Glazing at the future: Inside India’s studio glass movement

Updated on Oct 29, 2022 02:41 PM IST

Look closely at India’s glassmaking wave and you’ll spot glimpses of post-war America. There’s art, innovation, new tech, and a delicate hope for tomorrow.

Ismail Plumber and Arjun Rathi at their open studio, Rural Modern Glass, in Mumbai. PREMIUM
Ismail Plumber and Arjun Rathi at their open studio, Rural Modern Glass, in Mumbai.

It’s performative, captivating, mesmeric; perfect for the age of social media.

But it’s not the amateurs and hobbyists signing up for weekend glassworking classes that are the big surprise (though that is new too). The dramatic shift is the small, independent studios into which they’re trickling, as they start to dabble with the medium.

The studio glass movement emerging in India today mirrors a similar movement in 1950s post-war America that caused a renaissance in glass. Back then, this was one of a host of materials gaining popularity amid post-war scarcities. (Others included ceramics and new types of woodwork. Early models of the Eames chair, for instance, were created in 1949 as part of a contest for low-cost furniture design conducted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)

Amid the push for innovation, American artists began to look for new ways to use glass, and help came from unexpected quarters. Masters from Italy, Sweden and Czechoslovakia didn’t just travel to the US to teach; some of them shared what had until then been closely guarded trade secrets.

Meanwhile, pioneers such as Harvey K Littleton, a teaching ceramist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and his protégé Dale Chihuly, were innovating, creating smaller furnaces and lower-melting-point mixes that made glass easier to work with. This spirit of innovation and knowledge-sharing would become a pillar of the “studio glass” movement. It’s a pillar of the movement in India today.

“We want to democratise glass-making and make it more accessible. We want other designers to use our space,” says Arjun Rathi, whose year-old Rural Modern Glass Studio in Mumbai, set up with business partner Ismail Plumber, offers workshops to the public and open access to artists.

Boutique glass studios in India are using innovative new technologies, including portable furnaces, to democratise glassmaking and make it more accessible to people who want to try it out. (Shutterstock)
Boutique glass studios in India are using innovative new technologies, including portable furnaces, to democratise glassmaking and make it more accessible to people who want to try it out. (Shutterstock)

New technology is helping too. Some of the new furnaces are so light that they’re portable. Some are so small, “you can even make glass on your terrace,” says Harsh Nowlakha of Glasshouse Bangalore. (A 30-kg portable furnace costs about 10 lakh and runs on LPG, to make sustained temperatures of over 1,000 degrees Celsius possible.)

“I want to see more education in glass,” Nowlakha says. “Because with experiential learning, artists can understand the medium, its possibilities and limitations, and then incorporate it into their design.”

In another interesting parallel, while the American studio glass movement of the 1950s and ’60s acted as a counterculture in a growing machine age and amid the industrialisation of design, today the idea of making a lamp or bottle or vase acts as an antidote to the digital world and its abstractions.

Glass demands one’s full attention, with the promise of a beautiful, tangible and useful reward at the end. “There is no way to speed up glass-making. Though the technology has evolved, the essential process is the same as it was 2,000 years ago,” says Rathi. “It’s immersive and challenging, almost therapeutic.”

HANDLED WITH CARE

So how easy is it really? Delhi glass artist Reshmi Dey says she’s had sessions involving children as young as eight. “We brief them on studio rules and safety protocols such as distance to be maintained from the furnace and the need to wear safety glasses at all times,” says Dey. “A lot of basic glassmaking techniques can be taught to first-timers.”

Reshmi Dey (right) guides a student at her of Glass Sutra studio in Delhi.
Reshmi Dey (right) guides a student at her of Glass Sutra studio in Delhi.

Dey has been a glass artist since 1999 and studied the art at the International Glass Centre in Dudley, UK. Her journey runs parallel to some of the change that has occurred in India.

“When I returned, there was barely any studio equipment available here. Everything glass was mass-produced,” she says. “I was laughed at by licensing authorities when I said I wanted to set up an apprenticeship school.”

She put off her plans to teach and began her career in practice, showing her work at exhibitions and earning off commissions, and continued to learn, mainly from artists in Firozabad, India’s artisanal glassworks capital.

In 2017, she founded her studio, Glass Sutra, in Delhi’s Chattarpur Farms area, making it a space where other artists, enthusiasts, students and amateurs could dabble too.

That same year, Dey began to work with companies to offer what she calls “glassperiences”.

In 2017, Maruti reached out to Dey to conduct a glassmaking experience for 100 guests during a promotional event in Udaipur. In 2018, vodka brand Grey Goose hosted one such session, where Dey helped bartenders make glass stirrers. In 2021, as part of a Diageo Johnnie Walker campaign, Dey turned old whiskey bottles into a glass installation of their logo, the striding man.

“It’s as if they all started seeing glass differently at the same time,” Dey says. Sometimes she would conduct such sessions at her studio, sometimes she would take a mobile furnace to the venue. She gets inquiries every week, she adds, from individuals, schools and colleges. “The appeal of it changes when glassmaking is presented as a craft and as something that everyone can try their hand at.”

Dey is now building a larger studio space near the site of her old one. “Once it opens next year I will resume glassperience sessions.” These will range in duration from a couple of hours to sessions over three days, with one session typically costing about 4,000.

At Glasshouse Bangalore, Harsh Nowlakha (left) hopes a new generation of artists will find the space to experiment.
At Glasshouse Bangalore, Harsh Nowlakha (left) hopes a new generation of artists will find the space to experiment.

In 2019, Delhi lawyer Shailendra Singh was gifted a one-day class by his wife. After visiting studios in Murano, he had become fascinated with how artisanal glass was made. “I had tried pottery and wood but not this medium,” he says. “The session gave me the chance to realise how intense and immersive it is. You have to be present mentally. It really challenges you.”

MIXED MEDIA

In the studios, innovation is twisting the molten material into new shapes. Nowlakha is drawing inspiration from Indian textile weaves, trying to replicate their intricacy using Venetian techniques originally inspired by the lacemakers of Burano. Dey has been trying to replicate leaves, down to their finest veins.

Glass is made up mostly of silica sand (70%). Other components include sodium carbonate aka soda ash, and limestone. Heavy metals such as cobalt and sulphur are sometimes added to make colours. Scraps of old glass are added, to reduce melting time. The whole mix is placed in a melting furnace, where it can take up to 24 hours to blend into molten glass. Then the glassmaker can draw it out, still soft, and shape it.

At this point, just before it turns from liquid to solid, it can be shaped with just wet newspaper. But glass must be cooled precisely too, in an annealing oven, at a safe temperature, a process that can also take hours or days, depending on the size of the object.

The variations in the end result — the reason Venetian glass may look different from Indian glass, for instance — come mainly from where the silica sand is sourced, the purity of the raw materials and the composition of the original mix.

Some of India’s studio glassmakers import their mixes. Some are also importing fresh knowledge. Rathi’s studio holds artist residency programmes in which artists from the US visit and share knowledge with artisans from Firozabad. “They come here with the knowledge-sharing concept that was started in the glassmaking community in the US in the 1970s,” Rathi says.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2022
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