Artists: Notes on Art Making

Sculpture which was once India’s major art form has not yet come into its own in modern times. Looking at the profound works at Elephanta or Konarak, at Mahabalipuram or Tanjore one wonders how a nation can so forget or neglect its native powers as to produce no work of comparable grandeur. No doubt much has happened since those ancient days when society was homogenous and the artist expressed a common ideal. History itself closed the era of great temples by the advent of Islam and the change to a spacious and clear lined architecture. The Mughals however inspired and encouraged painting and fine crafts. The British period was unfortunate in the decadence of most forms of creative work, indeed it was the widely accepted official view that Indian art did not exist or was simply grotesque. In spite of the founding of art schools no important art movements appeared until the new era of the 20th century. The Bengal School of painting was characteristically eclectic in its sources and romantic in its vision. Its themes and its style did not help to produce any major sculpture or architecture.

Western art or the British version of academism which was introduced in Indian art schools in the mid 19th century tended to confuse the aims of art. The treatment favoured was naturalistic, while the subject matter was heroic or literary. The most well-known artist of this genre is Ravi Varma. The Victorian preoccupation with realism and morality, with illustration and meaning took away an awareness of real art values leaving imitation as a residue, a preoccupation with which still obstructs the middleclass mind. Indian feeling was somehow not expressed in these alien terms. Any new art that was not merely borrowing had to begin afresh, but from where and to communicate what? Art was now once and for all divorced from religious thought which had been its mainspring for many centuries. A modern individualistic secular art was in the making, it had not yet many themes or style that were indigenous and powerful. Naturally there was little encouragement for sculpture of this nature. The sculptors of this colonial period had special problems to face different from those of painters and perhaps the obstacles to free expression were greater. There was very little work done that was original, independent and uncommissioned for almost forty years; the sculptor in the main being the superior craftsmen. Even at a later period, that is in the years around Independence, sculptors were few and far between. Thus the situation of the sculptor was different from that of painting, while contemporary painters appear to belong to a moving current or a burgeoning tree the sculptors of the first half of the century were few, more difficult, more careful in their new works which progressed slowly. There was no sense of independence or extravagance in their work, though Ramkinker is an exception, for the social environment and complexities of production as well as the cost acted as limitations.

Sculpture in the years between 1910 and 1935 were mainly official, monumental, and academic. Besides there were original compositions which were academic in treatment and romantic in theme. To the first category belonged the marble or bronze official portraits and equestrian statues that adorn public spaces. This official sculpture was painstaking, descriptive and dull, requiring more technical competence than imagination. The same artists did original compositions (not commissioned) occasionally; that is, a sculptor worked mostly according to the demands of a commercial requirement. This limitation by itself was not responsible for the production of mediocre works of art. Compare for instance the commissioned work art of the Netherlands in the 17th century which though very bourgeois reached great heights in the hands of Franz Hals or Rembrandt. However the monumental portrait sculpture of India in the 20th century did not succeed in being great art.

The original works by these academically trained sculptors was also very mediocre. They belonged to an age when sentimental subject matter was in vogue. Better examples of such work would include Mhatre’s ‘To the Temple’, a standing statue of a young Maharashtrian woman with offerings. Talim’s ‘In Tune with the Almighty’, a seated figure of an old ascetic playing a stringed instrument or Roy Choudhury’s ‘Triumph of Labour’ a composition of a group of coolies straining to move a boulder, which is later example of the same spirit. Here we see an art which is descended from an academic western art used to depict Indian subject matter in a narrative way. There is a certain preoccupation with ideas, especially the idea of the ‘beautiful’ or ‘moral’.

From about 1935 one begins to discern a new tendency of which a pioneer was Ram Kinker. His work was quite exceptional in its time for firstly it was not made for any demand; it was expressionist in character, full of movement and vitality and frankly experimental. Ram Kinker’s work apart from being important in itself influenced a whole generation of younger sculptors. Working at Santiniketan with rather limited materials, generally cement concrete, Ram Kinker created dynamic figurative open air sculpture, and also abstract compositions based purely on sculptural elements such as mass and space, rhythm and movement, and so on. He demonstrated the sculpture need not resemble reality but had its own life and that in making it the artist was concerned to create a new reality in which his imagination informed his materials. The subject matter as a starting point became quite irrelevant.

