From Madhya Pradesh’s Khajuraho temples to Tamil Nadu’s Pancha Rathas monument complex, India has always had a glorious tradition of sculpture art. Over the years, though, other forms of art pushed sculptures into the shadows. But now, some contemporary artists in the country are attempting to bring the art form back into the limelight, adding their own unique signature and style
Walk into any Indian art collector’s home and chances are you will see more paintings hanging from the walls than sculptures adorning shelves or corners. And this despite the fact that India has always had a glorious tradition of sculpture art. From the Khajuraho group of temples in Madhya Pradesh to the Pancha Rathas monument complex in Tamil Nadu’s Mahabalipuram, India has been world-renowned for this art form.
Over the years, though, other forms of art, such as paintings, pushed sculpture art and its practitioners into the shadows. With the rise of consumerism in India, art started being delineated on the grounds of accessibility. Any form of artwork that was more readily available to the consumer gained prominence. It’s no wonder then that acclaimed painters such as Vincent van Gogh and Henri Rousseau find greater recall among Indians today than stalwart sculpture artists such as Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti.
As a result of this, while paintings, prints, drawings, photography, etc, occupy pride of place in India’s art scene, sculptures are left to the mercy of biennales, exhibitions and auction houses. “Indians are more fond of wall artworks… Paintings, canvases… That’s how art in India has been conventionally defined. Also, the works of famous painters are celebrated because their names have been passed down generations as a form of legacy. With sculpture art, it’s not the same,” says Kishore Singh, director, Delhi Art Gallery, and an art critic.
However, there are some contemporary sculpture artists in the country, such as Bharti Kher, Arunkumar HG, GR Iranna, Jagannath Panda, Karl Antao, G Ravinder Reddy, among others, who are consistently producing good work and, in the process, not just carving a niche for themselves, but also helping bring the art form back to its old glory. Fuelled by the lack of recognition sculpture art has suffered in India in recent years, these artists from across the country are adding novel styles and contexts to the sculpture art scenario.
Like any form of art, sculpture art, too, has undergone evolution in India. From terracotta animal sculptures dating back to the Indus Valley Civilisation to more contemporary ones made with concrete and gravel, sculpture art in India has, over the years, developed its own unique style. It was, in fact, under the patronage of Ram Kinker Baij (an Indian sculpture artist considered the pioneer of contextual modernism in India), among others, that modern sculpture art developed a unique indigenous language in the 20th century.
As per New Delhi-based Iranna, the change in the use of material, medium and technique over the years has added different layers to the art form. “Earlier, you would see sculptures made out of terracotta, ceramic and bronze. But now, the medium has changed. New unconventional mediums such as clay, plastic and wood are being used more often,” says the 47-year-old artist.
The rapid influx of technology, coupled with the proliferation of the Internet, has also exposed artists to a plethora of inspirations, opportunities and choices. “An artist can’t not be inspired by what’s happening around him/her—discrimination in terms of class, gender, colour, the politics of violence, etc. All this is reflected in the way these artists are working and the art being made in these times,” says Delhi Art Gallery’s Singh. A good example of this is Bharti Kher’s 2017 work titled Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholy, Sanguine, which showcases the different emotions—from rage to serenity—that a woman experiences.
The availability of technology has also blurred the lines between the various forms of art. A painter, for instance, is no longer just a painter. He can be a sculptor, a graphic designer and so on. For Goa-based Antao, the art world is no longer restricted to any one medium or form of expression because of the extensive collaborations that are taking place between the different mediums. “We have technology that’s very advanced and facilitates collaborations. The manner in which the resources can be used has taken art to a new dimension. The user-friendly nature of technology has increased the accessibility,” Antao tells Financial Express.
The one thing that remains unchanged, however, is the need for a strong philosophy or idea behind a sculpture. The art form may have developed new layers with time, but the idea still forms the nucleus of any artwork. Odisha-based artist Jagannath Panda agrees: “For any artist, especially one making sculptures, it’s very important to have a solid idea in the mind.
Else, it would just look like a figure/body with no particular relevance or context,” says the 47-year-old. Sphere, one of Panda’s most famous works, is a three-feet-high sculpture, for which the artist took a gas-filled balloon and glued on it thousands of word cuttings from an English dictionary.
Another thing to note is the diversity in the philosophies of Indian sculpture artists. While Antao delves into existentialism (much like author Franz Kafka and philosopher Søren Aabye Kierkegaard) with his works, Iranna examines the frailty of the human mind. Visakhapatnam-based Reddy, on the other hand, blends the intricacies of various civilisations in his works. Then there is Gurugram-based Arunkumar HG whose works manifest a dystopian set-up—for his 2018 work titled Disorder, the artist used colourful plastic toys and other utensils made for satisfying human need and greed to represent a situation where things are going out of control.
Mumbai-based Jitish Kallat, too, focuses on the rapid pace of life in metro cities (his work Annexation, a giant kerosene stove inlaid with carved figures of animals, birds and plants crawling over each other, shows living beings struggling and fighting to live another day), while Arunkumar HG is driven by environmental degradation. His work stresses on the need to maintain a balance between ecology and humans—his collection of small sculptures of animals, made of wood pulp, cement, aluminium, wood glue and paint, exhibits the long-lost yet intrinsic elements of nature, wildlife and the human race. “As I have lived in a small village, as well as a metro, there’s a comparison in my mind. If you see my works, I think about ecology and nature all the time… How humans can co-exist with nature,” says the 50-year-old.
For Iranna, having the right material at hand is as important as the idea, as the latter can be better depicted through the use of appropriate material. His last work, Garbh, which was exhibited at the 2017 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, was made of ash to symbolise the cycle of life. The work consisted of a giant egg-like sculpture, symbolising the beginning of life, and the ash implying its end. “The philosophy was to bring to life the human cycle. Humans come from mud and go back to it, so I used ash as a material,” Iranna tells Financial Express.
Survival of fittest
In 2008, as the world was grappling with the great financial crisis, the Indian art market, too, faced the brunt, with less people purchasing art. A decade later, it has still not recovered fully. As per a recent FICCI-KPMG report, the Indian art market size was estimated at `1,460 crore in 2017, a decline of 6% from the previous year. The report also highlights the challenges the sector has faced in recent times. From demonetisation in November 2016 to the Goods and Services Tax that came into effect from July 2017, many issues have adversely impacted the sale of art in India.
Even patronage, a key link between society and art that has since time immemorial helped various forms of art mushroom and survive in the country, is dwindling. “Patronage from various sources, as well as institutions is shrinking. Since most sculptures are big in size, one needs to find a permanent place to store them. But such facilities are few and far between… We need more people to step in,” says Arunkumar HG.
Another issue ailing sculpture art in India is its rampant commercialisation, which restricts creative growth. As per Panda, this has become the easy way out for many fledgling artists in the country today. “The new kids who are coming in or taking up sculpture art tend to give in to the requirements of big auction houses. They don’t work with an open mind and usually try to take the easier way out,” Panda says.
What could maybe help, say artists, is quality education and informed teachers. “There’s an urgent need of good teachers who can articulate it to students what art is all about. It’s not something mechanical… it needs time. One needs to conceptualise what they are working on before beginning their work,” emphasises Iranna.
Delhi Art Gallery’s Singh believes that more than anything, it’s the ability of an artwork to stand the test of time that shapes the credibility and success of an artist. Money is transient, art is permanent, he says. “Eventually, when someone is putting in their money to buy a work of art, that artwork must stand the test of time. The artist needs to represent a mirror of time and a certain quality that will last for an eternity,” Singh says.