ON MAY 20TH, 2010, an astonishing photograph of a 13 foot-tall golden head, unscathed in the midst of arson and riots at a Bangkok mall, made the front page of The New York Times. Caught in the altercation between the Thai military and angry anti-government mobs, the Central Plaza burned as a sensual sculpture watched from the foreground, wide-eyed and festooned with flowers, and apparently undaunted in the face of war. When G Ravinder Reddy says he wants his sculptures to survive the test of time, this evocative image of ‘The Head’ in Bangkok springs to mind.
Reddy’s women are inordinately large and vivid, urging upon us the full scale of the human experience. They reference ancient civilisations and Kushana sculpture, but they are modern goddesses tackling the cliché of beauty with their rounded cheeks, brazen sexuality and prominent features. Confident and beautiful on the outside and enigmatic underneath, they wear the blue skin of Vishnu or are gilded in auspicious gold leaf. They are chroniclers of change in modern India, revealing bits of their cultural identity in their braids and ornaments, and in the dash of bright lipstick that is a commentary on Westernisation.
A globally-renowned contemporary artist from India, Reddy, 61, is the quintessential recluse. He quietly works away in a studio in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, and rarely exhibits in India, although he says he chose figurative over abstract art partly because he wanted Indians to react to it. His sculptures have been part of influential exhibitions and galleries in the US, Japan, Europe and the UK, but India has not had much of a chance to view them in more than a decade, aside from a few pieces that made their way into group shows in Delhi and Mumbai. Ironically, south India, where he works and draws inspiration from, is not familiar with his oeuvre excepting a lone piece that was put on display at a mall in Chennai. Now, an important exhibition brings 25 of his works, created over three decades of his career, to Bengaluru. A solo show, Heads and Bodies, Icons and Idols will be on view at The Gallery, a new art space at RMZ Ecoworld, a technology park in Bellandur on the outskirts of the city. One of the works, a monumental head titled Devi, will be a permanent installation.
“It took a lot of convincing to get Ravinder to show,” says Premilla Baid, an art consultant who helped put the show together. “Since this is a non-commercial space, he was able to borrow works from friends and clients.” Besides several of his iconic heads, the compilation includes frontal nudes from the ‘Couples’ series sculpted in the 90s and early explorations in relief. “Like Subodh Gupta’s bartans, Ravinder’s Indian women are a thing of fascination in the West. I expect they will resonate with Indians too because they are beautiful to look at. Indians, including some serious collectors, are fixated on prettiness, and tend to veer away from art that is morose,” says Baid, who owns Gallery Sumukha, an art space in central Bengaluru. “Ravinder has his own language,” she says. “This has vanished from the works of younger Indian artists. Many of them are getting nowhere with referencing the plethora of influences available on the internet.”
I like physicality. In a small figure, you don't see as much detail. As the volume and the form grow, you have to physically get involved, and you get a high from that
Reddy hails from a village in Telangana—a state that has given us champions of figurative art like Laxma Goud and Thota Vaikuntam—and neither markets himself aggressively nor has he lived abroad like some of his contemporaries, including Dhruva Mistry, his classmate from the MS University of Baroda and a resident of the UK for many years. Reddy derives inspiration from Indian history—both ancient history and history-in-the- making. “Once I had learnt the basics of sculpture, I started looking at the art of India, of the Kushanas and of Amaravati, and of other ancient cultures. I also appreciated the strong forms of classical Egyptian, African and Mexican sculpture. I wondered what made them stand out after centuries. At the same time, I did not want to idealise beauty. The answer lay in observing day-to-day life and interpreting how it changes,” he says. “I started sculpting women because of the scope for interpreting form within the form, because of the way they dress and why.” Starting out with 10-to-12-inch figures, Reddy realised he had a restless passion for scale that made him buy larger and larger tables, until he decided to start from the floor up, arms stretched out in anticipation of creating as much volume as he could handle. “Scale attracts everyone. Personally, I like physicality. In a small figure, you don’t see as much detail. As the volume and the form grow, you have to physically get involved, and you get a high from that,” he says.
The triumph of Reddy’s work is that he takes intellectual possession of form, fertilising it with anthropology, culture and myth. “His sculptures are beautiful, but stand in front of them and they disturb you. There is something very subversive, something not quite right,” says artist V Ramesh, who has a studio in Vishakhapatnam. “Ravinder is one of the first Indian sculptors of our generation to have acknowledged Indian art and culture, and not in a regressive way,” Ramesh says.
Moved by narrative impulse, Reddy draws upon social phenomena and pop art, subsuming them with great neatness in his overarching style. “My subjects are not actors from a theatre. They are real people who are undergoing gradual transformations. They are confident and cool and comfortable with their changing identities,” he says. “Imagine a construction worker from a village who drinks a Coke for the first time. In six months’ time, she will be ready to reinvent herself in the city. Migration is important for me to study as an artist.”
Reddy’s studio, with its small army of assistants, has been making increasingly grander and detailed sculptures, the hair more elaborate than ever, the eyes somewhat unnerving, the finish as perfect as can be. “You want the viewer to spend a longer time looking at a piece. To ponder over the work. So you invent things like earrings and other adornments to break the volume and give it texture. They could be inspired by common things like watching a neighbour braiding her hair,” Reddy says. He dreams of a future where art is an important aspect of public spaces in India. “We had tribal and folk art which percolated down to each home and foyer and field and we lost that. We cannot go back to those systems. In metros, we have to build spaces where people can come and relax on a Sunday evening in the company of a work of art.” The sculpture that is to be a permanent installation in Bengaluru is already drawing attention. Curious techies have been taking selfies with the golden woman and searching the artist online. “Indians no longer have access to the best Indian art. It is whisked away to galleries abroad,” says Ramesh. “This show is something to look forward to.”
(Heads and Bodies, Icons and Idols will be on view from July 8th to September 9th at The Gallery, RMZ Ecoworld, Bengaluru)