'Public Sculptures are the Public's own Consciousness'
Johny ML in conversation with K.S.Radhakrishnan
Internationally acclaimed Indian sculptor, K.S.Radhakrishnan speaks to JohnyML about his post-Ramp phase works. While speaking about the status of bronze sculptures in India, he comments on the relevance of public sculptures, saying that public sculptures are in a sense the public's own consciousness about art and their times.
JML: Let me call the present creative phase of your life as the 'post-Ramp' phase. The Ramp was an ambitious project. You could exhibit this huge work in four cities including Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Trivandrum. Before we go into the post-Ramp phase, could you please tell us about the 'Ramp Experience', I mean the making of it, transporting it to cities and your decision to rest it finally etc?
KSR: It took two years to make the Ramp (Liminal Figures and Liminal Space) and it was started in 2006 completed in 2008. This was just after my Freehold Series, where the air bound Musuis and Maiyas were placed on the crest of the pillars that were embedded with the miniature human figures (Firefly figures as Shiva Kumar described). Those figures were not depicting a particular movement but they were movements from within evoking an extreme lightness with the very minimum contact to take off from the pillar. Prior to this freehold I had done two sculptures titled The Ramp which had a foot size figures of the Musuis and Maiyas ascending to reach out to the large figure placed on an independent platform on the Ramp. Those two sculptures which had Musui as Ramkrishna and Maiya as Maa Sharadha were conceived to be integrated and exhibited juxtaposing both. The sculpture was initially exhibited in Delhi then traveled to Baroda and Bombay.
The Liminal Figures and Liminal Space is the result of integrating the freehold movements on the ramp depicting the inherent and evolving nature of human forms from the first take off figure to the last landing one. The whole Ramp had to be conceived as a long project with myself involving for two years in the making and also the structure intended to be long enough for a viewer to walk along till the last wall. Here the figures on the Human pillars that starts with a horizontal taking off and cart wheeling to evolve the vertical landing figure. The beginning of the Ramp is seen from the top and you see the figures at the end on an eye level along with symmetrically modeled Maiya and where all the movements within the ensemble meet. The shadowed wall is not depicting the end of the movement and probably it's the beginning of the space beyond.
I could not exhibit the Ramp with Ramkrishna and Maa Sharadha in Kolkata. But I wanted this Ramp (with liminal figures) to open first at Kolkata before traveling to other cities. The Birla Academy sponsored my show in 2008 and last year I exhibited the piece at Lalit Kala Academy in Delhi. It was in April this year the sculpture was shown in Thiruvananthapuram. The Kerala Tourism sponsored the show at Kanakakunnu Palace. It is a tough task for sculptures of this scale to travel from one place to another but I have trained hands to take it around. My Studio Assistants are with me for many years and their support is extremely valuable not only in the making of such projects but also packing and shifting. The sculpture eventually will find a permanent place in a museum in India.
JML: I am very keen to know why a public art project like Ramp finally ended up in a gallery situation. Ramp was a huge hit with the audience. Even the installation artists of our country appreciated the scale and daring of the Ramp. But somehow, I could not find any public or private patron to 'mount' it in a space for a larger audience? Does it show the lack of patronage for large scale bronze sculptures?
KSR: The Liminal Figures and Liminal Space (The Ramp) is conceived from the very beginning in an internal space with artificial light. This is to avoid uncontrolled lights and the noise from the outside world. The Sculpture is best seen and felt in a closed space because of the intensity of the movements of the figures that leads to a meditative space. If it is exhibited in open it will contradict the movements of the surroundings and one won't be able to focus the movements that evoke evolving. I do not see the sculpture in a private collection and I am sure that it will be mounted permanently for a larger audience at some point of time. There are not many private museums in this country and one can only hope this will happen in places like Kolkata or Baroda.
JML: In our contemporary art scene, perhaps you are the only 'sculptor' who sticks to a single medium that is bronze. However, many young artists are not interested to pursue this medium. Is it because the process is tedious, or is it too traditional in nature? Do you think that the aversion for this medium originates from the feeling that it would not find adequate patronage? What exactly is happening in/to the medium of bronze?
