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Alexandria ceramicist spreads joy with colorful, handmade pottery inspired by Indian culture

Bhavani Arabandi launched Samhara Ceramics in 2022, making and painting each of her creations by hand (via Samhara Ceramics)

One Alexandria artist aims to spark joy in the mundane with her one-of-a-kind, handcrafted pottery known for its elegance and vibrant colors.

Meet Bhavani Arabandi, the sole owner of Samhara Ceramics based in Old Town Alexandria. Arabandi is a full-time sociologist and researcher, but she spends her evenings in her studio, enveloped in the beautiful mess she calls her passion: pottery.

Arabandi started Samhara in 2022 at the encouragement of her peers and mentors and has been growing her local business ever since, launching an online storefront a little over a month ago at the end of June. Some of her creations are also sold locally at Made in ALX (533 Montgomery St) and pop-up markets. Customers can shop from various vases, mugs, cups, bowls, plates and, soon, jewelry, she says.

“I started ceramics about five years ago because I was looking for an outlet for something creative beyond just work,” Arabandi said. “I tried a ceramics class at The Art League and really fell in love with it… At the first class I remember I had no idea, no clue what I was doing, but it was so much fun, and over time, it really served to center me and really find a focus in terms of my creative energy.”

Samhara, meaning “forged from fire,” combines Arabandi’s passion for ceramics and her Indian roots into one “really apt” name, according to Arabandi. As an Indian immigrant, Arabandi says her Indian heritage is a major inspiration for the art she creates.

“Just being Indian, I feel like color is a part of my cultural DNA, and that’s something that influences a lot of my work,” Arabandi said. “In India, we have a lot of color in terms of our clothing, food and rich cultural heritage.”

Arabandi said the bright hues of her pottery are often what entices customers.

“A lot of folks that pass through markets and see my display really comment on how unique they are because traditional pottery can be a lot of blues and greens and browns, whereas mine has…a lot of reds, oranges, yellows, whites and gold,” Arabandi said.

Each of her pieces are handmade. It takes her around three to four weeks to produce a limited quantity of each product she offers. No two pieces can ever be the same, but that imperfection and individuality is what makes her work “so unique,” she says.

“If you were to say, ‘Bhavani, I love this piece. Can you make another one?’ I’m like, ‘Thank you so much, and no, I cannot because I cannot control the process,'” Arabandi laughed. “I have no idea what will come out of the fire, and that’s the fun of it. It’s predictably unpredictable, and that’s what draws me to it.”

She undertakes three different firing techniques to make her pieces: electric, wood firing and Raku.

“The opening of the kiln is really amazing because you can ooh and ahh at everybody’s pieces that come out of the kiln,” Arabandi said. “…There’s a lot of chemistry involved, but it feels like magic in a way.”

Her Raku pieces have been the most popular amongst customers, she says. She’s even experimented with using horse hair safely sourced from a family friend’s horse farm in the firing process to create distinctive patterns on her Raku creations.

Arabandi also says one of her most beloved pieces was made using Raku firing. In her retelling, a customer became extremely moved by one of her Raku pieces at a local market, telling her it was “the best piece” he saw that day at the market, but he was unable to afford it. Two months later, Arabandi says, a fellow potter purchased the piece for the man, knowing how much he loved the piece, which deeply touched her as she felt no one else could be more deserving of this act of kindness.

“I think he was in tears,” Arabandi recalled. “He was like, ‘Oh my God.’ He was not expecting that at all, and it was amazing to see that. It was stunning.”

For Arabandi, this memory exemplifies her founding mission of helping others find joy in life’s simplest pleasures.

“I really want to bring joy to [my customers],” Arabandi said. “[My pottery is] not to be kept in a cabinet and used for special occasions. I’m all about living your fullest life every single day, and that means using pieces that bring you joy every day. I want you to go and grab that mug that makes you smile in the morning.”

As for the future, her next big venture is selling her items at Art on the Avenue in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood on Oct. 7. Beyond that, she’s uncertain for what’s to come but relishes in the uncertainty, expressing excitement to continue growing as an artist because “there’s no end to learning” when it comes to ceramics.

“The future is as unpredictable as pottery,” Arabandi laughed.

Photo via Samhara Ceramics/Instagram

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