A Pharmaceutical chemist by training, A. M. Davierwalla gave up his job in a factory three years after holding his first show in 1956. It is significant that, although completely self-trained, he did not follow the contemporary fashion of sculpting in plaster and preparing a mould for the final bronze product but took to carving directly in wood, stone and marble.
This brought him face to face with the essential nature of a sculptor's work: an exploration of form in solid material informed by an empathy with the character of the latter, an understanding of its organic structure and the scope it offered for an interplay of mass (including so-called empty space), volume and line. Sculpture for Davierwalla has always been a dialogue with diverse materials.
In his earliest work, one sees an expected tendency towards conventional idealization of the human form. Gradually, bold distortion, often intelligently expressionistic, takes its place. The mother and child theme keeps him busy at this stage, and so does the reclining figure. One need not jump to the obvious conclusion that he was influenced by Henry Moore (who has also worked endlessly on these themes during the war and immediately after). It was, on the contrary, as naturally provoked by an interest in the human figure as his standing or embracing figures.
In Mother and Twins one sees an inventive extension of the theme, with two crouching baby figures holding on to their mother's reclining torso like puppies to a bitch. New-born with its expressionistic close-up of hands holding a new born baby, has all the novelty of that visual fact although in style it is essentially realistic.
In a stone torso of this period, one notices the lessons that Davierwalla has learnt from ancient Indian sculpture by way of massive anatomy and supple, lyrical form. Indeed, he handles, stone with the full proof of having assimilated the stylistic implications of our indigenous sculpture, especially the rugged, monumental carvings seen in the Buddhist cave temples.
The grandeur and mystery of Christ themes appealed to Davierwalla from a very early stage in his career. It was perhaps lucky that he made his first trip to Europe as early as 1950; but it is also worth recording that he had even then the maturity to digest his studies of western sculpture and to protect himself from facile imitation.
The Christian myth reflects itself in his work in a number of ways and in varied styles. We have the rather conventional stylisation of a trio of human figures in The Foundling. We have a serene Christ face, and also a standing figure, Judas, with its body divided into dissimilar proportions suggesting the doubt that gnawed at the heart of this first skeptic. We also find the first of many crosses, an imaginatively geometrical construction which E. Alkazi used as a central “prop” in his production of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.
Davierwalla's facility for experimentation and his avant garde understanding of the nature and function of sculpture are amply evident, even in these early years, in the aluminium Bull's Head which eloquently sums up its subject in the fashion of a skeleton. Although in his portraits of Picasso and Maugham, in wood, he stays close to an almost academic realism, in the heads and torso of polished marble, he approaches the near-abstract purity of a Brancusi or an Arp. In Missile, done in the same medium, we witness this very quality, as well as a kinship with the indigenous lingam motif.
Davierwalla casts a wide net to draw his themes from western myth. His Oedipus Rex in Agra sandstone is an intriguing figure, the face is raised skyward and the stunted limbs make a sign of despair.
In certain abstract wooden pieces of this period, we clearly see an echo of Barbara Hepworth's work. Davierwalla has been yet some way off from the more recent period in his career during which he has charted out his own, independent path in abstraction.
He gives us two self-portraits now, one a standing figure in wood with its face turned away as if in disgust of human commerce and the other, a fuller face in the lead. The latter, called The Misanthrope, is a mask in which the slight misalignment of the eyes is accentuated by lips clearly suggesting the theme.
Davierwalla believes that, if an artist does a portrait without having any specific person in mind, it is likely to turn out to be a self-portrait. Whether we give credence to this experience or not, it does give us a clue to the workings of the sub-conscious in the evolution of themes in an artist's hands. It is this process, indeed, which gives that aesthetic ambivalence to works of art, a quality which Davierwalla's sculptures possess in large measure.
The progress towards abstraction is mapped out by two Miro-like designs in mosaic and by its intrusion in a standing figure in bronze where the anatomy is subjected to whorl-like depressions and the whole concept, but for the head, could be termed abstract.The conventionally idealized human studies, either standing or sitting, continue to intrude even in these years of early experimentation.The Christ themes also persist, with a moving crucified torso in wood chiselled out with rippling horizontal lines which sometimes merge with features like ribs and another Christ head compared to the earlier one.
On this journey, we suddenly come across The Wages of Salome, purporting to be John the Baptist's head which the dancer brought on a platter. Carved in marble, it is starkly simple in its facial features and evocative of the last mask of lifelessness.
By this time, Davierwalla had started working more actively in welded metal. We have a series of standing figures whose ingredients are metal scrap components of a variety of shapes and textural suggestions. I find these efforts not important in themselves, but as indicative of Davierwalla's awareness of the visual motifs of the technological age which enveloped him. The symbolism which he seeks to associate with certain physical aspects of these standing figures sometimes seems to be imposed on them, if not completely extraneous. One prefers the more free-flowing forms, in which there is no leftover imprint of any mechanical ingredients.
