My Journey
Earthy matters - conversation with Nandini Nair
Framing A City - article by Sandhya Bordewekar
Minimalist presentation in stone - article by Uma Nair
Stone man - article by Amulya Mujumdar
Shaping the enshrined objects - conversation with Johny ML
Nagji Patel - text by Nilima Sheikh

Public sculpture - Abacus
Stone, 78.7 x 59 x 19.7 inches, 1999

My Journey

I was born at Juni Jithardi, a small village of Karjan Taluka in Baroda District.

Among childhood memories of sculpture, I remember icons of Mahadev, Baliadev, Hanuman, Verai Mata, etc. in the shrines. Mostly, of stone. At school, we were made to do clay modeling. The teacher asked us to make cubes, spheres and pyramids (strangely reminiscent of what we did in the preparatory course at Fine Arts Collage later). But there was more of play than work during those days. Plenty of fun bringing lumps of clay and making little shapes like chula (fire place), a kothi (granary) etc. Sometimes, mother would tell us to make a bullock, a camel, a horse and at times she too would join in making clay animals. They were left on the roof to dry before we played with them. No colour. We even made a form like a farm in which we put bullocks, then we would pull the toy to take the bullocks to drink water at the tank. At times, we also made shapes of vegetables like parval, karela, etc. or implements of agriculture both in clay or with straw, reed and wooden sticks. Sometimes from stems of Jawar plant we made little carts. I do not know how we learnt to make these but if I remember right, elders of the family often guided us. There were carpenters in the village who made little wooden dolls and brought them for children. Payment was in cash or with grains. I still have some of these dolls. Other forms of wood included agricultural implements, the bullock carts, wooden cots etc. I also remember having seen a little wooden box for keeping paan, tambaku or bidi. There were ironsmiths who made sickles, ploughs, axes, etc. Among the stone masons I remember the artisan who came to repair the wheel of grinding mill. So there wasn't much sculpture but lots of sculptural forms. Mostly of the type we played with. Especially, the animal toys. Occasionally, we would make holes into clay animal, right across its body, and pour water over it after it dried and watch water coming out from the other end and shout, see the camel is peeing!

But more than all these it was just play or games. Carrying food on the way to the farm we would frolic in the tall grass, pick cotton from the pods, climb kothi or samala trees, pick their sour fruits, mix a little gur and eat or swing on the branches of tamarinds or play hide and seek on neems and banyans. In the morning, we children took the cattle out for grazing or for drinking water, kept a watch while they grazed and brought them back in the evening. In the open courtyard and streets where we played someone might spot a dead squirrel or a sparrow and we all would become sad. Then dig a hole in the ground and bury it and shape a little grave on it. Someone might place an agarbatti and another may bring some prasad that we would eat.

Public sculpture
Sandstone, 67 x 13.7 x 11.8 inches, 1993

There were many rituals around shrines of Baliadev, or on festivals of Dussera, Diwali and Moharrum. Yes, our folks participated in Moharrum. An aunt used to join in wailing and beating of the breast during the Tazia procession. Others used to keep vows or offered little cloth horses. A prasad of roti and khir was made at home and distributed. There is a dargah of a Pir near the village where families go with offerings and for lighting agarbattis. During Holi, there was a big fire. On Dussera it would be horse races (we too had a horse at home). Once a year there was a picnic outside the village. All the people and animals had to vacate the village, even food was eaten out there. Everything outside the village. Then ensuring that all living beings were out, some elders would twine a cotton thread and make a trail of milk around the whole village. This was to rid the village of epidemics from inside and outside. There were fewer rituals about farming except on Akhatrij when a babul plant was ceremonially dug out, then kumkum was sprinkled on ploughs and implements. After this would begin filling, sowing, etc.

There was a bhuva (shaman) at the shrine of Bhathuji Maharaj. He used to cure serpent bites. We often ran from the school to watch him perform. He used to shout at the top of his voice when someone was bitten by a snake and then he would bathe and start writhing and eventually suck the poison and spit it out. There was a painted image of a naga outside the Bhathuji shrine but no sculptural icon.