KSR: It is true that I have been working on bronze as the final medium for my sculptures from the time I took to sculpting. When one says working on bronze, it is the casting in bronze. I have been using clay as the main medium and the forms were such that it could only possible to cast in bronze. From clay, you have a plaster cast and with the help of molding you make a cast in wax before it goes to the foundry for firing and casting. Sometime I wonder whether I conceive my sculptures knowing the limitless scope of the strong medium even though it is traditional in nature. Many sculptors choose to work on various materials especially modern synthetic mediums thinking that the traditional materials will not give room for their modern expression.
I am afraid whether one can only be modern by working only on modern materials. It depends on the artist's perception how he visualizes the imageries and how he invents his own interpretations and techniques whether it is modern or traditional material. From the ancient time, many Sculptors worked with bronze and all kinds of forms and techniques were explored in the medium and to find a different language with this age old medium isn't an easy task that many people may not pursue to work with it. With the attitude of looking for shortcuts many artists keep away from bronze as a medium as there are many techniques involved in the making of it. But bronze will always play an important role as one of the respected medium in the world of sculptures.
JML: I am always surprised at your energy in organizing national and international sculpture symposiums. While interacting with many of the sculptors from abroad, I could gather that most of them do not do works in bronze mainly because the production cost is too high. In India, when they are in symposiums they get really excited and do large scale works. This shows that more than the West, India has cheaper production costs. Don't you think that we need to take this as an opportunity to promote bronze sculptures in the international scene?
KSR: I have been coordinating many sculpture workshops where sculptors from various states of our country and sculptors from other countries participate. It is obviously exciting for most of us to do large scale sculptures meant for public spaces. Sculptors working on bronze in India are exposed to the technique of casting and finishing in bronze where sculptors from other countries depend on commercial foundries. We do not have many commercial foundries in India that the sculptors have to do everything by themselves. It is because of the lack of demand for creative sculptors/sculptures and the sculptors worked on statues made their own arrangements of casting. I remember working in Paris in the early nineties and the cost of casting in foundries there is six times more than casting in India.
We still follow indigenous techniques and materials for casting in bronze and the sculptors from other countries find it extremely interesting as they can participate in the foundry activities. It is true that the production cost is much less in comparison to the west that we should explore and promote bronze sculptures in international scene.
JML: Let's come to the Post-Ramp phase. After Ramp, I believe you have grown many years lighter. A kind of playfulness has come to your work since then. Of course, the playfulness of characters was a hallmark of your works all the times. However, the recent works have a sort of simplicity, which like playing with simple images. For example, I have noticed the way you create twigs, shrubs, foliages, group figures, boats, lamps and so on. Please tell us about this play with simple forms.
KSR: After the Ramp I started working on sculptures of intimate scale where objects/forms like boat, lamp etc. are inserted inside the firefly figures. And these figures together create shapes of human web ascending and descending, flying and falling, and also creates a kind of special 'cocoon or womb' protecting certain forms from memory. Sometimes these tiny figures descending from an infinite space to the ground reverse their movement and are seen going up in the air. I cast hundreds of these tiny figures and sit with my welder to join them like a script written at the site.
The emotional orientation almost like mindless exercise yet opens or creates a new space. When I make a life-sized Musui or Maiya walking with certain objects, their association with it is focused like Maiya with a Home or Musui with a Palm Leaf. The human squares with ascending and merging figures or with a portal in the center were also an attempt of this continuous flow of the collective with the individual movements of the figures on the table. The twigs and the foliage with figures are again to experience the impishness from within and the lightness it evokes. Musui or Maiya are characters that they have always been playful and harmless with their mischievous movements. The works I have been involved after the Ramp became simple in terms of concept and execution because of the complexities of the large Ramp.
JML: An artist's maturity is often measured with his/her ability to move between the past and future through the mediation of the present. Handling the past knowledge and images systems with a certain kind of contemporary efficiency is always looked up to as clear mark of maturity. Your works and your personality show this maturity as you and your works move between the image repertoire of the past and that of the present. In the post-Ramp phase, I believe, the image repertoire from your nostalgic past started negotiating with the present in an apparent fashion. How do you look at this negotiating the images from the past, I mean, the images like a boat, a threshold, a lamp, Musui walking with palm leaf and so on.
