EXHIBITION - Sculptures Show (Jan 25-Feb 15, 2007) :

Uncharted Geographies: Modern and Contemporary Sculpture in India


Like their forebears, modern and contemporary Indian sculptors are drawn to their art by a deep-seated, primal or even industrial instinct to transform the raw or the natural - whether ore, wood, clay or other more contemporary materials like fiberglass - into the manmade; to fashion something out of the earth, and, in the process, to leave their mark on the social order. The precise mode of this transformation, however, reflects the expression of a more personal idiom, the joint product of the artist and his environment. To turn the natural into the manmade is not sufficient; it is the transformation of the common into the unique, the endowment of perception and vision with form and volume, which raises sculpture to an 'art'.

Identifying India as an important font of sculptural activity, this essay seeks to document both internal and external factors - some of the significant dialogues, concerns and prerogatives - that lent force to modern Indian sculpture over the last six decades, and that continue to influence contemporary sculptors in the country. Indian sculpture has shifted from a practice subsumed within greater architectural schemes, to its emergence as a distinct genre with specific media, and finally a discipline which seems to have dissipated rigid boundaries or definitions in favor of conceptual expressionism. In particular, new genres like time specific art and installation have had to be defined. This exhibition brings together the works of several prominent artists, showcasing their talent and encouraging the exploration and mapping of this mode of expression in modern and contemporary sculpture in India.

The Modern Vanguard

India's artistic heritage is one heavily dominated by a sculptural tradition. From the practical and decorative terracotta pieces of the Indus Valley Civilization to the intricate temple art of Mahabalipuram, Konarak and Khajuraho, the renowned bronzes of the Chola and Gupta periods, and the non-figurative stone-work adorning Mughal monuments, sculpture flourished as an art form in pre-colonial India. With colonization, the patronage afforded to them by the various secular and religious leaders of the subcontinent dwindled with their shrinking purses and waning authority. Institutions under the British Raj favoured Western methods of instruction emphasizing portraiture and academic naturalism, and though new talent and experimentation within the genre was not explicitly discouraged, it was constrained by the lack of benefaction, institutional support and promotion. The commercialization of sculpture during this period is still visible in many cities in India, where commissioned statues and busts of leaders and aristocrats by sculptors like Hiramony Roy Chowdhury and V.P. Karmarkar stand in parks and squares, the lone representatives of a bygone era.

Despite the strong trend towards naturalism and portraiture under colonial rule, the late 1930s and the 1940s did see some sculptors experimenting with different materials and techniques and lending a more personal and reflective quality to their work. Foremost among these is Ram Kinker Baij, known today as one of the forebearers of modern Indian sculpture. Though he didn't stray far from realism, Baij's was a highly stylized version that transformed concrete, stone and metal into monumental visions of a romanticized rural Indian life full - an expression of joy and vitality. His work shifted the focus of sculpture away from commercial portraiture towards a freer aesthetic shaped to the sculptor's desires.

While his works like Santhal Family and Sujata symbolically broke the mould instituted under the Raj, his mentorship to sculptors like Sankho Chaudhuri and his encouragement of new creative trends up until his death in 1980, ensured that Indian sculpture would never fit a single mould again. It was Chaudhuri along with sculptors like Dhanraj Bhagat, Somenath Hore, Meera Mukherjee, S. Dhanpal and Adi Davierwalla who followed from Baij's deviation from academic realism and formed the vanguard of sculptural modernism in India, promoting experimentation in the expression of the artist's individual voice and opening up the genre with the new directions and definitions that their work offered.

All over the country, sculptors began to push the traditional media of their genre to take on new forms. Wood was smoked, burnt and assembled as found by artists like Davierwalla; metal was not only cast, but etched, embossed, moulded, beaten and welded into shape in the hands of sculptors like Somenath Hore, Akbar Padamsee and Laxma Goud; and direct carving, texturing and polishing of stone re-emerged in the work of sculptors like Nagji Patel. It was this generation of sculptors who first presented modern Indian sculpture to the world, showing their work at several international venues, and also brought awareness about global trends in sculpture to India. Along with the work of Indian folk artists, Indian sculptors were exposed to the ideas of western artists such as Epstein, Brancusi and Moore, challenging them to question their own conceptions of the genre.

