutes I had applied to replied back to me and offered me a Master’s degree instead.
Fantastic, congratulations on that. If we touch upon the subject of inspiration, who have inspired you the most in life? What are the things you strongly believe in? Who did you learn them from?
My mother is a very traditional but most adaptable person. She has been a big inspiration for me. She taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, that one can make whatever one wants to by themselves and there was hardly any need to go out and buy anything. This concept has influenced me so much that if given a chance, I would love to live in a small village, with no electricity or modern facilities, among people who believe this idea that everything they need for living can be made on their own from available things in surroundings.
I am also greatly inspired by the Gandhian philosophies of Swaraj & Swadeshi. I strongly feel that we must not mindlessly focus on exports, but instead strive to make the products more local and more economical.
That is indeed very inspiring madam. I am sure you must have had a very creative and encouraging upbringing. It feels good to know that there are people like you who understand and respect the Gandhian ideas and philosophies.
Tell us something about your current and previous work engagements?
Currently I am engaged in an ‘eco-friendly Ganesha making workshop’. I am also a visiting faculty at the SVIT, Vasad and the IIT-Gandhinagar. I also have my own ongoing research in this field. In my spare time I mentor students willing to take up projects and researches in the handicrafts field, from across the world. Technology like Skype, etc have ensured that there are never any distances and it has enabled me to mentor students anywhere in the world. I also handle the Heritage Film Festival (https://www.facebook.com/TheHeritageFilmFestival), a project by my NGOaadhar (https://www.facebook.com/pages/aadhar/221019138023545) and I am the editor for its quarterly newsletter of "Samvaad - a dialogue on heritage" (http://aadhar-india.org/NL/Samvaad-June2013.pdf).
When & How did you exactly take the plunge into this field? And is there anybody else from your family also working in this field?
I started out in the field of design in 1993-94, when I was in my Class X. At that time, I had started my own line of garments with my sister, which we would sell in Mumbai. As time passed, I grew more and more passionate about handicrafts when I started teaching, crafts and design, to the batch after me, in 1997 at the Varia Design Centre. My father is a graphic designer at the National Institute of Design and had informally trained me for years which also helped me a lot in life besides kindling my passion for handicrafts.
In a way, my entire family – my parents, my sister, my cousins, everybody was involved in some or the other way in arts and design. The fact that I hailed from a traditional potter’s family, makes it evident that perhaps I carried this passion in my genes. This made my family very supportive of my decision to join the field and encouraged me when I decided to pursue a career in heritage crafts and design.
How did you plan your approach? What is your main focus in your work? Were there any problems – strategic, financial, support, etc?
After spending around 14 years in this field, I can confidently say that I never really had to face any financial woes. My major focus has always been doing the job at hand in the best possible way and as professionally as possible. And as I went about focussing on my work, the remaining aspects just kept falling into the place for me. I can proudly claim that throughout my career so far, I have never worked on the funded grant given by government. I have always worked from my own income and the project funds.
I am currently working for my own community of potters, and am planning on how the potters can be made self-dependent and thereby, I am trying to build a mechanism for sustainable income generation for them. As for a long-term plan, or rather a dear dream, I would like to launch my own brand of Varia pottery someday, where we keep the ethnic look and traditional values intact.
I would also like to take my research in crafts and handicrafts further and make a documentary on it. aadharis going through organisational restructuring currently and now we are ready to take more team members to join us. I plan to take the Heritage Festival at the international platform. My major focus is to makeaadhara platform for artisans and craftsmen and make them independent, being able to stand on their own feet, so nobody can come and exploit them or they don’t have to be dependent on somebody’s aid or mercy.
That is indeed a wonderful plan ahead. We from BK Team wish you all the very best, and would pray that you succeed and may all your dreams come true. How do people find out about you and your work?
My personal website and FB page has helped a lot of people and prospective clients and customers get in touch with me. Currently, no paid publicity is being done for my NGO –aadhar. Friends and family step in to help me out as and when they can and with whatever they can. But most importantly, work speaks for itself.
Ms. Varia, what do you feel about your progress so far in your life? Are you satisfied with it or do you think it could have been better?
Honestly, I am thrilled with my progress in my career. It is more than I had imagined.
But the path has never been milk and roses. Not being from any elite design institutes and not having a proper graduation degree, I often bore the brunt of a lot of frustration and coldness from the industry. But today, the struggle is a matter of the past, and it has only made me stronger and shine out like a diamond after being exposed to the fire.
What’s a normal working day for you? If we take a leaf out of your life, what all can we see?
Basically, I am a very spontaneous person who lives in the moment. I do not follow any ritualistic daily routines nor restrains myself to any fixed working hours. I work as demanded by the task at hand.
Do feel the pressure of being ahead of competition in your field work? How do you handle the competition? How do you create an edge over them?
I believe that there is no competition in my work. If there is somebody in the same field or somebody willing to join the field, I would love to collaborate with them. Instead of focussing on how to beat the competition, it is a lot more worthwhile to focus on the betterment of the community and work together towards it. Each person can bring some value to the table which together makes a lot of energy, which can be added for the craftsmen community.
A commendable thing to say. One last thing, what message would you like to the youth, especially the ones who are keen to work in the field of arts & crafts?
I strongly believe in following my heart, and would like to share the same message with everyone. Follow your heart, I would say, and nothing should be done because others are doing it or because it is profitable or because it appears shiny and glossy on the outside. Instead, I would ask everyone to feel the passion and take the plunge. When there will be the passion and a willing heart, one will automatically end up doing their best in the job they have taken up.
I am sure all of us will remember it and take it to our hearts. Finally, I would like to ask you, how can people get in touch with you?
Ms. Varia, it was indeed an enriching experience to interview you. It was an honour and I am very thankful to you for agreeing for the interview and giving us some precious time. I wish you all the best for your future ventures. I also wish all the best to aadhar for its activities. May you scale a lot more acmes and succeed in your aims to better the lives of the artists and craftsmen.