Avni Varia grew up in Ahmedabad where her father Vithaal Varia studied design at the National Institute of Design (NID). “My father was from a potters’ village near Halol, and studied at the university of Vadodara and then at NID. My sister and I grew up in Ahmedabad, went to a good school and learnt design at the institute. As we are from a community of potters called Varia in eastern Gujarat, when we would visit our village we would help in making pots, playing with clay and watching pottery being sold,” she says.
Though Varia feels that pottery is a dying art, she is trying to revive it. “Pottery is on the decline now. This made me realise the importance of bringing crafts back to daily use, which will create livelihood opportunities in villages and city slums.”
Before she started working with her community, Varia conducted a skill training programme of hand embroidery in Ahmedabad. She registered an NGO called Aadhar in 2003, and “held an exhibition of their work at Karnavati Art Gallery, which was inaugurated by dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai.”
After finishing her MA in heritage studies from London Metropolitan University, she returned in 2010 and got the idea of promoting crafts among potential stakeholders through films. “I wanted to show documentaries and audio-visuals on handlooms and handicrafts in schools to children who are so disconnected from their culture, heri tage and rural India, but got a lukewarm response,” she says. “Then, some heritage activists discussed the annual Ahmedabad Heritage Week where organisations unrelated to each other put together individual events that become part of a week-long festival every year,” says Varia. The festival was held in November 2012 with jury-selected films shown at nine venues in Ahmedabad.
The festival caught the interest of the audience, students and people who were interested in films, design, heritage and craft-based social development. “We began getting letters from filmmakers saying they had more films to show. This led to my making this an annual event,” says Varia. “After the festival, selected films travel to other cities to create more awareness about the handicrafts. The festival will travel across the globe to different audiences to promote India’s handicraft heritage’’.
Apart from the events, Varia is also working on the basic issues faced by artisans. “We are maintaining details of all the practicing potters of the Varia community and plan to create a cooperative of potters, document their work and look at product modification and development for contemporary markets with marketing to urban area. We are also documenting history through interviews of elders from our community and collecting archival photographs,’’ she says. She has also created a brand for potters of the Varia community with a logo, graphics and packaging.
Varia is happy that shops in Ahmedabad specialising in organic or traditional products have started stocking pottery from the Varia villages. “We hope to create a model that can be replicated among other potter communities in Gujarat, and later India,” she adds.