Down to Earth

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Sculptors go hyperlocal in their portraits of India

AMONG THE MANY significant works that form part of Breaking Ground, India’s first-ever ceramics triennale, is Benitha Perciyal’s Let Them Own Their Land. As you walk around the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, this sculptural piece makes you halt in your tracks. The vacant stare of the figures, the fragmented bodies, a palpable sense of tension—even anger—emanating from them, makes you feel that the work is alive. Also, the innovative use of frankincense, myrrh, coal, cinnamon and lemongrass with clay adds a layer of intrigue to the piece.

Time, memory and the nature of transformation have always been the cornerstones of Perciyal’s work, and she takes this even further at the JKK. She draws on memories of watching farmers protest at Jantar Mantar during a visit to Delhi for her solo at Nature Morte in 2016. “You see these events on the news every day. But sitting in a town in Tamil Nadu, you tend to feel distant from them. However, when I witnessed the protests and started chatting with the farmers, it changed my way of looking at them. It moved me,” she says.

Perciyal wanted to evoke that fragility and pain in her work. To arrive at a piece that speaks of that brittleness, she didn’t want to use conventional paints, or anything commercial or synthetic, but materials drawn from nature, which would transform over time. “The work needs to make its own pain. I am only a tool. The material decides where it will go,” she says.

Artists such as Pericyal are redefining contemporary sculptural practices in the country. As Peter Nagy of Nature Morte said in an interview recently, “Sculptors, particularly, have moved away from the toxic fiberglass, that was prevalent in Indian art 15-20 years ago, and have moved more towards natural materials.” Blurring the lines between art and craft, they are now working with hyperlocal materials and everyday objects to comment on the issues plaguing our times—censorship, migration, encroachment, ecological disharmony, and more. If these works were to be put together, a portrait of modern India would emerge from within.

Many believe there is no better time than today to be a sculptor, when interdisciplinary collaborations and experiments with processes are becoming the norm. For instance, at Breaking Ground, one could see collaborative projects involving sound and performance, and even objects embedded with QR codes, prompting one to look at the world of ceramics and sculpture differently.

Indigenous materials are being combined with cutting-edge technology, and at the forefront of this is LN Tallur, who presented Man Exhibiting Holes—a terracotta hollow block and cement work—at the triennale, on view till November 18th. Last year, as part of the show Hangar for the Passerby at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, he created Time Travel, inspired by Ramkinkar Baij’s iconic Santhal Family. “It was an attempt to understand a sculpture through another sculpture,” he told me in a previous interview. “Baij worked with cement. So I decided to work with the same medium to understand the kind of experience he went through. It was a non-verbal language.” But to achieve this, he used technology such as photo scanners and 3D tools.

Another example of this confluence is Sharbani Das Gupta’s Xing? Look Both Ways, which looks at the border areas between India and China, Israel and Palestine, and the US and Mexico. It draws from her own experience of existing between two countries, moving between political and environmental tensions, and striving for balance in an uneven world. However, instead of using technology as an enabler in the process of creation, she has used it as a material. So, at the JKK, you get to walk through a maze of brick walls embedded with ‘eyes’, the pupils of which have been made with lenses recovered from obsolete projection televisions that inverted the image. It’s a metaphor for how borders change our perception of cultural identities. “It references to issues of migration and identity in the world. With the image inverting, it raises questions about the way things really are and how we view them,” says Vineet Kacker, a senior ceramicist and a member of the triennale’s curatorial team along with Das Gupta, Anjani Khanna, Madhavi Subrahmanian and others.