Among the sculptors of a younger generation working in the period of transition around Indian Independence were some whose work took new directions. A number of these artists travelled abroad and had seen original works and imbibed new ideas. Their work is of value firstly because they together enlarged the whole range of sculpture, and secondly because many of them were teachers in art institutions and handed down their ideas to their students. Prodosh Das Gupta, Sankho Choudhury, Dhanraj Bhagat, Chintamoni Kar are some examples. They were prepared to rebel against the rather stale academic mannerisms of the past and to invent and discover new aspects of form. In their work one sees a certain emphasis on the nature of the materials used and especially on the use of direct means. Wood, sheet metal, bronze and stone were reintroduced as media, the figurative and stylised compositions grew distorted and were over the years gradually displaced by abstract forms. Texture and colour variation, the use of holes, of tower like compositions, of designs which stress inside and outside, the employment of wires and other surface ornament can be seen in their productions. The present sculptors of our day have therefore started work at a time when the ground has already been prepare, cleared of the debrisofcolonial art and ancient tradition. Secondly their training is much wider in scope and their aims quite different from men working say forty years ago; therefore we would expect more of them. Among young sculptors the range of work both in material and style is quite great. However most of these works are of small dimensions since the artists usually have little opportunity to work on a monumental scale. If one compares their work to the developments in Europe or America they seem to be comparatively conservative. This is not to belittle the technical ability, imagination, or feeling which is obvious in their works even though they are small in size. As a very general statement one may say they are very personal and organic and in this especially different from the very impersonal styles now current abroad. Their creations till bear the impact of the sculptor’s hand, that is, they are handcrafted in contrast to the highly developed technological machine made art in the West. They still stand on pedestals and have not become common objects.

It would be profitable to examine some of the major techniques and kinds of sculpture being practised at present. The traditional materials wood, metal and stone enjoy about equal popularity, though there is considerable variation in the quality of work that is achieved in each.

Metal has become a usual material only over the last decade or two and it is used variously. For example metal foil is welded together to make solid-looking forms, as in the work of Kewal Soni, Sculpture I, exhibited at the National Museum 1969. A. M. Davierwalla has also welded spatially placed forms instanced by She and Three Others, or symbolic compositions embellished with details. An interesting work by M. V. Krishnan titled Growth is in aluminium and shows the organic possibilities of light metal media. Metal sheet cut and folded with sharp edges and perforations has also been used as a medium by Narayan Kulkarni. Rajani Kant Panchal has in recent works put together small flat metal units in constructions. In his earlier work Panchal and others have done very successful compositions with attenuated metals. In Tonga he creates a space enclosing form in which the riders in a tonga are suggested. The young Baroda sculptors are students of Sankho Chaudhuri who has given an impetus to metal sculpture there. In a quite different style is the work of Janakiram, who works with pressed and beaten metal sheets on which wire and other embellishments are laid. This style is iconic with surface texture and is meant to be seen like sacred images from the front. Janakiram has also done something interesting with three dimensional pieces such Owl, exhibited in the First Triennale 1968 and Horse 1966. The owl is covered with scale or featherlike units and the horse put together with small strips of wiry metal. Mira Mukherjee also creates forms reminiscent of the Dokhra folk style in a traditional cire perdue process. In all of the examples cited above the metal is thin and wiry and not solid.

A different use of metal is in the more conventional casting in bronze. This can be subdivided into representational work such as portraits and secondly original compositions. Good portraiture rather expressionist in manner, can be seen in all the major exhibitions. It is rather surprising therefore that commissioned portraiture is generally very mediocre. The sculptors seem to achieve some degree of feeling only when they work in a disinterested way. The whole problem of public monumental sculpture has to be dealt with afresh since it has to reconcile several points of view. Original compositions in bronze are usually limited in size due to the cost and difficulties of casting. The differing individual treatments of the medium can be shown by reference to the work of Girish Bhatt, Narayan Kulkarni and Sarbari Roy Chaudhuri: Girish Bhatt’s Father and Son, 1968, is a stylised simplified form with strength and monumentality. It has a feeling of growth, its smooth planes are reminiscent of the machine. Narayan Kulkarni’s two cats, Playmates are a light baroque exercise drawn straight from life. The group is full of movement and momentary action. Sarbari Roy Chaudhuri’s Reclining Figures, Triennale 1968 have a certain organic quality, the bronze here seems to be a frozen, molten material of which the artist has fashioned some free shapes related to life but separated from it. In all these cases the artist has taken a stand and shows a personal kind of expression and treatment. There are, of course, other sculptors working in these ways. I have cited only certain types as stylistic examples.

