I had the good fortune of knowing Dhanraj Bhagat (1917-88) as a respected artist, friend and colleague for over 40 years. I remember my first meeting with him at the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore in the summer of 1946. He was visiting from Delhi, where he had taken up a teaching assignment at the Art Department of the erstwhile Delhi polytechnic (now College of Art).
I still remember the then principal of the Mayo School of Arts, Mian Mohammad Hussain, chiding him with apparent innocence and no malice: “I wouldn’t now take it, even if you made me on in gold.” He was referring to a stone carving of ‘Sleeping Dog’ which he was keen to possess, but which Bhagatji had sold at an exhibition in Delhi. He wanted that one, and no other. Since then, ‘Bhagatji’, as he was known to many of his admirers and friends, has been associated in my mind with many cherished memories and important events linked with the development of contemporary art, particularly sculpture, during this long and significant, post-independence period in our country’s history.
Born on 20th December, 1917, in Lahore, he lived a life of admirable creative fulfilment. He retired as Professor of Sculpture from the College of Art, New Delhi, in 1977 and was honoured with the Padma Shri the same year. He was elected a fellow of the Lalit Kala Academy in 1978. His works were extensively exhibited and represented in all important national as well as private collections.
Bhagatji had a respect for craftsmanship, a habit for hard work and devotion to his teacher or in fact from anyone from whom he’d learnt something. He had no formal academic background to start with. He was encouraged by B. C. Sanyal, who was his teacher at the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, to cultivate an inclination to read. He followed the advice not only in completing his matriculation while as a student in the Mayo School of Arts but also developed a keenness to read in the course of time.
From the early forties to the fifties, Bhagatji was equally interested in painting. He used to contribute landscapes in the exhibitions of the Delhi Silpi Chakra, of which he was one of the five founding members along with B. C. Sanyal, K. S. Kulkarni, Kanwal Krishna and myself.
An unassuming personality that Bhagatji was, he possessed a great fund of sensitivity. To him, his work was a process of ‘discovery’ as he always put it. He spent nearly four decades engaged in adventurous experiments in the search for, and exploration of the essence behind the apparent, trying to discover his various stylised forms.
He provided many favourable shocks to all who saw his work. The natural forms of plants, trees and flowers achieved a unique transformation through his inner vision. The result was an amazing variety, a new world of forms - the sturdy animals forms, the lyrical women and torsos, the fluid forms of flute and sitar players, the dynamic dancing Shivas and later, the highly stylized symbolic reliefs based on Hindu concepts, all of them growing out of him like branches of one tree. Bhagatji’s work was prolific and ushered in a new development in the field of sculpture in India.
Among the contemporary sculptors of India, Bhagatji was one of the very few who used all kinds of materials and craft techniques to facilitate his creative genius. In India, he was perhaps the pioneer in using different craft media and techniques such as papier-mache, cement casting, metal casting, welded metals, wood construction and carving, stone-carving ceramics, enamelling on metal, chased, hammered, and repoused textures on metal and painted surfaces.
Amongst India’s outstanding sculptors, he provided a breakthrough from the use of clay and plaster of paris and initiated a western style of realism in vogue since the early part of the century. The art of sculpture in India, half a century ago, was either repetitive or traditional in character (in the hands of master-craftsmen) or in the European academic style (in the hands of individuals trained at the few schools of art set up by the British). Bhagatji’s contribution, in providing a tremendous stimulus to the field of sculpture through his personal as well as head of the Sculpture Department at the College of Art where many young sculptors of eminence in our country have been trained, has been immensely valuable.
It is interesting to observe how Bhagatji, who of course, like any other artist in India, started to work in naturalistic form, slowly moved to a simplified or stylized form and then moved with full vigour towards cubist and geometric though eventually to return again to a stylized representational mode in his last drawings. But his aim was not imitation of nature but conceptual and themes were those with which he, perhaps, lived all the time in his heart and spirit. They were traditional, conceptual and symbolic.
Bhagatji, during his travels to European countries and the USA in 1951, was much impressed by the work of Archipenko, a Russian-American abstract sculptor and Chadwick, a British abstract sculptor. From Arhcipenko, he seems to have received inspiration for developing his cubist/geometric approach, and from Chadwick, a generation of interest in using a variety of media, for Chadwick worked in welded iron, copper, bronze, metal compositions, plaster and glass.
