Of past continuous

Moulding Reality
Last Updated 16 January 2010, 12:18 IST

“I am not a traditionalist, I use it as a springboard,” says he. Well, that is S Nandagopal for you; someone who is in tune with both the past and the future. And since he happens to be a sculptor, this seemingly incongruent continuity makes its presence felt all the more in his work. Come to think of it, one can’t think of sculpture and keep the mind’s eye opaque to images of the incredible sculptures our forefathers carved out — on both sides of the Vindhyas.

Artistic merits aside, the tangy twist that ensues when traditional motifs speak in a contemporary voice is perhaps the chief appeal of his sculptures. Nandagopal’s forms even morph from one entity to another. His sculptures sport references from many objects of our cultural heritage — from temple flag posts, the crescent moon, the mythic serpent, seashells, wings in flight and even weapons of warfare. There are also other kinds of references — like Kangra miniatures, Tibetan scrolls, Tamil war memorials and Jain inscriptions. But the references end as just that.

Nandagopal’s imagination takes over then — sometimes with awe, sometimes with humour — and the sculptures grow to be something you have seen before. That is a remarkable fact, considering the close connect with heritage that his sculptures come bound with.

“One may be international, but unless you have some link with the past — a lifeline, what are we? What are we without our roots? You can’t shut out 5000 years of heritage,” this sculptor feels. In France, at the turn of the 20th century, artists even went to the extent of ploughing fields to get back ‘the connect’ with their roots, he mentions. This happens to be a serious grouse that Nandagopal harbours, that contemporary art has come to be understood as something that is totally removed from our artistic inheritance.

The other fact that irks him is that art has come to be qualified by money. “Now, the reference tag is always about how much money the artwork fetched; our generation of artists never thought about ‘sales’ prima facie. It was just an added bonus. Our line of vision was elsewhere,” he says.

But then, he can afford to say that; his works are a sellout. He is one of the few Indian sculptors who have seen stupendous commercial success globally, and his works stand at the forefront of contemporary Indian sculpture. In fact, his works get sold off even before they are exhibited, and he never works on commission basis with galleries, preferring to work in series. Nandagopal does retain a sculpture from each series, these forms stand in his studio at the quaint Cholamandal Artists’ Village near Chennai. A gold medalist at the Triennale and twice winner of the national award, now, Nandagopal is about to be the first Indian sculptor to be premiered at Singapore’s National Museum, later this year. He is now working with plated silver, something he started off his career with, incidentally.

While artists and sculptors fashion their art works, art always draws completion in the beholder’s mind. So, you do draw different nuances from his trademark glossy cooper-bronze sculptures. Even when the intent is humour, some do consider it satirical, even blasphemous, as did a distraught lady who took affront to Nandagopal’s rendition of Garuda sans its customary iconography. “I am not an iconographer, and I don’t think I should be one. I just took inspiration from Garuda”, he says.

His sculptures are generally life size, a volume that he is most comfortable with, though of course, some of his outdoor installations are really huge, like the ‘Tree’ at a children’s park in Mumbai, which holds the national record as the largest stainless steel structure. His murals also come large and can be seen across the country — venues like Taj Connemara, Chennai, Sofitel Surya, Delhi, Priyadarshini Park, Mumbai, and TCI, Gurgaon.
In true Indian fashion, frontal display is his prerogative. Some would also describe his works as anecdotal sculpture as these works recall motifs and moments rather than narrations of entire tales. The objects morph into other forms, sometimes totally disjointed in time, form and tradition. That is perhaps how he emphases these sculptures’ contemporary feel. As he puts it, “My ‘Predator’ can be seen as Bakasura and Krishna, but also as the struggle between good and evil. I’m not interested in content, but in the formal elements — verticals and horizontals, curves and coils — in how long can I stretch this before it topples.”

Drawings to sculptures

His sculpture is never accidental. It is orderly, designed and planned. The process begins with the drawings, sometime, Nandagopal blows it up to sense how they would be in different scales. When the sculptures are ready, they are lacquered which gives these sculptures a glossy finish.

This glossy finish brings out the myriad inherent shades of the copper and bronze, leaving out the need for colour, though he once did incorporate colour in his works. Nandagopal names Chennai sculptors V Janakiram and Dhanraj Bhagat as major influences.

A very practical man, as secretary of the Cholamandal Artists’ village, Nandagopal has got Cholamandal to pay for itself. Today this village hosts an exquisitely maintained permanent gallery of artists of the Madras movement with an incredible collection of art works (donated by the artists) that would be the envy of any museum; an art gallery that is rented out to artists for display space; an outdoor sculpture park, and now even an Iranian restaurant. A rooftop space for workshops and meetings is on the anvil.

In the 60s, some critics did dismiss his works as more craft than art, despite Nandagopal winning a National Award at age 23. But nothing could shake this sculptor’s belief in his idioms and metaphors and today here he is — at peace.

When you have managed to carry on the baton that you had lit in your youth — un-snuffled right through and still burning bright in your mind — it does cast a special glow to your being. Maybe that’s what makes this 62-year-old sculptor radiate an inner calm.

(Published 16 January 2010, 12:17 IST)

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