In addition to extending the reach of their media, this period saw Indian sculptors broaden the reach of traditional subjects as well. While the figure remained central in the lyrical works of Sarbari Roy Chowdhury, Krishen Khanna's creations reflecting the common man's condition, and Hore's starved and anguished comments on his socio-political milieu, many sculptors turned to a simplification of the figure in their work. Though Davierwalla's sculptures often alluded to the human figure, the pieces of metal or wood he put together were not portraits but reflections of particular emotions, certain movements or other intangible qualities. Sankho Chaudhari perfected the filtration of subject to its bare essence, simplifying form and reconfiguring space in poetic pieces like his stainless steel homage to flight. Manu Parekh's slashed and pierced bronzes often depicted tortured old men, and Padamsee's highly textured surfaces frequently took the form of human heads, but none of these modern works were anything like the portraiture of the Raj, now safely relegated to the past as a 'period phenomenon'.

These developments in forging the 'new art' of a decolonized nation, however, were not without struggle. As postcolonial subjects, modern Indian sculptors and their counterparts in other fields often grappled with questions of identity and nation. Apprehensive that their sculptural search for "Indian-ness" was in some capacity diluted by their use of Western theory, techniques, and forms of expression, a significant concern for these sculptors was the balance of 'indigenous' and 'international' in their work. In addressing their crises of authenticity and the strict binaries of tradition and modernity, native and global that they envisioned, several modern Indian sculptors drew on India's rich legacy of classical, folk and tribal sculpture.

Some turned to native and primitive themes, but stuck to modern methods. Dhanraj Bhagat's oeuvre, for example, reflects traditional moorings in the sculptor's choice of subjects, with several works in wood and metal reminiscent of the totems associated with Indian tribal religions. S. Dhanpal, an early modernist from Madras, also drew much inspiration from classical Indian traditions, and his bronzes like those from the Mother and Child series, exhibit the simple rhythmic lines, frontality and unity characteristic of the work of Sothern Indian Pallava and Chola artisans. Other sculptors adopted folk and tribal techniques, like the dokhra style of metal casting from Bastar in Central India and the kavacha and kreeta traditions of beaten sheet metal local to Southern Indian villages, and applied them more current themes. Meera Mukherjee, for instance, spent much of her career documenting and learning bell-metal casting techniques from Bastar artisans, then using these skills in her own non-repetitive scenes from nature and everyday life.

These trends continued through the 1970s and early 80s, when students of the early moderns took up their cause to champion the freedom of expression, as their teachers retired. Picking up on Sankho Chadhuri's experiments with form and space, the well-established draughtsman, Himmat Shah, turned to terracotta and bronze to give shape to his minimalist aesthetic. His heads, like those of the sculptor C. Dakshina Moorthy, reflect a unique strain of modern Indian figuration that revitalized traditional techniques and materials like metal and stone with fresh imagery. Similarly, K. S. Radhakrishnan, in both his large scale, single-figure works and in his smaller pieces crowded with life, articulates a unique and often gravity-defying figuration. Such is the joy and liberation the sculptor expresses, that it drives his traditionally cast, provocative subjects to gymnastic flips and lithe dances in their celebration of life.

This period of later-modernism also saw many new developments that opened up fertile spaces where younger sculptors undertook their own experiments with technique, material, space and form. G. Ravinder Reddy's work with polyester resin fiberglass revealed the pliability of the medium at the hands of a sculptor. The solidity of form that it offered Reddy's voluminous female heads and its receptiveness to the fine definition he gave them using bright paint and kitschy ornaments drew several other sculptors to the material. S. Nandagopal's decorative pieces are inspired by the subjects and ornamentation of Southern Indian folk and temple art. Working with beaten and embossed sheets of copper and found metal objects like kitchen spoons, Nandagopal calls the fantastical mythological figures that he creates 'frontal narrative sculptures'.1 Along with sculptors like Veer Munshi, Dhruva Mistry and Pramod Mann, S. Nandagopal expanded Indian sculptural horizons to their bursting point. What followed is often described as the inauguration of India's contemporary sculptural epoch.

