The ongoing Dhanraj Bhagat (1917-1988) retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi celebrates the centenary birth anniversary of the master sculptor. The exhibition titled Dhanraj Bhagat (1917-1988): Journey from the Physical to the Spiritual, foregrounds the modernist sculptor’s diverse experiments in form and material. The centenary celebration seeks to acquaint the audience with over 400 works of the artist, carving a defined niche through the retrospective.

The show makes an earnest attempt to bring together an array of the sculptor’s works spanning over four decades of his artistic journey. Most of the works, largely unseen, emphasize his versatile use of media - clay, cement, metal, stone, wood and others in abstraction and figuration. It must be noted that Bhagat was one of the very first modernists who chose to break away from the entrenched tradition of academic realism of the times. He thus charted an individualistic and untrammelled course in his work of art. Materiality gained ground in his works, though it was his techniques that added immense subjective edge to them. It is Bhagat’s artistic vocabulary of minimalist forms and compositions that lent character to his overall style.

Born in 1917 in Lahore (Pakistan) Dhanraj Bhagat dropped out of school early o to work as an apprentice at a local sculpting enterprise. He used his savings to fund his diploma in sculpture at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore. Bhagat later served as the head of the sculpture department at the College of Art, New Delhi for thirty years till 1977. It was his experimentation with varied media over the years that marked his innovation in the field of sculpture within Indian modernism.

Figurative forms

The exhibition highlights Bhagat’s engagement with figuration and play with form within the rubric of his artistry. His penchant for the feminine form saw him recreate the body in varied manifestations. The depiction of the typical mother and child or the quintessential figure of the woman, found prominent room in the works of the artist. Influences of British sculptor Henry Moore’s overly explored theme of mother and child of the early 1950s can be identified in Bhagat’s rendition of the subject

Bhagat’s ability to strike a formal interaction of form within space is most well exhibited in sculptures like Mother Earth. Carved in wood it is represented as a mother holding a baby, emblematic of a woman’s power as well as of a mother’s capacity to nurture. One of his earliest works studying the figurative feminine form, Mother Earth is representative of sculptural thematics in Indian architecture and also reminiscent of Chola bronzes. Juxtaposed with the symbolic figure of the woman is Bhagat’s Burden (1953) which shows a migrant female figure weighed down by the burden of homelessness, a possible reference to the brutal memory of India’s Partition, when Bhagat crossed over from Lahore to Delhi.

On another parallel is placed the work titled Standing Woman, where Bhagat represents the female body in its most fluid form. His quest to perfect the anthropomorphological contours was realized through his continual concern to master standing figurative forms. This particular works evokes comparison with Meera Mukherjee’s Spirit of Daily Work (1975/1976) which cast in bronze and inspired from the Dhokra metal casting. The work commemorates qualities of humanity and empathy for the figure of the toiling woman.

In the labyrinth of corridors at the Jaipur House, NGMA, Bhagat’s abstract figurative sculptures, interestingly, add a whole new dimension to his pursuit of mastery over form. The works - Musician (1965), Shiva Dance (1956) or the untitled work of a musician playing the Sitar draws focus to the aspects of frenzy and devotion. Both variations reveal how easily Bhagat surpasses the boundaries of design while also being firmly rooted within them. The sculptures also show his ease with varied mediums - in oil and plaster of paris; they perform no less than the ones in wood. They contextualize Bhagat’s proclivity for minimalism, one that holds sway through its precise representation.

Birds & Bulls

In a wide array of works on display at Jaipur House, drawings and paintings on the subject of birds evoke a sensibility of a different order. Dhanraj Bhagat was wheelchair bound when he took to depicting nature copiously in the latter part of his life. His physical immobility played a huge role in his connect with nature in such a mystical manner. The compositions exude elements of boundlessness thereby exploring an arena of flight and transcendence.

Dhanraj Bhagat’s Bull series of the 1950s manifest the sculptor’s well-versed knowledge of western learning assimilated with his Indian artistic sensibilities. The terracotta figures have a minimalist yet metaphoric aspect : the bulls for Bhagat stand in for qualities of an energetic virility. Bhagat’s many explorations of the subject of bulls draw attention to his quest for acing the language of gesture, movement and composure in his sculptures.

These subjects highlight the impact of Indian heritage and artistic traditions on Bhagat’s work, and how he effortlessly infused western artistic traditions in them, best manifested by his use of geometric shapes and colour.

Drawings and Imagery

The mythological renditions that Bhagat delved into through his unpretentious drawings in pen, ink, pencil and watercolour create a somatic interiority, of both the mind and the soul. His sense of deep insight and detailing of myths and legends like Krishna or the five headed snake show his adeptness at narration and depicting compositional forms.

The number of drawings that the artist rendered on paper condensed his exploration of nature, life, mythological references from sacred texts, his spiritual learning and sketches of his sculptural renditions. The play of control and abstraction in his drawings reflect the dexterity and authority in telling tales and aspects of play. These drawings give a window to the artist’s mind while also providing a converging point that permeated through and blended almost all of his works together.

In the light of this exhibition, Dhanraj Bhagat is finally made to be ‘seen’ as a doyen in the field of sculpture. Long placed on the sidelines of the canon of modernism, the retrospective accords a fitting pedestal to the master-sculptor while also placing him in the higher echelons of ‘Indian modern art’. Representing a period of post Independence Nehruvian history, the exhibition also marks Bhagat’s engagement with tradition and indigenism. Sadly, the layout of the exhibition is awkward with clusters of works placed in a maze of sorts in the constellation of rooms and corridors inJaipurhouse.

On view till the 28th of February, 2018 at the NGMA, Delhi

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