“The work needs to make its own pain. I am only a tool. The material decides where it will go” - Benitha Perciyal, sculptor

BESIDES BORDERS, ecology, as a theme, runs like a thread through some of the sculptural practices today, albeit tackled in an unconventional way. Especially interesting in this context are Vipul Kumar’s creations done in robust stoneware sculptures and delicate porcelain work that foreground the threat of global warming. Besides presenting a large five-piece sculpture at the triennale, he has also showcased a series of works as part of a recent solo, Earth Diaries, at Gallery Threshold, Delhi. You can feel the ecological balance crumbling in Global Warming-II, a porcelain work that shows a crusty, discoloured environment balanced precariously on wobbly trunks, the red glaze could be interpreted as wounds inflicted on the planet or lava from a volcano. Then, there is Earth Warriors, featuring an apocalyptic world of sorts, populated by disfigured forms. Some find his forms too rough and outlandish, though Kumar persists because he feels they best represent contemporary reality.

Shunning new-age media such as lenticular prints and virtual reality in sculpture, artists like Kumar, Perciyal, Arunkumar HG and Bhuvanesh Gowda are going back to vernacular wisdom and using only sustainable materials. “Art that speaks comes from a deeper philosophy in life. Kumar’s commitment to ecology is not just restricted to his artwork but spills onto his personal life as well. His brother Kesari, a studio potter, and he work out of a studio in rural Rajasthan, and are conscious not to degrade the environment on a daily basis. They also regularly conduct tree-plantation drives, championing environmental causes,” says Tunty Chauhan, director, Gallery Threshold.

A similar commitment can be seen in Arunkumar HG’s work as well. While growing up in a farmer’s family in Shimoga district, Karnataka, he bore witness to the deterioration of the Western Ghats. After completing his art education at MSU Baroda, he looked for ways to infuse soul into his practice; and that led him to investigate the ecology of the Ghats further. This resulted in interesting shows, such as Feed at Nature Morte in 2006. Arunkumar realised the need to spend more time on the ground, and that led him to the need for setting up the Centre for Knowledge and Environment in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka in 2014, which is still a work in progress. “I became extremely conscious about the material I was using, and started using things that I could repurpose,” says Arunkumar. For instance, for his recent solo, Con-struct at Gallery Espace, Delhi, he put together sculptures made from wood collected from packing cases, construction sites, bins and pavements from industrial scrapyards around Gurgaon.

Then there is Gowda, who had his last solo, Otah Protah, at Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai in 2016, and has chosen to use found wood these days. He feels that this is natural, given his upbringing in a village in southern Karnataka, in close quarters with carpenters and wood carvers. “I like playing with used wooden objects, exploring their original context and changing the meaning, using interlocking techniques. I love to read about philosophy, mysticism and physics, and the role of Vishwakarma, the celestial architect, fascinates me. And, I want to explore the notion of creation in modern times through my wood art,” he says.

One of the books that has had a profound influence on him is The Tao of Physics by Dr Fritjof Capra, in which Capra writes that 99 per cent of the atom is empty and the solid part of our body is the size of a pin’s head; and hence the solidity of the human body is but an illusion. His art mirrors that—which is why his works often present a solid surface, but are hollow inside; or have a sense of being incomplete. Most of his found wood hails from shops on the outskirts of Mumbai and Mangalore, which sell old wood dismantled from traditional homes. The merchants remove the rotten bits and use the good wood for furniture. “I use these discards, which have an organic feel to them, wrought by deterioration. You can see the different colours and forms created by time,” says Gowda.

YOUNG SCULPTORS ARE also drawing on childhood memories of material, of folk tales, street scenes, and their own identity. For The Fires of Faith, which Perciyal created for the second edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, she drew on her identity as a Christian and the stories around its spread in Kerala. She crafted sculptures out of a special incense, which had been concocted using cedar and myrrh, integral materials to Christian rituals.

It is these early experiences that sculptors are using to question present- day realities. Take Ritesh Meshram, for instance. Born and brought up in a steel worker’s family in Bhilai, he grew up around metal. However, he feels the connection is coincidental, as he took to steel much later. “But I don’t deny that everything you are is related to your subconscious mind,” he says, calling his journey from his childhood to art school an interesting one. “Bhilai is a steel city, whereas Khairagarh, Chhattisgarh, where I studied art, was a kingdom and is now a small town. The then-rulers of the princely state donated their ancestral palace to establish a university of music and fine arts. The political setup of both these places was very different, and I learnt a lot in those days, perhaps much more than what I gleaned in my later years,” he says.