Contemporary Developments

The boundary dividing modern and contemporary Indian sculpture is at best, a nebulous one. There is no clear chronological break separating the two, and the oeuvres of several sculptors straddle both periods. One thing is clear, however - if modern Indian sculptors pushed the boundaries of material and subject, contemporary sculptors have erased those boundaries completely, working with novel concepts, media, and methods of engaging the viewer - both, in the final result, but more importantly, in the process. Though they continue to work in three dimensions, endowing their visions with form and volume, their creations are nothing like those of their any of predecessors. These sculptors saw the only limits imposed on the techniques and materials they could use as those of their own imaginations. Traditional media like stone and metal were subjected to new treatments and unusual combinations, and inventive techniques like kinetic sculpture gained popularity. New media also emerged - while bronzed bicycles, cow dung cakes, luggage carts and kitchen utensils served Subodh Gupta's ideas well, other sculptors like Jagannath Panda and Navjot found that moulding and painting fiberglass often suited their expressive needs. From Anandjit Ray's tower of velvet covered bricks to G. R. Iranna's fake pearls dripping down household furniture, contemporary sculptors saw sculptural potential in almost every material and three-dimensional object.

Subjects, too, evolved in accordance with new shifts in ideology and paradigm, and sculptors moved further away from representative figuration, and closer towards a non-representative idiom. In the new age of information and instant gratification, where both the environment and human concerns were strikingly different from what they used to be, contemporary Indian sculptors responded to a bombardment of stimuli that the old masters like Bhagat and Chaudhuri could never have envisioned. For these sculptors, questions of identity transcended geographic boundaries, and the concept of nation lost its significance as meta-narrative in an era of push-button wars, global epidemics, and cyber relationships. In this contemporary context, the relationship between sculptors and their work became dually charged by the overload of information received, and by the artists' very personal responses to that condition - whether ones of acceptance or of resistance, anxiety or confrontation.

Lying under the seemingly facile battling crabs and padlocked flip-flops created by Sudhanshu Sutar, for instance, is a sharp socio-political comment on the interactions of humans, both with each other and with the centers of power that shape their lives. Sudarshan Shetty's humourous juxtaposition of everyday objects, like his fiberglass melon offering up nails instead of nourishment, may also appear whimsical, but offer the artist's judgment on the thin line separating our everyday existence from total chaos.

With such broad-based innovation in both its theory and practice, the genre of sculpture as defined by the moderns soon expanded beyond its borders. New art-forms like time and site specific installations emerged, where sculptors themselves were often part of the temporary displays, either in person or captured in images and video. Technological advances opened up new digital spaces and electronic dimensions in which the artist-viewer relationship could play out. In addition, boundaries between traditional disciplines dissolved in this contemporary wave, allowing for a hybridization of sculpture with other, two-dimensional art forms. Keeping in the vein of Reddy's monumental heads, contemporary sculptors like Chinthala Jagdish, Mayur Gupta, and Navjot Altaf colourfully decorate their finished papier-mâché, stone and fiberglass pieces in bright hues. Though several moderns like Krishen Khanna, Akbar Padamsee and Manu Parekh were both painters and sculptors, there always remained a clear demarcation between the two genres. Today, young artists like Panda and Riyas Komu don't seem recognize any such separation, ambidextrously switching between two- and three-dimensional media as their creativity dictates. Others like Karl Antao bring their expertise from fields like graphic art to the realm of sculpture, telling tales of human joy and sorrow through his teakwood reliefs.

Despite their radical divergences from the moderns and their sculptural conventions, contemporary sculptors maintain a strong connection with their predecessors. Many of them continue to draw on India's folk and tribal sculptural traditions, albeit in different ways than the moderns. Navjot, for instance, collaborates with several Bastar artisans in creating her iconic heads and animals, skillfully negating the divide between tradition and modernity, and locating herself firmly as a sculptor endowed with both Indian and global sensibilities. In addition, contemporary Indian sculptors are very conscious of the debt they owe the pioneering efforts and dedication of artists like Ramkinker Baij, without which they would not have been able to scale the peaks on which they now rest their laurels. Finally, these sculptors remain closely connected to the moderns in India and other sculptors around the world through their unique responses to the changing discourses and concerns they deal with. In their efforts to understand and define the times through their work these artists continue to forge a new identity for their era, and, in doing so, don the role of the sculptor as chronicler of the human condition.

In Conclusion

The geography of modern and contemporary Indian sculpture, like the genre itself, is played out in multiple dimensions. Not only do Indian sculptors defy chronological continuums with their strong moorings in both the past and the future, they undermine the very concept of terra firma as well. It is this unstable ground they stand on - the indefinite spaces between self and situation, home-grown and global, representation and abstraction - that makes modern and contemporary Indian sculpture so unique.

By throwing light on a few of the field's many aspects, this essay represents a beginning - a springboard to launch further explorations of the rich traditions and pioneering trends that have come together with several other strands over the past half-century to create the expressionism that is Indian sculpture.

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