Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, Issue 41, 1995, pp. 25-27

The one word that Valsan Kolleri has an instinctive dislike for in installation. It’s pretentious. It’s unwieldy. It robs the act of creation of its mystery and reduces it to the status of an object. Conversely, every action, or object, properly conceived, acquires a significance that the artist or sculptor, in his role as shaman is able to instil by the very force of his imagination. It becomes a ritual. In the past, the closely-knit agricultural societies in the South were bound by rituals that did not distinguish between the everyday and the eternal. Kolleri relives this mixture of the mundane and the mysterious when he says, “One thinks more of rear portions of houses, or the kind of objects that meet or eyes when you open the kitchen door of an old village house. There is a row of vessels scattered over a soot-encrusted universe, and when the glow of the kitchen fire falls over this disorderly heap of vessels, they turn into sculptures. We are suddenly trapped in an ancient memory.” (From an article in Mathrubhumi by P. Surendran, translated from Malayalam by Geetha Krishnan Kutty and quoted by Vasudha Thozur in an introductory essay on Kolleri entitled “Valsan Kolleri Sculpture 1989-94”.)

The ritual element is very important in Kolleri’s work. It is also completely unselfconscious. It is also completely unselfconscious. One of the most striking examples of how futile it is to use terms such as installation, or even ritual, may be seen in a piece of Kolleri’s sculpture that was placed on the open footpath, outside the Sakshi Art Gallery at Madras. It is a large granite composition, fractured and re-structured into an abstract shape, from the discarded smooth-rugged surfaces of the round grinding stones that he often uses in his work, and placed within a sculptural space. Almost within days, people using the road had identified the image as that of a Ganesh. (Even though it was nothing of that sort and children see it as a “throne” on which they can climb on and pretend to be royalty.) However, because of this the granite form has been transformed with dabs of vermillion and offerings of flowers. Would this quality as an “installation” that found a meaning through the continuing dialogue with persons who had nothing to do with the original piece of sculpture signifies even within our degraded urban environment.

Whether described as an installation or ritual, sculpture has a meaning in Kolleri’s work that transcends these terms. It exists in the transformation that takes place, continuously before us at all times, in the life-cycles of growth and decay, which more and more have become an important element in Kolleri’s work.

“I realized from a very early age that I wanted to be a sculptor,” says Kolleri. “When I enter a room I can see it from the other side. It’s like a sock, you can see the reverse of it. It was easy for me to handle three-dimensional things. Once you get stuck in a two-dimensional world, your attention gets diverted to texture and colour, like in a painting. I can see beyond the image until ultimately that image is destroyed.”

It’s tempting to describe Kolleri’s intuitive understanding of spatial dynamics to his childhood in Kerala, particularly the northern part, which is deeply rooted in the worship of the Mother Goddess, the family hearth, the Earth itself as the source of both life and death. At the same time Kolleri has also been deeply influenced by the West. Not only has he been through the generally Western oriented educational process at the Madras School of Arts, and later at the Baroda School, but has had numerous forays abroad, most notably the year that he spent at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris.

This has led to a certain restlessness, which could at the same time be seen as the continual process of change that Kolleri has absorbed into his artistic thinking. At one time, he worked in a chastely spartan cubist mode a la Noguchi, working in cement and brick to create giant cubes that had been neatly sliced. He went through a phase where plaster of paris was cast into innumerable permutations of rectangle box-like forms, sprouting with encrustations, or cancered with nodular growths. Or he used paper cut-outs to explore the use of repeated geometric shapes. During this phase, he would possibly have said like Noguchi has in his biography, “Tradition is a kind of forgery” and again, to quote Noguchi explaining his own sources of inspiration, “Brancusi, like the Japanese would take the quintessence of nature and distil it. Brancusi showed me truth of materials and taught me never to decorate or paste unnatural materials onto my sculptures, to keep them understated like the Japanese house.”

During this phase, it was the truth of materials that Kolleri was exploring through his work. Indeed it could also be said that just finding the money to get suitable material was a challenge that Kolleri typically accepted by using anything and everything that came into his hands. No material was too crude or lacking in possibilities that it could not be transformed through the heat of artistic endeavour. In this manner he spent time doing ceramics, terracotta and fibre-glass sculptures and on his return from Paris held an exhibition where he had combined large angular pieces of wooden slats and bars, with a material called Rezolin that yielded to his strong urge to imprint the surface with a textured graffiti.

At the Madras School of Arts, he studied print-making for some time under R.B. Bhaskaran. The skill that he picked up may be seen in some of the finished surfaces of his compositions that have the striations and cross hatchings that one associates with the work of a print-maker. This is particularly so in the bronze pieces that he made in the late 1980s. This was also the period when he discovered the possibilities of using the granite grinding stones and mortars that had once been a common feature in every South Indian household. These were being discarded in favour of the more compact mechanical appliances. Kolleri seized upon these stone pieces and turned them inside out, making the most of the smooth secret interiors and rounded surfaces in a number of very striking ways. At their most basic they became the base on which he mounted the bronze pieces that he had worked upon in the fine frenzy of his most articulate manner, a contrast in shapes and material that created their own discourse.