“Each window, grill, tile, table and switchboard is modelled by hand. A sense of material and a reflection of reality is very important to my practice” - Sahil Naik, sculptor

This amalgamation of experiences could be seen at his recent exhibition, In the Womb of the Land, at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Art critic Girish Shahane calls Meshram’s sculptures ‘unfound objects’ as they give an impression of familiarity, a few seemingly made of articles one could purchase in a hardware store, others of components recovered from a scrap heap. ‘Yet, the forms sprang entirely from the artist’s mind, and were created by hammering, cutting, casting and soldering metal to his precise specifications. They are carefully designed artefacts that echo or mimic bricolages,’ he writes. One of the highlights from the show is a series of sculptures titled Window to Watch, the idea for which is rooted in the grey heavy window grills, which dominate the suburban architecture in his hometown, and act as a guarded visual gateway to the outside world. “My work takes that thought quite literally,” says Meshram.

Meanwhile, it is the Odia story of Kala Pahahda that is forming the basis of Paribartan Mohanty’s sculptural elements these days. The original story is about a young Brahmin boy who falls in love with a Muslim girl and converts to Islam. Later, he regrets it and heads to the Jagannath Temple in Puri to convert back to Hinduism, but the priests refuse to let him reconvert. Incensed, he starts destroying all the idols. “In Odisha, Kala Pahada is a metaphor for self-destruction, a bit like Icarus for the Greeks. Destruction of statues in public spaces and ‘other-ing’ have become the norm of the times. I rework the story by imagining Kala Pahada as a robot, and a robot-like sect that initiates a virus. One enters a grey zone, not knowing if the virus already existed before Kala Pahada or did he really spread it,” he says. It is this spectacle of destruction, which is dominating the present that is forming a basis for his work. One of his upcoming series is titled Utopia, in which he is looking at maquettes. “I feel utopia lies in that small-scale draft of the sculpture. That’s when it is imbued with possibilities. That concept may fail, once completed,” says Mohanty, who started his practice with fibre glass. However, soon it became a health hazard to work in a small-studio using that. He is now working with terracotta.

NEARLY EVERYTHING IN the work of these young contemporary sculptors is handmade, which is why it takes a lot more time. Sahil Naik, whose sculptures are inspired by the physicality of the neighbourhoods of Khirkee in Delhi and the island of Divar in Goa, likes the challenge of working with actual materials and scaling them down. His work is born out of a constant reference and coming to terms with sites of trauma. For instance, Ground Zero looks at architecture from two positions: as an evidence-bearing witness both as a physical form and as a living thing with embedded histories. In Lazaretto, inspired by informal settlements like Khirkee, he looks at the spectacle of destruction, abandonment and decay. He spends a lot of time going through his own collection of images, texts, clips and reports and then begins to construct the drawings. “Once all the raw material is in, then comes the sculpting bit. I spend a large part of my time carving with a dremel. I prefer carving and modelling to casting,” he says. Since Naik uses actual construction material, it is a challenge to cast, bake and produce in multiples. A chunk of material such as patterned tiles has to be hand sculpted, painted, fired and glazed. Specific materials—resin, balsa wood, fired 5 mm glass—also need to be acquired in a certain size to be carved further. “Each object is drawn and made from scratch. Every tiny brick is cut and assembled into a wall like masonry. Each window, grill, tile, table and switchboard is modelled by hand. A sense of material and a reflection of reality is very important to my practice,” he says. For instance, the studio shown in Ground Zero wis his actual work studio in Vadodara, and was modelled in a true reflection of the site. He is continuing this inquiry with his upcoming project, Monuments, Memorials, Mausoleums, Modernisms , and will research the violence of nation building in the ‘third world’.

Sculptors like Naik are pushing the boundaries of what materials can achieve. They are taking the medium beyond white-cube spaces to enhance its possibilities and reach. By putting the human condition at the heart of their work, these contemporary artists are changing the way we engage with and interpret sculpture.