When Nikita Dawar left Delhi for Bangalore to study design, starting a hair accessory brand (let alone a pottery company) wasn't on her mind. ‘I knew I wanted to work with design because I liked the whole process. I wanted to learn about photography and branding, too, though – it was 2011 and Facebook ads and [online sales] had just really become big in India.’
During her third year of design school, Nikita and a friend launched Pigtails and Ponys, a hair accessory brand that boomed quickly after launching. In fact, it created such a buzz that Nikita's tutors at college asked her to make a choice: stay at school and give up the business, or leave. She chose the latter and so began her journey as a business owner who is firmly centered on running a brand that reflects how she wants to spend her time.
‘I really understood how to have an online brand,’ says Nikita, who connects the success of her first business to understanding the online marketing and branding side of things. Although it was successful from the outside, soon it wasn't a success in a way that was resonating with Nikita personally, and she walked away from the business after two years when she felt that her passion wasn't in it any more.
‘I then had a new project every six months. I studied contemporary dance and trained to be a yoga teacher. In hindsight, it was all so necessary, but I just got sick of trying to make everything into a profession.’
Switching off to switch on
Fed up and looking for a break, Nikita searched for a retreat where she could at least learn something new while trying to switch off from city life. ‘I found this pottery course for three months in Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayas. When I got there, I had lost trust in myself for never sticking to anything, but there was something about pottery that stuck. I was always so erratic and crazy in my choices, but this was exciting.’
After returning home to Bangalore, Nikita turned her living room into a pottery studio and started a small online store, ‘because that's all I knew how to do’. With prior experience of online sales and social media, she launched a brand called Pothead, but ‘quickly realized that name was a mistake’. After seeing no sales for the first six months, Pothead rebranded to Slow Pottery just as Nikita launched her classes in Bangalore.
‘I started getting people who wanted an escape through pottery,’ Nikita says of her first students. ‘A lot were people who had nine-to-five jobs [and] just wanted to switch off after work, some were women stuck at home during the day who just wanted to chat and make something beautiful. Once I had 20 students, I knew I couldn't keep teaching them at home,’ she says.
It was a fortuitous meeting at a party that changed Slow Pottery – and Nikita's personal life – forever. A friend of a friend, Karthik, offered her a studio space that he owned. He later became Nikita's husband and now runs Slow Pottery alongside her.
Finding an ideal home
After moving into the studio space and opening, Nikita started offering longer three-month professional courses alongside the more casual classes. As a way to wind down, Nikita and Karthik would take regular trips to his family's mango farm, Velanga Orchard in Bodabandla, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, a few hours' drive from Bangalore. ‘When we first started coming here, there was no internet and really nothing at all nearby. It's a small village of 50 people and a huge 50-hectare mango farm,’ says Nikita, ‘but it was where we wanted to be.’
‘We got internet just before the pandemic hit India and so when that started impacting life in the city, we moved here full-time. All through the pandemic, we ran courses and classes on the farm – from pottery to poetry. But, because there's nothing around here, we had to build places for people to stay.’ This move prompted Nikita to close down her studio in the city and operate the business entirely from the farm. Now focusing exclusively on pottery, her courses include all the basics from using a wheel to how to handle clay and glaze, and they've attracted an influx of guests wanting to get out of India's cramped cities during the pandemic.
A builder by trade, Karthik's skills in construction meant that, by 2021, they had built seven cottages around the property's original farmhouse – all made with locally sourced materials and furnished with vintage pieces collected by the couple over the years. ‘Sometimes people come here and complain about lizards in their room [and] I have to remind them that it's a farm. It's about connecting with nature and, even though we make it comfortable, it's all about that connection,’ says Nikita.
Creation in isolation
The farm is set on the edge of shrub forests full of fruit trees, lakes and more than 50 species of wildlife. ‘We've completely given up city life. Karthik works on the family farm throughout the year and through the annual mango harvest. We have over 350,000 mango trees planted on the farm, so it's a huge undertaking,’ says Nikita. At the moment, Karthik is building a vegetable garden on the property so that all of the retreats can be catered for fully from the farm's produce.
The balance that Nikita was looking for early on in her career soon became a focus again as the retreats run at Velanga Orchard became all-encompassing for the couple. ‘It can be exhausting hosting back-to-back classes and retreats, so launching the online workshops has been one way to free myself up a bit,’ she says.
‘My plan is for the next two years to make all my offline courses online. I want to travel more and start creating my own body of work and displaying it in galleries, so that will give me more time. I'd maybe like to run residencies around the world, but I'm content with what I've got now. I've got freedom. There doesn't need to be a Slow Pottery in every city.’