Also of metals are sculptural forms made of readymade objects or industrial materials put together to form a new work. Sometimes the artist uses net, wire, bolts or prefabricated sheets to create two or three dimensional works as in the experiments of K. C. Aryan. Or again the parts or units are pieces which have their own shapes, already having been cast for technological use and these are found or selected by the artist and welded together in a three dimensional form as in Mithuna 1969 by Yadagiri Rao. This kind of art has been made with supreme finesse and humour by such a master as Picasso. However a single found object unembellished by any addition and presented as a work of art has not yet been seen in our halls.

Carving in wood has a long tradition in India, wood being material I general architectural and functional use. However in the past the greater portion of such carving has been in relief. Carving in the round for a pedestal is modern. While the early years did not produce any wood sculpture of importance, carving in wood has been quite popular since the late 1940s and ‘50s. The limitations imposed by the medium itself has naturally led to columnar and vertical or reclining figures. There has been an appreciation of the wood grain and the exploitation of its smooth surfaces and flowing contours. The style of Sankho Chaudhuri has been influential, his sophisticated sculpture in wood with a spiral or undulating movement being an inspiration. He was also a pioneer in the use of shaped planks which he assembled to construct three dimensional sculpture as in ‘Bird’ in the collection of Dr. M. N. Srinivas. The early wood sculpture after Independence is generally figurative and naturalistic not realistic. The subject matter as in painting is drawn from everyday life, there is a glorification or idealisation of rural images. For example Fisher Woman by Ishwar Lal Gajjar, 1955, or Water Carrier by Davierwalla 1955. A tendency to curvilinear shapes and forms is a survival of art nouveau and a certain taste for linearity current in the Bengal School. The use of rhythm and line and a return to stylised Indian subject matter is common both to painting and sculpture of this period. Also it may benoticedthat a number of sculptors worked in wood in their early years but later changed to heavier media such as metal or stone. From approximately the beginning of the 1960’s figurative wood sculpture becomes abstract though there continues to be visible a tenuous link with nature. The titles such as ‘Torso’ or ‘Figures’ indicate this connection more than the shapes which exist successfully as abstract forms. Another and interesting kind of wood sculpture is based on a feeling for proliferation and movement. For example Family Plan by J. K. Chillar, 1969 or Fish by Ramesh Pateria. The composition is complex and multiple. Bitter Bell in smoked wood with intriguing interior spaces by Ajit Chakravarty would also be in this category. These sculptures have a rough surface which shows the process of chipping.

Wood sculptures with nails, metal pieces, wooden pegs and other objects beaten into the surface and protruding from it, is also now in vogue. The surface is broken by texture for example Dhanraj Bhagat’s ‘King’ 1968. The general effect in this and in a large part of wood sculpture is a tendency to be decorative. It seems that our artists have not yet explored to any degree the combination of wood with other materials in a real symbiosis. There is definite scope for experiments in this direction. Also few have used light materials such as plastic, foam, rubber or glass. Some kinds of treatment in wood aim at a monumentality generally associated with stone. Large reclining abstract forms are characteristic of this tendency. Another type is made of separate fragments put together. The parts may be partly found and partly created. United Sculpture by Mahendra Pandya is an example as also Davierwalla’s very successful Leda and the Swan, which is made of drift wood.

In the third category can be grouped sculpture in stone, cement, plaster and similar materials. These fall naturally into two groups: those that are modelled, and those that are carved. While India has a long ancient tradition in carving stone, modelling has only been in use for terracottas. Modelling in clay and working in plaster were introduced by the British in the 19th century; as also drawing and working from casts. These processes affected stone carving, because the models especially portraits were first cast in plaster and then the stone (marble or other fine material) was carved by the use of points or measurement ; that is, the original clay model was finally rendered in stone by a somewhat mechanical process. Direct carving of stone for original work was begun fairly late. It was preceded by work based on modelling in heavy materials like cement built around an interior structure as in the work of Ramkinker. Plaster was used and continues to be used mostly in the art schools during the training of sculptors. Its lack of durability makes it unsuitable for permanent monuments. On the other hand it is the main medium for making moulds. Work in stone began to be done by sculptors of the transition.

