Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, Volume 35, September 1987, pp. 9-11
What did I think of Dhanraj Bhagat’s work earlier? - Say twenty years ago. If I may quote myself, this is what I had noted about it in 1966 - let the reader decide for himself if my views have changed in the course of time.
Dhanraj Bhagat has a distinct style… works, in both wood and metal, showing continuity as well as innovation. Of course there is some contrast between the wood and the metal compositions.
‘Cosmic Dance’, ‘Cosmic Mother’ and ‘Musicians’ are his three salient pieces in metal - all three salient pieces in metal - all three being based on persistent folk notions of Shiva and Durga. But there they have been brought up to date… abstracts seen through the lens of a sensibility come to maturity in an ethos of machines and mathematical formulae.
There is a distant association of his work to men in armor; the joints like the joints of skeletons; or they are like clusters of shells clung together. In these and some of the other wood sculptures the emotion induced is one of awe; the deity is fearsome, the force of a nature still untamed, and not the image of any idealized human nature. Fear, then, is one of the ingredients that goes to make up the artist’s creative will.
Generally, in his wood sculptures he shows a greater variety, though so within the basic norm. By a process of jugglery, square or round objects are piled a-top one another, mostly vertically. These are like totems, and at times they remind one of Mexican architectural piles, else Easter Island sculptures. With the use of copper, some of them get a fine burnished feel. Among the most appealing of these is ‘Monarch’ rather like a Babylonian head, decorative and elaborate. And yet there is little wildness in Bhagat’s work despite its primitivism. In general it is neat genre, fastidious and considered. Is this at the cost of spontaneity of affect?
At any rate his are esoteric archeological pleasures, sphinx-like riddles, or diminutive architectural forms of yore; secret writings on seals; little windows opening up from a solid mass of diverse ramifications; the message in the main being opaque, the work as a whole uncanny.
Drawing power? Much as a magnet has, much as the Magic or magical cults entail; yes, Bhagat’s is an excursion into ancient mysteries, in the message if not in the means; the esoterism induces the feel of historical times. Thus, and whether or not the artist partakes of the standard concept of beauty, a number of his works are intriguingly expressive and the smaller the better. Only in his metals is there some slight parallel with the work of Janakiram.
Dhanraj Bhagat remains one of the most important of Delhi artists; thanks to his former students, his personality is very much present in the later sculpture on the scene. A contemporary of Prodosh Das Gupta, Sankho Chaudhuri and others, Bhagat represents the trend of ‘restrained expression’, whether in his clay, wood or metals.
He combines a striving for monumentality, shaped in his contacts with architects (or, rather, the architecture of a post-independent building India) and revealed in his monumental and seemingly inscrutable forms, all done with great beauty and great sensitivity to the beauty of sculptured surfaces. This shows clearly in his work ever since the forties.
Bhagat is a ‘Constructor’ not merely because of his being a teacher of art, but because of his specific temperament. In an abstract sense, he constructed the visual arts as a teacher and active organizer if artistic life in post-partition Delhi.
Then, as a sculptor what he constructed are in the literal sense in that he wrought forms imposing their own order or searching for it in the face of reality; what he presented was not disintegration but intrinsic structure and consistency. One of his students wrote that the limitation Bhagat imposed upon creative liberty stemmed from his protest against purposelessness, disintegration and continuous demolition of a world at war. At least this may have a psychic truth, whether or not Bhagat formulated it into a credo.
After coming to Delhi from Lahore, and while teaching at the polytechnic, Bhagat soon became a vital part of the Capital’s art world. His works were realistic, as was typical of most of Indian sculpture of the time or a little earlier. However, in his ‘Spirit of Work’ or ‘Standing figures’ the outlines were blurred, the rounded elements emphasized and the transition between surfaces smooth.
A repetition of the cylindrical forms was now his manner. And this cement and plaster. All through the fifties, this is the way it was. Thus, his ‘Tree of Life’ (1954) and ‘Siva Dance’ (1956) are eloquent examples of the tendency. These works have a smooth, flowing line and are enviable.
But still other works, such as the dramatically hollow ‘Flute Player’ do not depart, generally speaking, from the vertical or from the cylindrical remaining compact or static, and even the jerkiness of the piece does not cause it to lose its stability.
