Sculptural Traditions and Contemporary Art Practices
by Prayag Shukla
Over the centuries various sculptural traditions all over the world have created an oeuvre which is large, and which stands in forms of classical monuments, relief murals, statues, and image-bound deities, even today. And if one was to include in the old and classical traditions various other forms of sculpting in folk and tribal art practices also, we would find that the sheer range and beauty of all these traditions and art practices is not just wondrous but also mesmerising. Thus, in our country alone when we look at Elephanta, Ajanta Ellora, Konark, Khajuraho, Mahablipuram and Sanchi, to name only a few significant art monuments, we are reminded that whatever they offer to us to enjoy and study in terms of volume, line, texture, creative energy and imaginative perceptions, along with the technical excellence, is really endless, and inexhaustive. Then there are Chola bronzes, wood carvings, and many metallic creations spread all over the country. The terracotta temples of Bishnupur, and various clay, and terracotta images from Rajasthan (like Molela) and from Southern states, from central parts of India also keep us enthralled. Tribal technique of creating images in bell metal Dhokra casting, has earned world-wide acclaim. One can go on adding to this list, and the list will not be completed. This offers ample proof in itself that our classical and folk-tribal art practices have given us a treasure, which has to be explored time and again. And to our delight we know that some traditions of sculpting are still active and continuing, parallel to the contemporary art practices, and are exploring newer modes and material to create new images.
Since the second half of the 20th century especially, contemporary/ modern art practices in the genre came alive and started treading a path, which was aligned to or was in tune with the classical mode, yet was independent of it. With Ramkinker Baij working with cement, and with a vision to create something which breathes the sensibilities and concerns of our times, and yet does not negate or overlook the classical traditions, a new era was heralded. Fresh works started coming in from the generations after him, contributing to the modern oeuvre. The works of Sankho Choudhury, Dhanraj Bhagat, Somenath Hore, Meera Mukherjee, Sarbari Roy Chowdhury, Nand Gopal, Nagji Patel, Balbir Singh Katt, Himmat Shah, Latika Katt, Dhruv Mistry, Madan Lal, Ravinder Reddy, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Rajinder Tiku come to our mind instantly. Their dynamic and enchanting creations stir the viewers' minds. The way Meera Mukherjee explored the tribal technique of Dhokra bell metal casting to her own creative urges and uses, is unforgettable. This trend continued from fifties to the end of 20th century, and is still evolving. Yet new trends in art practices in the last two decades have somewhat overshadowed the works which were in tune with classical modes or were influenced by classical art monuments in some form or the other. New trends have also somewhat blurred the dividing line between sculpture and installation. The hype being given to newer trends has also resulted in the use of 'newer' art material, and in this scene, and situation, one finds that from fiberglass, to fibers, wires, bulbs, sands, twigs, leaves, metals of various kinds are being tried and tested in the medium of sculpture, including man-made other objects like utensils, cans, bottles and various mechanical parts of products. Anything under the sun has been explored in the making of sculptures, and water, sand, tree trunks, pebbles etc. are included in the list of the material for sculptures. Undoubtedly this has enhanced the perception of the artist and viewer alike, yet there are questions, and concerns, which also come to mind.
Great heritage of art is 'moving' tourists world over, and number of visitors in Khajuraho or in Angkorwat has increased annually. But the newer generations of artists in our country do not seem to refer to this heritage, the result of which is that in the contemporary art-discourse one seldom finds references to the great and monumental works of art these days. The 'classicity' which is well-defined in these monuments seems to have been forgotten by the artists of younger generations.
During the Bengal School period, artists including Nandalal Bose painted on the themes depicted in these monuments, and, as such, through their works people at large were sensitised towards the great heritage we have, and in the art-discourse, also the classical arts of India were present in some form or the other. Works of artist like Amrita Sher-gil are cases in point, where she herself refers to this heritage of sculptures and paintings, specially Ajanta and miniatures.
But the sudden shift in the field of sculpture and installation has seemingly de-linked the contemporary from the classical arts. Such things happen when a new generation of artists aspire to be in tune with the issues and concerns of its times, and try to innovate. Yet too much emphasis on the current issues only, and the 'negation' of basic questions of life, and aesthetics, results in a situation where the viewer continually feels 'threatened' or. 'demoralised'.
The freedom given by twentieth century art to the artists to use any material they like in painting and sculpture, was a great opportunity, and with this freedom a number of artists explored newer directions in terms of presenting the intent of their works, and with their technical skills and perceptive qualities enhanced the explorative use of concepts, themes and material per se. In the West a clear departure from the 'Rennaissance' occurred, and a new art was born in the works of Braque, Brancussi, and Geocommeti, to name only a few, with the element of classicism in it.
Now we find that most of the times, the material is used to give a jolt, a shock only, and the very intent of an artwork remains 'unspecified' in visual terms as well. Hurriedly and half-heartedly created works present social and political comments, which do not seem to connect the viewer either with the work or with the issue they apparently are trying to highlight. This is not to deride the 'new art' produced by the younger generations, and we know some young artists are seriously involved in their creative pursuits, and are creating works with a new intent, and a fresh aesthetic feel; but the increasing tendency to 'pass' or present anything and everything in the name of 'new' or new artistic khoj, should certainly be the cause of worry.
In sculpture especially, with its three dimensional construct, it is somewhat simpler to locate, the touch of sublimity, 'spirituality' or the absence of it, and we know from our experience, that this touch is most valuable in art. I, for one, would like to believe that without a touch of sublimation, the 'created' work would definitely miss a certain inner core of the human heart. It is in this sense also, that the great heritage of art may remind us of the very essence of creation, and may provide us with the insights to our own times for certain basic issues relating to art and life. It would definitely add much to the artistic pursuits, if we bring once more the classical, as well as other sculptural traditions in our art discourses, afresh.