In such works as Fleur Du Mal or The Many-headed Hydra, one sees by contrast the fluency and clarity of poetry. They are evocative without reference to any external objects and are substantial in their purity of form, their interplay of solid matter and space and their subtly organic structure.
Incidentally, Davierwalla rightly maintains that he does not start with a rigid definable idea. The sculptor shapes itself in his hands as if it had organic growth and is a purely plastic creation. It is only later that a title is tagged on to it as a matter of convenience. The two bronze sculptures discussed above may belookedatasstraightforward abstract creations even though they employ naturalistic motifs such as flower petals and leaves and what looks like an eye or a head.
The wooden pieces made during this phase also veer towards the abstract. The standing shapes have shed the inessentials and display a new purity of concept. There is a sitting torso in Malad stone and a near-symmetrical sitting torso in wood both of which, in their single-minded emphasis on subtlety of form, approach abstract works.
In the realm of welded sculpture, we find a reworking of the ancient Nataraj figure and another crucifixion as simple and evocative as the cross used by Alkazi.
At this stage in Davierwalla's career, when critical recognition had already come to him, we find him battling with a problem which no sculptor can escape. The traditional idea of sculpture, through all the ages, has been allied with the concept of solidity rooted firmly on a base. The academic statues stood on pedestals and, although the modernists spurned the academism, they did not get rid of the pedestal.
Next to the revolutionary concept of sculpture as a complementary interplay of mass and space, which one associates with the work of such sculptors as Moore and Hepworth-and which continues its logical journey to end in the mobiles of Alexander Calder- the idea which intrigued modern sculptors most was that of liberating their work from the necessity of gravitational convention. What Davierwalla has tried to do in his own modest way stands midway between the revolution engendered by the British sculptors and the mobiles of Calder, which are rooted, as it were, in the air itself.
Levitation, in bronze, is the first work in which Davierwalla successful attempts this. It is a birdlike shape lifted off the pedestal with the aid of a wire-like axis. In Icarus, Thunderbird and Meghdoot we see successive stages of the idea worked out on a more and more ambitious scale. Each of them is fluent in its lines and fully exploits the light feeling imparted by metal sheets. The last, looking like a bird poised for flight with its wings stretched out, is an object lesson in the beauty of austere but fluid construction.
There are other works in metal which also emphasize the new maturity and vision one comes across now in Davierwalla's art. The huge Falling Figure, commissioned by the Atomic Energy Establishment, is a muscularly conceived human torso, rather like a falling rider. Davierwalla explains that, far from suggesting despair or the total annihilation of mankind through atomic energy, its stance speaks of a tentative setback with the promise of hope and of better understanding of the power of the atom presaging the future.
Time Machine is an intriguing abstract work whose symbolism seems to me rather esoteric. But it proves the preoccupations of Davierwalla's mind which are in tune with the promptings of 20th century awareness. In yet another Crucifixion, he presents a subtle duplication of the motif of the cross one above the other. It is the most objective and dispassionate of his Crucifixions in harmony with the nature of the metal scrap he employs.
As impressive as Falling Figure is Suryadev, installed in a Bombay housing project. Typically mechanistic in concept, it still suggests its theme in a pure and direct way. In the smaller pieces, such as Woman with Ankh, the deployment of nuts and bolts and the use of historical or ethnic symbols continues. This, too, is work empty of all emotion, stark and spare in construction. If She and Three Others, seems to be on a slightly more human level, it is only a deceptive mask for its geometrical austerity. I myself prefer the metal work which uses flat surfaces to the one which uses nuts and bolts.
Davierwalla has done a series of small sculptures using the leftover products of carpentry. Some of them, like The Lady with a Dog or Don Quixote seem to be far too facile of achievement and literal in workmanship. More true to the artist's personality is the various abstract constructions, some of which can be rotated on a wall without diminishing the total impact of their design.
Davierwalla goes a step further in his journey towards complete abstraction in certain recent works use a skeletal construction in metal. The motivation of all these is extremely esoteric and, to my mind, they stand midway between architectural designing and sculpture. To this group, apart from smaller, auster geometrical constructions, belongs Crystal and Gold, an homage to the late Dr. Homi Bhabha, a patron and friend of many artists and one whose death has affected Davierwalla deeply. There are also intricately designed wall lamps some of whose motifs, surprisingly, are reminiscent of Japanese counterparts.
After his recent journey of the United State, Davierwalla finds his introspective mood all the more intense. The impact of all that he has seen there has been truly stunning. How far it has seeped into his creative impulse will have to be judged by his future work. But, already, he is one of the very few Indian sculptors to have developed an idiom of his own and, what is far more important, one reflective of the artistic sensibility of the technological age as it manifests itself today.
Published in Roopa-Lekha, Vol XXXIII, No. 1&2
Lalit Kala Contemporary, Volume 10, September 1969.