It is very rare that altruism and art find a common meeting place.
We find both on the 22nd floor of a Sandton skyscraper, where businesswoman and philanthropist Saloni Wahi is hard at work.
There’s aesthetics everywhere in her bright, beautifully-appointed home – the paintings on the walls, the handcrafted pottery in the foyer, even the orange fruit basket she has made with clay.
Unflattering balls of clay turn into ebullient masterpieces in her hands. At this moment, by the kitchen counter, she is moulding what looks like a golf hat, “inspired by a Saturday game of golf”.
This yen to seek inspiration in everyday objects, tapping into her talents, be it pottery or golf, to create “templates” for her work, is perhaps what makes Saloni the purposeful aesthete she is – giving her all to art, and giving her art to all.
Over the last decade since she first became a “potter by chance” in Johannesburg – and it went from pastime to passion – she has made over 70 pieces of an eclectic range of ceramics she calls The Collective that are “often whimsical and light, identifiable by their intricate patterns and fusion of color”.
These contemporary creations will all be part of her exhibitions coming up – on November 9 in Dubai and January 8-9 at the Gallerie Ganesha in New Delhi.
All proceeds from the sale will go to fund another passion Saloni holds dear to her heart – the ABN Education Trust set up in 2011 by her husband, Rakesh Wahi, the co-founder of the hugely-successful CNBC Africa and FORBES AFRICA brands.
As the Trust’s patron, Saloni has tirelessly worked to help the lives of the less privileged. And every pot she makes, no matter how arduous the process of creation, is for them.
In the living room of her home, she shows us Effervescence, a glazed work of art inspired by a paper cup, which took her a tenacious 15 hours to craft. She was at the gym one day holding a paper cup after a workout session when the idea hit her: why not translate it into ceramic?
“When the clay is not talking to you, you cannot make something that satisfies you,” she says, of her intuitive art. “It’s like doing yoga. Pottery stills your mind and is almost like meditation.”
The pieces are like her babies, she says.
“Except you don’t give your babies away, but for me, rather than possessing the piece, it’s the actual process of creating it, and sharing it that makes me happy. I am very passionate about the Trust, and pottery is my second passion, and it was sometime earlier this year that I said ‘why don’t I just combine these two passions’?”
Thus, the concept of “ceramics that care” was born.
“God has been kind to us, so I don’t want to create money from my art, but if I can create funds and use it for my other cause, then I would consider my mission successful,” says Saloni.
It is something she truly enjoys, as you hear her speak of the chemistry and science – and the infinite patience – that goes into each creation. No piece is like the other.
“I am very adventurous as far as clay is concerned. Pottery is a very loose word for what I create; some of my pieces have minute holes, almost 500-600 holes a piece.
“In fact, I stretch the clay, and push it to its limits. And very often my first teacher Charmaine, and Denise, my second teacher in Parktown North, would always keep a watchful eye on me as they knew that Saloni would always be up to something dangerous with the clay. So I find it works, and there have been instances where I have spent a minimum of four hours on a piece and after making it, it completely collapses but for some strange reason, it’s never put me down. I just start all over again… It makes you resilient towards life in a strange, bizarre way.”
When not in Johannesburg, Saloni continues her work in Dubai, where she has been based since 1989.
Originally from Delhi in India, Saloni moved to Johannesburg in 2007 after her husband, Rakesh, along with Zafar Siddiqi, set up the ABN Group, of which CNBC Africa and FORBES AFRICA are a part.
CNBC Africa is celebrating its 10th year, and Saloni has had a stellar role in its success, supporting Rakesh and the business in every way.
Living between their homes in Delhi, Dubai and Johannesburg, Saloni is always on the move.
“I am thankful for the opportunity to experience three different lives in one lifetime. And the three lives are so diverse – our life in India is completely in contrast to the life we live in Dubai, which is again completely different to the life in Johannesburg.”
Whenever she is in South Africa, her first ports of call usually are the orphanages the Trust supports.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are in India or Africa, children are the same everywhere. To me, giving back is integral to my being,” says Saloni.
Despite being a small business, and very conscious of its corporate social responsibilities, the ABN Group has participated in several charitable causes in sub-Saharan Africa since 2007.
The Trust gets its funding from the Wahi family, the ABN Group companies, Trans National Academic Group and through the efforts of Saloni. The Group’s Managing Director Roberta Naicker, along with other trustees, have worked hard to raise funds through various initiatives including ladies events, golf days, auctions and appeals to corporates and individuals who help the needy.
