It’s late evening and our car is navigating through the winding roads on the hill, it’s in the middle of a forest and we wonder if we have reached the right address. We spot the steps leading down in the faint light which comes from somewhere down below. As far as the eyes could see, there are only trees, shrubs and creepers. Somewhere in the middle of this was supposed to be Thomas’ studio and home. Coming down, we came face to face with this old bungalow, where the front porch and the verandah almost felt like a Mario Miranda illustration. But, there seemed to be more to this bungalow than the typical Portugese architecture—it is a quirky space which has a bit of Gaudi, a bit of Dali brewed with some Goan sensitivity. The spaces within the house seems like they have grown organically, the door opens to a large room where the products are displayed, stepping down into the small office space there is the kitchen and a guest room and eventually a terrace which serves as the studio. Thomas then takes us up the stairs leading towards another space, the tiled top of which was where Thomas’ room was—a room without any walls, and a bed overlooking the forest…a dreamscape! We settle on the terrace with our drinks and look right into a forest which Thomas explained is a part of the house and is almost 100 mtrs after which there’s a stream that flows. He said to me- “You can stay here or pitch up your tent in the forest”. I smiled to myself, because this space was him. His own room was a perfect reflection of the young dreamer I got to know almost two dacades ago—free spirited, limitless yet rooted.
We were here to meet Thomas Louis, a ceramic designer and an old friend. Thomas initially opted for product design after the foundation course at The National Institute of Design, he switched to ceramics a semester later. “To be honest, I was a little frustrated about product design towards the end of my first semester,” Thomas explains. “I found too many elements that was beyond my control, to make a simple product in steel.” Trying simple metal moulds and other processes is an expensive activity. During the one semester of product design at NID, he became comfortable with machines and tools in wood and metal workshops which eventually allowed him to make his own kilns and experiment with ceramics and other materials together. But he did not feel the same affinity as he did for clay. When it came to clay, memories of him playing in mud puddles during monsoons in Kerala flashed past, and he knew his heart lay there. “I knew that whatever one made in clay worked. At least most of it!” he laughs. This is not to say that the art is filled with monotony or expected outcomes. What happens during the firing process, the techniques and processes that go on within the walls of the kiln is in itself a lifetime’s supply of wonder, discovery and intrigue. When the fascination with these small surprises and experimenting with clay continued throughout school, Thomas knew he had to shift to ceramics. “When I made the switch to ceramics, it felt like coming home,” he says.
Growing up mostly in rural settings, going to a boarding school in Lovedale in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu and spending afternoons swimming in rivers in Kerala, inspiration was not hard to find. It was in school that he got introduced to some amazing artists as teachers. “One of my biggest influences was my sculpture master Mr. P.E Thomas,” he says. “So many things that I do now remind me of him from over 20 years ago!” With fishing trips with him and hence understanding the connection between everything, Thomas’ love with nature only deepened. Thomas swears by the good old MP Ranjan design process, another aspect that he owes to teachers. “It can be incorporated into everything I do,” he says. “It’s almost like a Yoga exercise for me!” The information collecting, organizing, analyzing, synthesizing, and forming a good brief before starting concepts, while keeping one’s skills honed has turned to be useful. Inspirations tend to be everywhere, and most of it, as Thomas says, come from observation—something which is a product of his training and inherence. Most of his work now is around the theme of nature.
In search of being close to nature, he decided to dawn on a ‘self-imposed exile’, in his bungalow in the village Socorro, Goa. Lost in greens, creepers, a dog and a cat, he had wanted to concentrate only on work. On other days, he collaborates with other artists and designers on various projects to keep in touch with different segments of the market related to his work. His days now are mostly about balancing fun and work.
As much as working with ceramics is exciting, it is not always rewarding in the same sense. Damage is inevitable, mostly while handling or loading the kiln. Other times, he finds a whole row of beautifully thrown and trimmed bowls sitting shattered next to each other with the cat curled up in the last one. “These things have stopped bothering me a long time ago,” Thomas explains. When all of the products are recyclable, there isn’t much point in fretting. Accepting it as a part of process, Thomas confesses that the inevitable damage has only made the product that comes out of the kiln more special.
“Surprisingly, My studio is far from a self-imposed exile! A constant buzz of visitors, students, clients, the occasional interns of ceramics from various institutions, and friends visiting from all over the world only leaves him with a few days of ‘exile'”
In his space where he creates magic, Thomas finds ways to fuse his other interests with ceramics beautifully; one of them being sound. He was always wary about experimenting with the two, since he thought he had no ear for music. A phone call after fifteen years from his friend Peter, his contemporary from NID, put things to focus. When Peter completed his course, he moved to the north eastern states of India to develop traditional crafts. By default, the traditional music from the villages in the region became an integral part during his visit. While he practiced with mostly bamboo crafts for almost ten years, Peter decided to brush up his ceramic skills, and contacted Thomas to spend a couple of months at the studio. It was then that the both collaborated on various kinds of ceramic— wind, string and percussion instruments and it was like two different worlds—Thomas’ and Peter’s—came together with marvel. “Four days after our first udu type instruments came out of the kiln, we had our first performance,” says Thomas. Soon, Peter’s band from his hometown joined in. Since then, Thomas spends a lot of time experimenting with Udus, understanding the array of sounds that they create which has led to about ten to twelve variations of the musical instrument. He is now attempting to create a community type udu where many people have to come together and get into rhythm for the instrument to work best.
One project that Thomas is extremely proud of, is a Show he did for a museum called Sadhu Vaswani mission in Pune. He created a diorama of eight tableaux depicting eight stories in Sadhu Vaswani’s life which revolved around incidents that lead to his renunciation of worldly life and his quest for spiritual truth. With a brief of just a paragraph, Thomas found space to explore the project which resulted in a composition of an 8ft x 4ft x 2 ft box, in a three dimensional format. Working on this for almost two years and taking about six months to install the project, it was a challenge difficult to tame. “This project really broke many barriers for me,” Thomas says. “I hadn’t attempted this kind of scale before.” It took creating, glazing and firing 18,000 pieces before putting together the project. It started off as a complex, unclear project, which through Thomas’ visualization, finally fell into place, piece by piece.
This is how Thomas works, enjoying the surprises that the kiln throws at him, creating magic which is witnessed by a bungalow in a forest; magic that slowly spreads to the rest of the world, like the streams Thomas played in when he was younger, In his own magical universe!
Allen Shaw & Vaishnavi Rathore