On his way to school a little boy of ten used to stop at a hut near Kapaleesvar temple in Mylapore, Madras. He would stand outside the hut for hours and watch with delight an old man carving wood, bringing to life gods and goddesses, elephants and lions.
This was Dhanapal’s first introduction to sculpture thirty-five years ago. Even now he remembers the Yali, a legendary lion, carved by the old man on the veena. About the same time, he became friendly with a potter and liked to watch him create forms out of clay. Many years later Dhanapal’s first terracotta was fired in this potter’s kiln. His interest in shapes and forms was enlivened by the many bronze figures his mother used to keep in the house for worship.
Today, at the age of forty-five, Dhanapal is one of India’s outstanding sculptors. He has tried to grapple seriously with the problem of contemporary vision in plastic arts. He does not totally reject realism. He was born and has lived all his life in Mylapore with its temple centred life, full of the traditions of ancient Indian art.
Dhanapal’s love of shapes and forms was so intense that even before he completed high school education, he had decided to become an artist. He joined the Madras School of Arts and Crafts and studied under D.P. Roy Chowdhury. After four years of training he graduated from the school, and was appointed as an instructor in the school immediately. In the early part of his career he devoted considerable attention to graphics. One of his colleagues recalls that Dhanapal did fine brush drawings of Chola and Pallava bronzes.
But he knew sculpture was more native to his talent, although at that time it was considered a clumsy medium of artistic expression. “I used to like shapes, all shapes”, said Dhanapal. “Not only man-made shapes, but also nature’s shapes.”
Dhanapal acknowledges his debt to the Pallava and Chola art of South India, but would repudiate the suggestion that today his vision has any pint of contact with these ancient forms of art. He has said: “It is too difficult to continue that tradition. Times have changed and materials and facilities have also changed. We can only enjoy that tradition as part of the past. Our way of life is very different. Look at our architecture, it is completely new and has changed - faster than sculpture.” Among Western artists Dhanapal admires the work of Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso in so far as he likes these masters more than others.
For many years Dhanapal was in the shadow of D.P. Roy Chowdhury, the professional sculptor who was for 28 long years the principal of the Government School of Arts and Crafts in Madras. Chowdhury’s preoccupation was with portrait sculpture. Those were the days when artists tortured their materials into the likeness of soft flesh with little consideration for the materials or their subjects. Academic naturalism stared at young artists in studios and workshops of the art schools in India. The routine copying of models did not give much scope for the release of imagination from the static concepts of shape and form. It took time for Dhanapal to free himself from the influence of naturalism which wrapped the vision of Madras artists for many decades.
Dhanapal was one of the earliest to break away from these limitations and recognise that art was something more than the slavish imitation of nature. He was able to break these bonds and gain the freedom to sculpt as he willed. As Rodin, the master sculptor has said, “genius comes only to those who know how to use their wyes and their intelligence.” Dhanapal began to ask fundamental questions and experimented boldly. He saw new visions. The result was the emergence of a modern sculptor of great sensitivity.
He is now the chief instructor in sculpture at the College of Arts and Crafts in Madras. But he does not like his teaching job which tries to keep him a prisoner of academic attitudes. He cannot leave the job, for he has to make a living. It is difficult to sell sculpture. Not one of his works has so far been bought by private buyers. He has sold his sculptures only to government institutions. He will shortly undertake in collaboration with K.C.S. Paniker, the Principal of the College of Art, a sculpture in stone, 30 feet by 6 feet, for a textile mill in Coimbatore. This will be a welcome break.
Dhanapal has not been uniformly productive in recent years; quantity, however, is compensated for by his sensitivity. He has now turned his attention to jewellery. “I don’t find any difference between sculpture and jewellery,” he said. He has created some exquisite examples of ceramics and has made ornaments with them. Some of these were on view at a snack bar exhibition conducted by the Madras Progressive Painters’ Association last July. One of the pieces of ceramic jewellery was exhibited in the U.S.A.
He finds great satisfaction in observing the creations of nature. He is studying pebbles, marbles and shells. Smooth sea-worm pebbles reveal the contours inherent in stones. He said he liked even the shape of vegetables. “There is something wonderful in shapes. I don’t know how to explain it.” He said.
Dhanapal has come a long way in his search for new and powerful forms of expression. His Standing Figure (1962) with holes in the torso for penetration of light into the frame work and with serrated outline is far different in technique from his representational Mother and Child in terracotta (1954). “I want to avoid too much solidity,” he said. “I want to attempt to become transparent.” The discovery of space sculpture where volume is not important and where voids becomes a medium fascinates Dhanapal. However he is essentially a line artist, and the fine shapes of the sophisticated sculptures of Pallava and Chola art dormant in his sub conscious mind. Through all of Dhanapal’s work, the human body is always felt, and the organic element is of fundamental importance. His focus of attention has not so far shifted from the figurative to the non-figurative. Indeed his preoccupation has been with human suffering. His quest for elemental forces seen through an inner vision have just begun and a future full of promise lies ahead.
In a chronological selection of Dhanapal’s work I would include an early piece that demands attention, (terracotta, 16 height -1954). The composition is simple and representational in character. It is based on a folk idiom, and through distortion achieves an inner strength. The rounded figure conveys a fullness of emotion.
Portrait of George Rave (Plaster of Paris, 20” - 1954) is an impressionist piece which captures the refinement of a sensitive face. It transfers not only physical but also psychological features of the sitter.
Head of a Woman (Terracotta, 12”-1955) is a departure from his usual idiom. It captures the artist’s obsession with suffering. The pouched cheeks, pinched mouth and projecting eyes heighten the expression ofsuffering.The linear flow of the neck which is carried forward in the nose and the eyebrows enhances expression by exaggeration.
Namaz (plaster of Paris, 21” - 1957) is a simple curve of force with a straight line as the base. It has the impact of an abstraction creation, is spirit of its simplicity. The solitude of the figure is revealed through long, lonely lines. A feeling for line and the sub-conscious Pallava influence can be detected.
Avvai (plaster of Paris, 19”-1960) is a return to realism. It is a little on the hard side. It has a severity that is at once striking and forbidding.
Three Figure (bronze 16” - 1961) shows a new development in Dhanapal’s art. Gradation of planes and hollows are employed for the first time by the artist with considerable feeling. The figures are interrelated like a poem and conveys Dhanapal’s feeling for the rhythm of life. This work is now in the Modern Art gallery, New Delhi. His Mother and Child (lead 19610 is the continuation of the same technique.
Horse (concrete, 16”-1961) is a unique diversion and cannot be included in the regular development of the artist. The flighty thrust of the head dominates the piece, and even carries the base with it. A severity of composition and texture distinguishes this piece from others.
Christ bearing the Cross (bronze - 1961) continues the favourite theme of suffering. The twisted face and incised body exaggerate the expression of pain. This brought the artist the National Award for sculpture, and was exhibited in London in 1962.
Christ (plaster of Paris, 15”-1962) is a monumental work. It has Byzantine and ancient Indian overtones. Its anguished, spiked forms impale the eye with terrific force. The listening eye could even hear the rhythm of life and its metaphysical content. This composition is in a gallery in Essen, West Germany. The artist’s virtues as a sculptor are unambiguously revealed in this piece.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1965