The younger generation followed using simplified abstract forms. For example Girish G. Bhatt’s Figure 1960 is a monument in striated stone with a lower static half and a rising emergent half. The markings on the stone make a fine subsidiary pattern enhancing its movement. In some the human figure is used clearly as a point of departure. Davierwalla’s The Grinder also of 1960 is an instance, though here the artist is concerned with making three dimensional forms rather than representing his subject matter. M. Dharmani uses cement concrete or stone for making a single as well as groups of stylised figures. The abstract tendency is exploited and continued mainly by the young Baroda sculptors. The two sculptors’ camps organised by the Lalit Kala Academi and held at Makrana in Rajasthan (1963) and Mahabalipuram in Madras (1965) failed to produce any outstanding work. The sculptors it appears did not get beyond the planning or carving of the surfaces of their enormous stone blocks. The igneous rock of the Deccan, in which most of the great sculpture of our country is carved, is of great hardness and offers a real challenge to modern sculptors.

The stone sculptures are principally of two types both very heavy in appearance. In one the treatment and surface are rough and textured and in others a very high polish is obtained especially on curved surfaces. Sometimes as in Family by Rajni Kant Panchal 1966, the material used is a thin bronzed plaster which functions almost like metal. Modern stone works are not very large in size because of the economic difficulties of the artist. In recent work a greater freedom and energy is noticeable for example Balbir Singh Katt’s Integrals of a Torso. Clash 1967, by A. S. Pawar shows the degree of spontaneity possible even in cement. The possibility of mixed media is very limited in use. Plaster and glass has been put together by Kuldip Bhalla in ‘Melody’ 1969. Terrcacotta (fired clay), an ancient process in India has been consistently attempted only by a few. Among the older generation Chintamoni Kar has done a number of works in vitrified stone. A more open style is seen in Biman Das. On the whole the possibilities in terracotta has not yet caught the imagination of our young sculptors. A vast amount of lively folk art in this medium is produced event today which ought to serve as an inspiration.

Sculptors naturally tend to congregate in larger cities where there is more opportunity for sales and commissions. The fact that there exists a demand for portrait commissions in Bombay tends to prevent or dominate original work. Only a few sculptors are doing free lance work there. A. M. Davierwalla and Pilloo Pochkanwalla are the most well-known. The former has worked in wood, lead and steel. His recent compositions are of metal forms put together in stellar congregations, some appear symbolic because of their precise formations. Pochkanwalla also worked in wood and now employs metal. Her works are heavy, there is an interrelationship of spiky forms broken or connected by the space between them. B. Vithal and Raman Patel are other young Bombay sculptors while a few are isolated in other cities.

The Delhi sculptors do not belong to one school or style, since some artists have migrated here and made it their home - for example Dharmani or Narayan Kulkarni. Dharmani’s recent work is mostly in stone, but seems solid and uninspired. Kulkarni is adept at handling metal in several techniques and is promising. However the majority of young sculptors are students of Dhanraj Bhagat who has been teaching a number of years at the Art Department, Delhi Polytechnic, an institution which later became the College of Art. Among the sculptors produced by this institution are Kewal Soni, Balkrishen Guru, Kuldip Bhalla, S. S. Vohra, Inderjeet and others. Most of these young people go through two phases of work,in theirearly years the influence of the school or teacher is dominant and later on an individualistic and more confident phase develops. On the whole the production of this group is somewhat limited and few one man exhibitions devoted exclusively to sculpture are seen. Kewal Soni and Balkrishen Guru who have received Akademi awards are both free lance sculptors working mainly in bronze. The former in a more structural way and the latter in cast pieces which are organic and molten in appearance. In this context it must be pointed out that the National Exhibition of art held annually does play an important role. For it provides a major platform for the distribution of new sculpture.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1969
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