Sunday Sessions: Eina Ahluwalia
Posted on 20 August 2016
Name: Eina Ahluwalia
Age: 41 years
Location: Kolkata, India
Today's Sunday Sessions take us to Kolkata, India, where we got the chance to catch up with Eina Ahluwalia herself. We speak about life before jewellery, the plans for the future and we get a little personal insight into her life.
Where did you grow up?
I’ve been born and brought up in Kolkata, India’s intellectual and cultural capital. I might have absorbed the passion for art, poetry, music and literature that run this city from the collective unconscious, and I did not become aware of this till much later.
What was your first job out of college/school?
After my MBA I got a job with Exide Industries, India’s leading automotive and industrial battery company. I was in the Original Equipment division where we worked with vehicle manufacturers to create and supply batteries for their particular requirements.
Was there a major event in your life when you realised that you wanted to make jewellery/accessories?
In 2003, after 2 years selling batteries, and 2 further years of software staffing, I realized that this corporate lifestyle wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to be working in a soul-less career for 60 hours a week to stay ahead in the rat race, earn cars and houses, but have no life. I wanted to travel, spend quality time with family, friends and myself, work at something I loved, and most importantly, wake up late every morning! I knew I wanted to do something creative, even if it was a risk, and I had no design education, and so I started working with artisans in and around my city to develop contemporary products using their traditional craft techniques. I also started working with jewellery artisans to create contemporary, organic, minimal, geometric silver jewellery because all you got in the Indian market at that time was either traditional or tribal silver jewellery. Fortunately, passion trumped the fact that I didn’t know anything about jewellery making when I started, and I learnt from the artisans, at a jewellery factory I consulted with for a few years along with running my own brand, and then did courses at Florence, Chiang Mai and Amsterdam.
Another defining time when our jewellery changed context, meaning and direction was in 2009. Having made jewellery for over 6 years, I was beginning to question the value of what I was doing. What was the motive of jewellery, did I want to create something that was purely superficial? Fulfilling the need for ornamentation was beginning to seem a bit hollow and shallow.
My search for meaning in my work lead me to discover the world of conceptual art jewellery just by chance, and it felt like coming home. Conceptual jewellery is where the concept or the idea is most important, and the jewellery is just a way to tell the story. Such jewellery (a niche even in the Western World) is not bound by faction or commerce, and is evaluated, like fine art, for its ideas, inventions, intuitions, and content rather than for its precious materials or conformity to tradition.
More importantly, this kind of jewellery is worn for self expression rather than ornamentation. It is worn to communicate the wearers thoughts, ideologies and even sense of humour, where regular jewellery is conventionally worn to look beautiful or attractive.
Finally a point of meeting for my search for meaning and my passion for my work. My jewellery could now be my expression, my language, my way to place myself in the world. It is an amalgamation of my explorations of life as an inspiration, experiments on the workbench, combined with the amazing craftsmanship we have here in India.
What was the first piece that you created? How have your designs evolved since then?
The first piece of conceptual jewellery I made revolved around the idea of Containment, and the fact that we all search for that perfect relationship where we feel accepted, loved & understood, ie, contained in the other person with all our complexities. It was a small bottle made out of buffalo horn with detailed silver work on it, made into a pendant.
This theme stayed with me over the years, and the concept has grown with my understanding and interaction with life. In 2010 I made an entire runway collection on the theme of Containment, with blown glass, sterling silver and semi precious stones. The concept grew to become: We all search for that perfect relationship where we feel accepted, loved & understood, ie, contained in the other person with all our complexities. We search for fulfilment in material objects & yet spend our lives feeling unfulfilled, until we come to the realisation that true containment can only happen within ourselves... and no matter how much we materially accumulate, when we die we (our ashes) are finally actually just contained in an urn.’
In 2011, I made a series of neckpieces with the same theme- the containers this time were small amphoras hand cut in semi-precious stone & set in sterling silver to hang near your heart as a constant reminder of yourself in your search for Containment.
In 2012, I had a gallery show with the theme ‘The Art of the Vessal’ along with blown glass artist Srila Mookherjee, where we both explored the form, function and concept of the vessel as an inspiration. Via jewellery I explored how eggs contain life, and the golden light within, doorways contain possibilities, and other wearable vessels contained of messages, mementoes and were a pocket for your dreams.
Does your local country influence your designs? If so, how?
Growing up in a country with such beauty, colour, vivacity and diversity in people, cultures and diversity is an experience that opens you up to accept, receive and absorb at all times. I love traditional Indian arts and crafts, and the rich culture and heritage I’m surrounded by. So yes, there is always something Indian in my work… sometimes a motif, at other times the context or the concept, and always the hand crafting by master craftsmen. Nowhere else in the world will I find the outstanding jewellery craftsmen that we have here in Bengal.
I like to recontextualise motifs and techniques of traditional art, architecture and designs, and use them as an evocative symbol of the story I’m telling. I also try and incorporate indigenous material and techniques in my work.
