Cast in a different stone

Sculpture

 
spiritual quest Vijayvelu with one of his sculptures.The tiny piece stands on the windowsill of his cabin at the sculpture workshop at Lalit Kala Academy, Chennai, which he now heads. “Looking back, it does seem dangerous and I realise that I was lucky that my crude efforts did not maim me,” he concedes. But such was his inborn passion for sculpture, and amazingly, the passion is still alive, 35 years down the line.

Indian art
As a boy, his life revolved around making idols. “Well, actually, Indian art, Indian sculpture in particular flourished on temple architecture. Speaking of Indian art, sculptures have been integrated with our rituals and practices; for instance, take the Tamilian golu or the Kannadiga habba, or our temple trees where we hang trinkets and other things. What are they but the forerunners of installation art, which the West imagines that they discovered as late as the 20th century,” he comments. Not keen on studies, young Vijayvelu failed his tenth exams, but still managed to get admission into the Bachelor of Arts course at the Madras School of Arts and Crafts, and that too, directly into the second year of the course. Luckily, the idols that Vijayvelu kept stacking around the house caught the attention of Alfonso Das, who as an art teacher at the Madras School of Arts and Crafts helped him get admitted to the college.
“Alfonso Das was a big inspiration, he used to talk for hours with me, even though I was a mere boy then,” Vijayvelu says with glee. Perhaps, Alfonso recognised in the young boy somebody who would go on to participate in international festivals, a sculptor whose works find place in many galleries of contemporary art around the world.

At college, Vijayvelu opted for sculpture, of course. He started doing moulds for the metal casts of his principal, the late Dhanapal, and got a wonderful opportunity to learn the nuances of metal casting, which then was not part of the curriculum.

In fact, back then, there was no facility for metal casting at the college, Dhanapal had been getting it done outside the college. No surprise that when Vijayvelu eventually became faculty of the Chennai Lalit Kala in 1986, one of the first things he did was to start a bronze casting unit there. Alongside, Vijayvelu was also experimenting with terracotta sculpture and made many studies of the huge Iyyanar idols that are placed at village entrances in Tamil Nadu, as guardian deities.

Everyday compositions
In metal casting, Vijayvelu toyed with compositions. He created quite a flutter in art circles when he put on display a series of bronze casts not of idols, but of compositions of people in their everyday activities — these composition casts included for instance, not just the protagonist, but also the chair he was sitting on, the coffee mug on a table beside him, and so on. They were tiny works, but very different from what everybody had seen, and all these works were sold out instantly. Later, he did a series of works based on Tantric symbols, such as lingams, snakes and owls, sometimes mixing stone with bronze. Experiments in fiberglass, wood and other material followed.

A very practical man, Vijayvelu likes to keep his sculptures small, though he occasionally does big sculptures as well. “Unlike paintings which may be hung on the wall, sculptures need space, and space is a luxury that not many of us can afford. I like to create art that people can relate to. And casting in particular requires precise mastery of technique or else the casting process can end up injuring you.”

He describes his work as contemporary, and his latest series of works are of garden sculptures set in stone and held together by metal rods. These foot-tall sculptures of single-shoot plants with buds and flowers are a curiosity, with the gentle form of the sculpture muting the rugged effect that stone sculpture generally has.

He used machine polishing to create a dark look for the shaded regions, leaving the sun-facing regions of the stalk and flowers bare. The copper stalks suggest flexibility, while the stone conveys a sense of stillness and peace. His idea was to simplify form. “We all need to keep moving, or our vision gets cloudy and stagnated,” he says.

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