Swimming against the tide runs in her genes. So does love for mother earth. While women in southern states of India are famously crazy about gold jewellery, Malini Kalyanam shuns gold and wears pendant and bangles made from clay. She designs and makes exquisite jewellery, flower bouquets, wall-hangings and a variety of other artefacts from clay in her studio on the outskirts of Chennai.
She is so passionate about clay that she has given up using cosmetics as well. “I have clients now who ask for clay face-packs that I prepare from different types of clay,” she says. Malini sources clay from the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnata as also from Tamil Nadu. She now wants to source vegetable and natural dyes from groups that are engaged in dyeing fabrics and wood with eco-friendly natural colours from Kerala and Kutch in Gujarat.
“Like most children, I too was naturally drawn to clay and would soil my hands and clothes while coming back from school and would get scolded by my father for dirtying myself,” she says with a naughty spark in her eyes. “It is a different story that father would often reminisce about Mahatma Gandhi using mud pack to control his high blood pressure,” she adds with a chuckle.
Malini’s father, V Kalyanam, 91 was Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary during his last years after the latter’s release from jail in 1944 till his death in 1948. In fact, it was his love for gardening that had propelled Kalyanam to quit government job and go to Gandhiji’s ashram in Sewagram. “But when Gandhiji came to know that I knew typing, he stopped me from working in the farm and made me a typist again,” says Kalyanam.
However, at 91, Kalyanam today sweeps the street with a broom every morning and grows vegetables on the terrace garden of his house in Central Chennai. “In just four years of his association with Gandhiji, father imbibed all his values and is now trying to relive them,” says Malini.
But Malini is no Gandhian. After her MBA from a US university, Malini joined an MNC in Bangalore as manager, human resources. “One day, I saw a woman, in her early 40s, giving a demonstration of her work of art on a potter’s wheel in a shopping mall in Bangalore. I asked her if she would teach me pottery. She agreed and my love and passion for pottery grew as I kept on learning from her,” she says.
“Initially, I worked on a small potter’s wheel which I installed in my home. School children from the neighbourhood would come to watch me give various shapes to the lump of clay. Fascinated, they would ask me to try their hands on the wheel,” recalls Malini. Her joy knew no bounds when she noticed that working with the clay – preparing the clay, pounding and moulding it – the mere contact with the clay was having a beneficial effect on her health and physique.
“I had this tendency towards obesity and no amount of dieting and physical exercise was helping me reduce my weight. But after I started working with clay, not only did I become lean and thin but the texture and lustre of my skin too improved,” she says.
Two years ago she decided to quit her job and become a full-time potter. “I opened a studio in our bungalow on the outskirts of Chennai. The studio is equipped with a motorized potter’s wheel and an electric kiln. There, I conduct workshops of various durations ranging from a day to a week,” says Malini.
Through her personal website – www.malinipottery.com – and through various social networking sites, Malini has managed to attract buyers for her pottery from Europe, the USA and Southeast Asian countries.
“I have held a couple of exhibitions in Chennai, but I am not targeting domestic buyers. I make very limited number of pottery and specialize in jewellery, wall-hangings, flower vase and the like. These are much in demand abroad,” she says.
Malini, who also actively takes part in various social work programmes, wants to teach pottery to poor women in association with some not for profit organizations so that they can earn their livelihood by making and selling pottery for the fashion conscious buyers.