As he said in the course of an interview at that time: “The pieces that I am doing now combine two very strong materials. These pieces are part of the grinding stones that were in every house, now they don’t use them anymore, so I thought I could use them in a different way. I have opened them up so you can see how smooth it is from the inside. I also like the weight of the stone, that is an added attraction. The stone is likemymother.Themetalislike my father handling me. Metal and stone, they are both strong materials for the arts…”

In 1992 Kolleri went through two disparate but equally dramatic experiences. He underwent a heart surgery and later that year made a trip to America that left him both profoundly disturbed and exhilarated. As he notes in the essay quoted earlier, “A rare moment of clarity, to be slit and sawn open and clipped together again.”

As though to exorcize these personal assaults on his vulnerability as a human being and revalidate them as sculpture, Kolleri’s work has assumed a new dimension. This was demonstrated with an artlessness that goes back to his earliest belief in the possibility of sculpture in every root and branch, when he undertook to use the roots of a tree, at Peringode in Kerala to create a frail network of twisted rope-like sinews, still clinging with red blood, like a garland winding through the foliage. It was a return to the sacred groves of his childhood. At the same time his more formal compositions entailed the splitting apart of round womb-like forms, with monstrous growths; or a sudden flowering of ancient emblematic shapes and fragments appearing from molten matrix of bronze, like the distant possibility of life on a remote planet. “I think sometimes I am like an archaeologist, digging up these things from our own culture and displaying them. The only thing is that I’m doing it now.”

During an exhibition at the Madras Museum where he had hired a gently mouldering circular hall that belongs to a complex known as the Centenary Exhibition Hall, Kolleri displayed his latest works in August 1994. The found objects collected from the debris of old buildings, wooden beams and lintels, carved window frames, oval-shaped bits of wood taken from chairs perhaps, or mirrors, the everyday objects from kitchen, the old metal pots, the churns, the scrapers and scourers, had all been fused into the rich texture of his imagination. They could all have been exhibits from an earlier civilization, an impression that was reinforced by the museum setting.

The most striking composition suggested a funeral boat sailing down in a sea of sand, precariously balanced between this world and the next. On it Kolleri has assembled a multitude of objects, some of them of a light coloured terracotta, shaped, baked and sutured together with threads and then tied down with hanks of rope, bits of wood and metal, with a massive up-turned granite mortar with a hole in the middle, knotted to the curving wooden frame, holding the entire ship down, steadying it on its way to the unconscious world of dreams. Standing on its head, at the centre of this phantasmagoric ship, there is a figure of a man, doing an asana, as Kolleri himself does regularly these days.

At another site, he had assembled two worn-out grinding stones in a courtyard by placing them on their sides so that they resembled huge bells. To complete the illusion he had added a huge length of rope, as thick as a man’s arm, so that they could equally be seen as the cymbals that dancers use. This ability to play with images and reinvent them can be seen also in his design of a massive marble key with a winding looping double coil of rope that he created at the Jawahar Kendra, Jaipur, entitled very simply, ‘Key’. As quoted in the essay by Thozur, his thoughts on the subject are elliptical. “The perquisite to being a sculptor is the early acceptance of austerity, but it is close on two decades and the strain has shown, indeed. Give me a door and I’ll make you a marble key, suspended at the end of a curling rope, a burden and a gift.”

As Kolleri prepares to mount his most overt piece of work that he plainly acknowledges as an “installation” entitled ‘Cyclone’ at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Madras, one is reminded of an earlier piece entitled, ‘Homage to the Best’ that had been commissioned for an exhibition at the Alliance Francaise, to make use of leather as an artistic statement. Kolleri’s piece was both dramatic and disturbing, witty and withering in its comment on our tendency to create sacred images out of our need to worship them as we do our ‘Holy Cows’ and simultaneously burn them on the altars of commercial necessity. He had used a wooden table, with its legs scarred and gouged and covered its broad rectangular surface with leather and stuffed it to resemble a cow on its back, helpless, spattered in its own dung, its tail made of rope curled between back legs, its head raised up in mute agony. As he explains in the essay by Thozur, “Deity and surrogate mother: she bears her own wasted carcass to the slaughter-house. There will I dismember her and so specialize in the lucrative marketing of her parts. I will create art out of her remains; here is a table, though the legs are charred, on which the meat is served and consumed; and the dung is excreted in terror of death; here the painted skin which makes me a wealthy man.”

Poised between worlds, open to the terror of the primitive, trapped within the industrial one, Valsan Kolleri defies both, by the ritual of his vocation, Sculptor.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, Issue 41, 1995, pp. 25-27

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