The women fix you with their bold, uninhibited, frontal gaze. Ravinder Reddy creates monumental heads of strong, earthy women with prominent if not the chiselled features of classical beauties.

Without the bright paint, tawdry jewellery and hair clips and flowers they would have appeared as rugged as a rocky outcrop. They exude the raw sexual energy of some folk goddesses and village deities and are suggestive of icons.

Reddy, who has been inspired by Kalighat paintings, is creating contemporary Indian goddesses - independent-minded women of today.

RMZ Foundation is presenting till September 9 an exhibition titled Heads and Bodies, Icons and Idols of 26 of the 61-year-old sculptor's works at the Gallery, RMZ Ecoworld, Bangalore.

It is high time we discarded our prudery, Reddy said in a recent interview over the telephone from his Visakhapatnam studio. Nobody is shocked when they see naked village deities. "Why shy away because of our Victorian principles?" About the sensuous quality of his works, Reddy comments: "Every work has a different intensity under its skin. So I don't want either to suppress or overexpose these qualities."

It may come as a surprise to many that the impulse behind creating those female icons came from Benin or Nigerian sculptures and Kalighat paintings, and that he had encountered both cultural artefacts in London.

Reddy was born at Suryapet village in Andhra Pradesh to an "agricultural family", and it was in his school that he was first introduced to lessons in art. His interest started growing and his teacher helped him after hours. From the Government College of Fine Arts and Architecture, Hyderabad, he moved to MS University in Baroda. Thereafter with a scholarship from British Council, he joined Goldsmiths College in London.

At the college, he met sculptor Tony Gregg and he opted for Philip S. Rawson as his tutor. Rawson, besides being a professor and art historian, had written extensively on the art of drawing in Indian sculpture.

Reddy then moved to the Royal College of Art, where he was trained in ceramics and it afforded him the opportunity to work in the Museum of Mankind, London, where "I could handle sculpture, feel it and lift it. I was interested in Benin sculpture. A large travelling exhibition of Benin bronzes and terracotta was held. They make such beautiful portraits using simple material. So why can't I make portraits looking at my own people?" says Reddy. Now he uses fibre glass as well, besides terracotta and bronze.

As to Kalighat paintings, he had seen them at the National Museum in Delhi and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. "Kalighat paintings inspired me because they portrayed what they saw in a very simple, straightforward manner with minimum effort. They are very forms that give the effect of three-dimension. And they are about everyday matters. They have a sensuousness and directness."

Kalighat paintings or pats were created by folk artists who had settled down at the Calcutta pilgrimage centre. Bold, unhesitant lines depicted deities and commented on the social scene.

Reddy did a couple of terracotta heads at the Royal College of Art, and continued that practice when he returned to India. He was with the Kanoria Centre for Arts in Ahmedabad, and after six years, moved in 1990 to Visakhapatnam where he was professor of art at Andhra University.

Explaining his art, Reddy says: "When you are starting an armature you are looking at shapes created by volumes. There are negative and positive spaces - concave and convex. With this I begin sculpture. When I feel all these elements have come into total unity then I start adding more meaning that people can read. Then I create within those volumes viewer's interest by putting decorative elements. These elements are not for the sake of decoration. They are judiciously chosen and are appropriate to that image.... My primary concern is to arrest the five senses and proceed from there."

Published in The Telegraph, 2017
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