I am a Sikh, and my parents are from North India, but I have been born and brought up in Kolkata in the East. This mix of contrasting cultures is a strong part of my personality and leads to my unique perspective on things and thoughts. This always reflects in my jewellery too.
What stages do you go through to create a new piece? We would love to know your thought process.
Ever since I realised that I could use my jewellery to have such a powerful impact on people, I realised that I needed to be responsible in what I say through my work. So the creative process begins with a lot of coffee and angst. I have to reach within myself and sift through a lot of thoughts and ideas to find the one strong story that needs to be shared. This concept has to pass a lot of ‘meaning tests’- does it hold true for a lot of people, will a lot of people identify with it, will it add value to people’s lives, is the concept timeless, do we need to be reminded of it often through life? If the answers are yes then the concept is ready to be physicalised.
My inspiration is most often life and my interaction with it. There is a strong element of activism in my work, and I use it to speak of things that need to be said and voices that need to be heard. There is also a spiritual undertone to most of my pieces. There is a need to communicate love, encouragement and share strength, power and a sense of justice.
People inspire me more than anything else. Ordinary people who show extraordinary empathy, kindness, strength and courage inspire me.
Since my jewellery is pure personal expression, the more I grow as a person, the more I have to share through my jewellery. On the other hand, I have experienced that the more you grow as a person, the less you need to say. So my jewellery continues to evolve at this intersection of art, thought and self expression.
Other than your own work, what is your most prized possession and why?
My books are probably my most prized possessions. I have created a library of non fiction books across different categories that interest me- spirituality, philosophy, psychoanalysis, religion, women’s studies, art, architecture, and of course jewellery. I have collected these during my travels across the world, and I’ve learnt from past experience never to lend them out!!
Take us through your "typical" day at the workshop/studio/office…
I arrive at the studio/ office at 10.30am, and get about an hour or so to do my emails before one of the master craftsmen arrive. I work with four teams of craftsmen, all with their own workshops, which they’ve had for several generations. I have a meeting with the one person who heads each team about twice a week, wherein we discuss new designs, execution, current production, custom made orders etc. I see samples, make edits and QC finished pieces. Post lunch I try and get some quiet time to do my creative work, whether it be creating new designs or working on the concepts and stories; but quite often and sidetracked by administrative, logistical or more nightmarishly, accounts related work. Through the day I have customers dropping by at the studio with prior appointments. All this is interspersed by several cups of tall and dark coffee, alternated by green tea.
What part of the day do you look forward to?
Midnight to 2am… that’s my quiet time to myself.
If you could see any person in the world wearing your designs, who would it be and why?
I would love for Malala to wear our Heart of Gold brooch! She is by far one of the most inspiring women of our generation. The experiences she’s had, the strength she’s come back with, the fact that she walks the talk, and champions women’s right to education in countries across the word, and all of it at 19 years of age is unprecedented. She has other-worldly inner strength, and I am in absolute awe of her.
If you could choose one designer to collaborate with, who would it be and why?
I have previously collaborated with an organisation called Made By Survivors. It has been set up by John and Sarah Berger in the US & India, and they teach women from rescue shelter homes in India jewellery making skills, and then sell their production in the US. This is monumental because this is the first generation of women jewellery makers in India, as traditionally all jewellery craft people are men. These women’s lives have changed, women who had no real opportunities are today financially independent enough to move out of shelter homes, build hopes and dreams and have the opportunity to make the income to have them come true. And that to, by something as wonderful and personal to them as jewellery!
The girls and I worked on creating a collection which was inspired by their personal experiences and the end result blew us away… I hope to be able to work on another collection with them soon.
What has been the highlight for your brand so far?
People usually have an emotional response to our jewellery… there’s an alleviation of isolation when you find someone or something out there expressed exactly how you feel… I think our jewellery does that for some people. There’s been been tears at several of our shows and sometimes we get mails and notes, about how a particular piece inspired them, gave them strength, motivated them, or helped them hold on to something within them. This emotional connection or identification is the highlight of our brand, and this is also where I get my deepest satisfaction.
If you could reach a huge milestone for your brand in the next year, what would it be?
We have always had our focus on UK, USA, Australia, Europe, and of course our home country India, and next year we would like to expand and create a loyal customer base in our new target markets like UAE and Asia.
What is the most important lesson you have learnt as an entrepreneur?
That nothing is constant in the business environment and so one has to be nimble footed enough to be able to adapt to the internal and external changes.
What would we find in your bag right now?
Functional things like mobile, wallet, keys, lip balm, and then the opposite- a pencil in a silver Victorian style pencil holder and a sketchbook.
What item can you not live without and why?
I would like to say coffee, but I know given a few days I’d get over that as well.
Sum up your personality in 3 words?
Asocial jewellery activist
What is your favourite song right now?
Ballo by Rabbi Shergil, a really old song, but something I’m singing to the world today
Describe your perfect weekend…
Pyjamas, books, movies, coffee & friends