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Through a glass brightly: Arjun Rathi

Architect and light designer Arjun Rathi’s hand blown glass studio marks the beginning of art glass culture in India

Arjun Rathi’s Rural Modern Glass Studio
Arjun Rathi’s Rural Modern Glass Studio

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The soft light of a monsoon afternoon dances through the pink, red, blue and green clear glass bowls, lights, glasses and chandeliers, reflecting on surfaces and walls, creating abstract paintings all around. It’s a colourful, welcoming atmosphere at architect and light designer Arjun Rathi’s year-old, 1,200-sq-ft Rural Modern Glass Studio, housed in an industrial estate in Govandi, Mumbai. The hand blown glass studio, the only one of its kind in India, invites artists from around the world to hand-make different lights, sculptures, chandeliers from clear glass, with an aim to create an art glass culture in India.

“I have been using glass as a material for lights for 10 years now. It has this amazing quality that creates a magical ambience,” says Rathi, known for his beautiful clear glass lights, some of which also double up as beautiful installations. He has always had to commission work to studios abroad as India hardly has any glass artists. And those who make creative hand blown glass are isolated, says Rathi.

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In the lockdown, the cost of importing glass tripled. “As ships were stopped, one had to import things by air, which became very expensive, and unsustainable for the business,” adds Rathi. The solution was to build a studio in Mumbai and make the glass in-house. Rathi reached out to Ismail Plumber, a Mumbai-based glass artist and architectural glass designer who also runs a commercial glass company, Studio Golden Glass. Plumber’s 30 years of experience in commercial glass and formal training in blown glass in Turkey made him a perfect partner for Rathi to set up the studio with.

They finally found a commercial space in Govandi with a double-heighted ceiling, ample natural light, and all the required permissions—but on the first floor. “We are among a handful of glass studios in the world that are not on the ground floor but on the first floor.” It’s difficult to transport the heavy furnaces, weighing 600 to 800 kilos, to higher floors. But Rathi’s current setup is comparatively small. He has an 80-kilo melting furnace, one reheating furnace and one baking oven, the three essentials of any glass studio.

Instead of buying the expensive equipment from Italy or the US, he bought the blue prints and made the furnace in India. Same with the clear glass he uses. He bought the Italian-US formula to make international quality glass in India instead of importing it from abroad to save costs.

At the studio, the current artist-in-residence Matthew Piepenbrok from America holds one end of a long steel road , the other end inside the melting furnace that runs all night at 11,000 degrees Celsius. He rotates the rod slowly to collect transparent molten glass that looks and feels like thick jelly. He then blows into the rod, expanding the jelly and then carefully rolls the rod back and forth on a flat table with a smooth surface, sprinkled with red powder, giving the lump of jelly a cylindrical shape and red colour. He then sits on a table, his helper placing the rod at a distance, while he pulls portions of the molten glass, with a tool that looks like a kitchen plier, from different directions, making it look like a rose.

But Matt isn’t happy with the outcome. He places the jelly-end of the rod in a reheating oven, which melts the slightly hardened jelly at 800 degree Celsius, and, once again, rolls the jelly on a flat surface. But this time, he adds an extra step; he carefully extracts the cylinder and places it in his hand, wrapped in a thick sheet of wet newspaper, and, once again pulls off parts of it to make it look like a flower. “Doesn’t it burn?,” asks a nervous onlooker. “The wet newspaper helps, but in a glass artist’s life burns and cuts are almost an everyday occurrence,” says Piepenbrok.

Visiting international artists such as Piepenbrok have been training a few glass-makers from Firozabad, working as helpers in the studio, to unlearn the assembly kind of industrial work and think differently to create original, creative glasses. The first step in the process is to assist the foreign in-residence artists at the studio. “We hired a tutor to teach English to the assistants, as glass-making requires great team work and constant communication,” says Rathi. “One small error and you have to repeat the same process over and over again.” The added challenge is the heat in the studio due to the burning-hot furnaces. Most artists only work at the studio for four hours a day.

Rathi invites budding artists who want studio hours to practice, an expensive affair in the West. In return, they gaff for Rathi (produce the designs he wants) and are given a salary and all their expenses are taken care of. The studio also acquaints them with different aspects of Indian culture, so they make work inspired by India.

Indian designs are an important aspect of Rathi’s creations. Take, for instance, his Paan collection of floor and hanging lights and lamps. It explores the folding patterns of a betel leaf in leather. His recent orange candy lights, resembling the Indian khatta-meetha orange candy, comprises hand blown glass in orange ombre.

Rathi’s wealthier clients have been more willing to experiment with lights, now that it is made in India at a cheaper cost and with same high standards. “Clients are open to ideas of glass hanging sculptures and different coloured lights, which is a great step in changing the landscape of lighting in India, to getting clients move away from general industrial lights from China and Turkey and towards art lights,” says Rathi.

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