KSR: Yes, that's what exactly happens in my post-Ramp works. Every time, I start my work on clay, there is a pre-meditation about the theme and form. But at certain level, as the modeling progresses, certain elements come in from the nostalgic memories. There is a greater need to protect the organic cohesiveness of the primary image, which is in clay and you feel the urgency to incorporate the new images; I think it is an interesting challenge that as a sculptor I always enjoy to face. With all modesty what I could say is that each work is a benchmark for a newly found maturity till an artist moves towards another work.
JML: Musui and Maiya, the famous protagonists of your works have hosted several historical and mythical characters in/through them. Their transformations are without any crisis. This time you have created the image of Gandhiji picking up salt from the Dandi sea shore for the show that I have co-curated with Anubhav Nath. The interesting thing that I noticed is that you have introduced a split base for the Gandhi-Musui image that at once gives different dimensions to the image in question. Mythical, historical, folklore, political, social and aesthetical aspects are brought into this split base with different levels in one go. Also you have used salt-like objects in this work. I find it is a new twist in your work. Could you please explain?
KSR: I have always been expressing the ideas through Musui and Maiya, the two characters imagined and I didn't feel the necessity of bringing in any other character as they stand for the male and female protagonists. Musui was modeled after a Santhal boy when I was a student in Santiniketan and in the process of connecting with him after many years of my stay in Delhi; Musui is transformed and evolved to become one with the self. Maiya's presence had to be important in terms of interpreting the stories of their hosting various icons. I did a series of sculptures where they are inseparable yet hosting individual actions. She is sometime a writer or an angel or a Mona Lisa and Musui is Jesus, Brahmin or a rat catcher. They hold each others' heads as they are conceived to be two halves.
And the work that I am involved at present is where Musui is an action collecting salt like Gandhiji did at Dandi. He is placed on a platform created on the center of a slanting structure. He bends like Gandhiji and picks up salt and there are other salt beds formally created around. The very act of bending and picking up the salt is shown as a monumental act that made such a strong influence in the mind of the people. Different levels are created on this base. There was no alternative to the crystal like object which I used on the salt beds and probably this would open a new way of juxtaposing different materials with bronze.
JML: I am told that you are going to erect a Terra Fly Threshold in front of a forthcoming public museum in Goa. Terra fly and threshold have been your interesting subjects for long time. Could you please explain your affinity for these two images?
KSR: I am happy for having chances to do large sculptures for the public spaces and the one I am working on is to be installed on the river bank of Mandavi in Goa. Musui as Terra Fly was done in Santiniketan in 2006 where he is placed on the top of a column and looking at the activities on the ground. The very word itself defines as terra-the earth and the fly is connected to the air bound. So the figure is air bound with the legs thrown up in space and holding on to the top base and taking an aerial view. You may not look at it but you are looked at and you cannot escape from it. It is positioned to be much above all of us. So this Terra Fly will be placed on a specially created base on the roof top of the portal where people pass through. From the distance it will be like a gate that brings you close to the piece and you are monitored by the Terra Fly on the roof top. You may make an effort to escape from many things but you cannot escape from yourself, the sculpture would remind you! I conceive Terra Fly as one's own consciousness, which is alert and dynamic. A good public sculpture represents the consciousness of the public as it represents the aesthetic preferences of a time and authority that constitute this 'public'.
JML: You are going to curate a retrospective and tribute show of Ramkinkar Baij in the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi in 2011. You have been working on this project for almost three years. Could you please tell me about it? As a student of Ramkinkar Baij you relentlessly worked towards the fulfillment of this project. What is the status now?
KSR: It was a pleasant surprise that I was chosen by one of the advisory committee of the NGMA to curate an exhibition of my teacher Ramkinkar Baij. And I took it as a chance to pay tribute to the great sculptor who is considered to be the father of Modern Indian Sculpture. I was chosen probably because of my close association with Kinkar Da when I was a student in Santiniketan and I was also the last student of Kinkar Da. There has not been a proper documentation done of his work and it has been challenging since his works are spread all over. Fortunately the NGMA has a good collection and with the involvement of other senior artists we would be able to mount the Retrospective exhibition of Ramkinkar in the near future.