Bhagatji (not to overlook S. L. Prasher and other sculptors like Devi Prasad, Roy Chowdhury, Chintamani Kar or Prodosh Das Gupta or Amarnath Sahgal for their own unique contributions to the development of sculptural form in India) was a pioneer for not only using varied craft media and techniques but also in reinterpreting traditional themes in modern idiom with great imagination.
He abandoned the figurative style of his early period for geometric sculptures, built up in metal or constructed in wood, some of them even carrying the impression of the assemblage, and found a sense of identification with his times. In contemporary art, cubism was the first stage in the evolution of form that became increasingly removed from naturalism and trends like, Italian Futurism, Russian constructivism and Suprematism, Dutch neo-Plasticism, De Stijl and French-Swiss Dada that showed a tendency towards a universal plastic language. This language however, was the outcome of the intellect more than the emotions.
Although Bhagatji’s sculptures are essentially related to cubism, they show a curious mixture of the geometrical construction and sentiment filled with concept and deep feeling as for example, his ‘Third Eye’ or the ‘Musical Construction’. His sympathy with the ordeal of Indian womanhood is seen in some of his early works, such as ‘Rhythm’ and ‘Burden’, where he retained representational elements. His experiments range from geometric stylization and symbolic abstraction. He gradually moved away from figurative representation, stripping the human form down to its essentials using rhythmically either the elegant curves ofhis plaster, or cement-concrete surface with a play on the convex surfaces and the concave spaces, as in his ‘Flute player’ or the rhythmic linear forms infused with tremendous grace and movement as in his ‘Veena Player’ or ‘Praying Figure’.
His geometry is inspired by the natural forms of plants, trees and flowers that achieve a transformation through his inner vision in an amazing variety of forms such as is seen in his masterly works - ‘Shiva Dance,’ ‘Standing Figure’ or ‘Flute Player’. And then he relates the natural form reduced to its basic geometric designations like the square, triangle, circle or the spiral and assemble them in compositions of rare creativity in his constructions such as ‘Monarch,’ ‘Queen’ and ‘Man Crucified’ or in his polished, beaten out reliefs, in copper and brass sheets, such as ‘Image Triangles’ or ‘Death and Birth’ or ‘Image Shell,’ or carved in wood such as his ‘Evolution’ or ‘Image Square,’ ‘Image -III,’ etc.
Although some of his earlier female figures are inspired by an imaginative lyricism, the sculptures from the 1960s onward show a complete indifference to representations of living forms and his art characterized by its architectural nature and by the use which is made of box-like geometric forms as, for instance, in his ‘Man -I’ and ‘Man -II’. His interest in the characteristics of surface textures and colour of each media is amply expressed all through his work. But his conscious concern for texture is seen in one of his early works in wood entitled ‘Mother Earth’.
The late S. A. Krishnan, editor of Lalit Kala Contemporary, once wrote, “I have always though that Bhagat is the epitome of the course of modern Indian sculpture, which is very substantial, would in itself be therefore a study of the vicissitudes, the experimentation in thought and material, the impact and assimilation of ideas from distant shores, and of the inevitable and more consequential struggle and search within. This man, one of the most widely travelled at home, went about quietly, looked around him with wide and wondering eyes, discovering undreamt of possibilities.”
Bhagatji, unfortunately, had been very ill for many years before his demise in February 1988, and completely bed-ridden for over three years. His prolonged suffering had completely deprived him of the power to sculpt, but he always sketched when he was physically up to it. During these long years of illness, while he felt helpless, he also, perhaps, felt more philosophic, more sentimental and lyrical. This is the feeling one gets from the vast number of small drawing he made during his last seven to eight restless years.
He made hundreds of such drawings on particular episodes from the life of Krishna, the flute player luring his cattle (cowherd) or victoriously poised on the head of Sheshnaga or romancing with Radha and Gopis. And then there episodes depicted from Ramayana such as Ravana kidnapping Sita in a ‘rath’, Garuda attacking Ravana in a bid to rescue Sita, and Ravana mortally hit by the arrow of Rama. These are rendered in innumerable pictorial variety. His drawing of mother-bird feeding her young ones or birds sitting on a tree or perched in a row on a wire and most striking and create a deep psychological impact. The drawings are highly revealing of his inner thoughts and are executed in a naïve figurative style. They are, in their own way, a complete graphic expression and possess a charm of their own.
Bhagatji could not possibly have rendered such fine emotions without returning to at least a kind of representational approach. He was highly prolific, intensely creative and a master of technique in the media of his creative expression for playing a pioneering role in the field of contemporary Indian sculpture. His eminent, vibrant art has since been acknowledged internationally.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1995