Like all good artists Bhagat too would seem to deny everything, to discard all his spells considering his changes in style. This is the way to emancipation from achieved success! Bhagat broke with explicitness, which he found a burden and made his sculptures equivocal opening them in the literal sense of the terms and increasing their surfaces. Yet, he has never departed from his essential quest. In his work of the sixties, he experimented with textures in an attempt to leave the material trace of artistic creation. This process of shaping, a joy of delimiting surfaces through touch, is evident particularly in small-scale works such as in the embossed copper sheet ‘Death and Birth’ though of a later period 1972. His sculptural sketches are little known but very characteristic of his sensitivity. They originated in the fifties or even earlier and were formed with subtlety and evinced a great feeling for the material. In several of his peasant female figures, the final shape emerges gradually from the original clod of clay. In their sketches Bhagat shows himself not so much as an artist imposing his form but rather one searching for it in the material. Was it a problem of unity? Of maturity? Or breaking away from the existing patterns? Undoubtedly his most popular sculpture, viz, ‘Man Crucified’ (as those achieved through modular build ups out of cubicle-like panels in wood, with darkened inner spaces, with bits of metal, and as if reincarnating the unknown earth gods and goddesses) are superbly constructed from nature and in accordance with the spiritual tradition. In view of the heavy architecture of the body and of the manifestation of its essential construction, the peasant women works are reminiscent of a neo-Maillol. It may be, the younger Bhagat was fascinated by it more than thelatterartist.For, at the same time these sculptures of his square up with much of the work in the West and with forms those others had given the world. Bhagat made his forms dynamic, even dramatic.
His most successful works like ‘Siva Dance’ drew upon classical sculpture in which the wet cloth technique gave the surface a rhythmical texture. Yes, it is also a transposition of a studio-made sculpture, protected from drying and hence also a kind of embalmment which in this subject, acquired the rank of a great universal metaphor, rich in meanings. Apart from the most straightforward message, conveyed by the cosmic time reference in the title, it touches upon other matters, deep and very relevant to us, namely, the protection of human intimacy and looking into oneself for purport and meaning. Such a transposition and such synthesis of tradition and modernity can be achieved only by the sort of talent with which Bhagat is endowed.
Bhagat’s semi-portrait sculptures are another matter. The artist’s personality, his sensitivity, and insight, enabled him to lean and to yield to, the personality of his models, and to give expression to their faithful though imaginatively sensitive images. Along the unlisted works of this type there are many, which need to be better known.
However, we can arrive at a complete image of the artist only if, apart from his virtue as a sculptor, we consider those of his intellect and character; if we think of him as a conscious and knowing artist; if we remember his artistic decalogue and his loyalty, his sensitivity and his kindness. Then we shall have a full-size picture of him, and there may be lesson for us in the art world. His work could be a starting point for still younger sculptors to take off into unexplored regions, a process of cultural self-discovery.
Bhagat never seems to have rested on his laurels. Also he does not seem to have set out to be ‘modern’ at any cost. The truly created work is sufficiently ‘modern’ but so without foregoing its content, the residue of relationship to the surroundings. It, after all, builds up resonances as much by deft execution and rhythmic shapes as by being inclusive of symbolic reference, as for instance his ‘Birth and Death’ (in metal repousse). Thus, at its best, gives both qualities to the works, the abstract and the emotive. However, the full meaning of the sculpture like Bhagat’s cannot be got at except in the total human context, which is to say, the civic niche. This condition, since it is completely lacking on the Indian scene, reduces the potential power of sculpture, and which then can be experienced fleetingly, in bits and parts, in the gallery or the drawing room. In this way it loses its hypothetical luminous power.
All this is general, in the meanwhile Bhagat’s life work brings home one object lesson: that good artists are content to plough their lonely furrow without complaints. Bhagat has sold little of his work, a work very moderately priced. This speaks for the capital of India. But more worrying is the thought, that, in the market mentality that has become the Delhi outlook (if not of all India), the lesson in the catholic artistic spirit that Bhagat’s life work embodies, will not be remembered, that, his natural moral courage to remain far from the footlights. Bhagat’s has been a goodness of artistic faith, which has eschewed self-importance. At least for him, art comes first, and the social personality is firmly curbed.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, Volume 35, September 1987, pp. 9-11