The group’s focus is three principal activities.
The first is to support orphanages and give opportunities to children in desperate situations for no fault of their own. The Trust mandated to support orphanages that were small and rudimentary and didn’t receive any government grant or corporate support.
When Saloni speaks about Thuthuzela in the township of Alexandra, you can tell this is an orphanage close to her heart. Through her diligent efforts, the Trust first gifted it a minibus in 2012 and then in 2014, helped to move it to a permanent home in Kelvin from “their one-room facility at the back of a local factory”.
“It is creditable how the founders and caretakers of the orphanage have worked tirelessly to help children who would otherwise have died or ended up on the street,” says Saloni.
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Over the years, through the Trust, Saloni has committed significant resources for children in need. The Trust is currently assisting Abangani Enkosini, another Day Care Center in Alexandra, and has provided it a daily soup kitchen, freezers, cupboards, clothes and books, and also waterproofed its facilities.
The Trust’s second objective is to provide bursaries to students, particularly women, for tertiary education including but not limited to financial journalism in universities such as University of Johannesburg and University of the Witwatersrand. Over the last six years, it has provided bursaries to over 30 students to complete their graduation, and has also provided support to the children of its own staff through bursaries for their university studies. Similar bursaries have been provided to students in Ghana, Rwanda and South Africa.
The Trust’s third aim is providing internship opportunities to young Africans for invaluable work experience within the ABN Group companies. Over the last 10 years, over 250 internships have been disbursed by the group. Christina Mhundwa, a recipient of the ABN bursary, is currently in Germany working as a journalist for a leading news broadcaster.
Saloni’s support for all the work has come from the team at the ABN Group including Nola Mashaba, Celeste Meidecen, Thameshan Sooriah and Sue Gounden.
In addition, the Trust participates in other activities that resonate with the core values of the founders. One such was supporting an organization in Kenya working to get young girls off the streets to re-settle them from an existence of abuse into a dignified life.
“It was at CNBC Africa’s All Africa Business Leaders Awards in Rwanda last year that I was introduced to Damaris Too, a successful businesswoman doing amazing work in Kenya. She was one of the contenders for the ‘Philanthropist of the Year’ award. I was so touched by her story – she basically worked with getting young girls off the street. It was very sad to hear that for want of a pretty dress or just a bag, these girls were led astray,” says Saloni.
Back in Dubai, Saloni got to work, creating a WhatsApp group, and mobilizing her friends and their friends to make donations in kind for the girls.
“I was hopeful I would get a few suitcases of assorted clothes and bags and shoes. But lo and behold, thanks to the power of social media, I had almost a container-load of stuff. The entire consignment was sent to Kenya, and since then, we have sent a second load,” says Saloni, proving a kind gesture can go a long way.
Philanthropy is not new for the Wahis. Hailing from an illustrious business family in India, Saloni says she has seen acts of kindness from a young age. Marrying into an equally-philanthropic family has allowed her to continue to do social good all her life.
“My great grandfathers had established charitable trusts in India and I have seen the family’s involvement in schools and hospitals in North India that benefitted children from disadvantaged families. Their work has outlived their time on earth… For me, as a woman, if the work my husband and I are doing is carried forward and built on by our children, I would consider myself blessed. Both children have been involved with the Trust through their own contributions. Sidharth, our son, is a Trustee, while our daughter, Shweta, a young fashion designer, has raised significant funds through her own initiatives,” says Saloni.
Last year, in India, Saloni and Rakesh set up “a corpus for Class 4 employees at the National Defence Academy” and earlier this year, set up “a fund for caddies in Dehradun” (near the Himalayan foothills), as they are both “passionate about golf”.
“We set up a trust in the name of my mother-in-law [Shobhana Wahi], again in Dehradun. Wherever we get an opportunity, we always try and give back.
“You come alone, you leave alone. What you take along with you is your name,” she says.
Saloni’s mission for the next few years is to do as many exhibitions as she can across the cities she travels and lives in.
“I know in South Africa, a lot of people are doing good work, and if anyone has a charity event and is looking for pieces, I would be very happy to give my pottery, so long as I know the funds these pieces generate, are going for the right cause. I have set a very high target for myself,” says Saloni.
As we conclude our meeting, it’s hard not to ask Saloni how she manages to live in so many cities and call each of them home, to which, she laughs: “I have a non-conventional entrepreneurial husband, and just as I create pieces of pottery, his passion is developing people and creating businesses. I mould clay, he moulds people!”