This was till the 5th std. in school. Then I went to a high school at Miyagam-Karjan. Here, painting was taught but no clay modeling. I made copies of Rana Pratap and Nala Damyanti. While I was in std. XI, I came to Baroda to study and joined a drawing class where I met Fine Arts students Nimbalkar, Chainani, and others. There was no hope of joining any other college with my 40% in S.S.C., so I also considered options of the job of a ticket collector in the railways or of a supervisor in a cooperative firm, even that of a wireman, but finally decided to go for admission in Fine Arts. There the old students dissuaded me from joining; telling me it was a very difficult course for the likes of me. So after a stint in a cooperative class in Surat I landed in Bombay to look after a paan-bidi shop my brother had started at Bhandup. During the year I spent there I got terribly bored sitting in one place the whole day and longed to return to Baroda to study fine arts. There I learnt to smoke secretly. During the year I spent there my brother and I visited studios of sculptors Karmarkar, Wagh and Goregaonkar. I even wrote to Kanu Desai for advice about joining fine arts. He answered on a postcard that the study of fine arts required sadhana, hard work and tenacity, but encouraged me to go to Baroda. Finally, I was admitted in the first year painting at Fine Arts college, but found painting very difficult. I thought how you can make things visible which are really not there. It would be easier to do that in clay. So I switched over to sculpture.

Fine Arts College was a new experience and I loved playing with clay. First we made sculptures on subjects like a man with a cart or with a donkey or a dog or other animals. In those days everybody made animals! Animal study was a compulsory subject. We went to Kamati Bagh (zoo) every day. Occasionally, animals were brought to college premises like a buffalo, a goat, even a camel came for us to draw and then we made them in clay. Students from village loved the exercise because they related to forms of animals. Yes, we also did basic forms to learn rhythm, balance and movement. Sculptures were made in vaguely cubistic forms but we hardly knew what cubism was. It was the animal form that we were absorbed by. And animals have never left me. I loved the animalness of the animal, its playfulness, and I enjoyed playing with these forms almost like a child. And I love children as well. I have worked with children in schools for years, and have enjoyed it tremendously. I have learnt a lot from children and made friends with them rather than maintaining a student-teacher relationship with them. I used to encourage them to make up stories and observe them painting, observe them thinking and then I would begin to draw, inspired by what they did.

Before taking up jobs at various schools, I had gone on a tour of stone quarries under a Government of India scholarship and studied a variety of stones; I met, talked and worked with traditional sculptors. First it was Badami in Karnataka where I was moved by the sculptures in the caves; even worked there (in the cave) by bringing stone from the quarry. There I practiced - mainly - in sandstone. Then it was Mahabalipuram and its craft school headed by Sthapati Ganapati who helped me a great deal. I visited granite and sandstone quarries with him and worked in both mediums for a month, acquired chisels for granite and learnt techniques of tempering. There I made two sculptures; one of a bird, another of a monkey. On returning from the south I went to the marble quarries of Makrana in Rajasthan. Here sculptures are made for temple. I spent a month there, learnt techniques of marble carving and tempering tools and made my first sculpture of "Devi" (1964). It was a vertical figure with wings and an eye. Its smooth surface pointed to some mysterious elements. I recalled the icons in the shrines I had seen in my village and found some connection with them. This was however, no image of a goddess but the mysterious feeling made me call it Devi.

Granite, 41 x 25.5 x 15 inches, 2006
Granite, 42.1 x 25.5 x 11.8 inches, 2006

The technique of part-polished, part-rough surface of stone was partially inspired by sculptures I had seen in Badami and Mahabalipuram where projected portions like shoulder, nose, breast, forehead, knee, toe had all become polished and blackened. I felt that an innate sense of touch had made people touch these sculptures for thousands of years, and made them smooth in parts. I thought of bringing this element in my work with a view to arousing a sense of touch so that you discovered the depth and projections. In the sculptures I made during this period, forms of many animals were combined. Even a bird-form got added in, but I kept the forms very simple, with maximum attention paid to the sense of touch. At times this sensuous quality became erotic, which I think is complementary to the playfulness.

I work slowly with a measured movement, often make a series of drawings before starting on stone. When the image begins to emerge with some clarity, I shape it in plasticine and experiment with a variety of forms, keeping the basic shape intact. I begin work on the stone only after realising the three dimensionality of the form.

The process of carving I enjoy most, because it involves me deeply from beginning till end. I also enjoy the experience of physical working, even the sound of chisel and hammer, the emerging texture, all these are part of expression. The emotion with which you work becomes part of expression. I think total, sustained involvement is most important. Gushes of excitement might be attractive at times but stone is a medium that leads to or encourages a meditative mood. I try to retain that feeling in my work. While the forms might change from animal to bird to a seedling, there would be continuity in emotion. I think one needs to ask at what depth you enjoy sculpture. At times sculpture is inspired by superficial thoughts. I am not happy with such sculpture. One asks whether the singer is singing from the nabhi or from the throat. I like spontaneity but if it involves too much excitement it leads to confusion and I don't enjoy it. 'Black Animal' (1974) is a sculpture I enjoyed working on. It was made quite spontaneously. The uncut stone had a white strip in it. When I placed the stone vertically the strip divided the stone in two but when placed horizontally the strip served as the spine of the animal and got integrated with the form. I choose marble mainly for its availability, granite is difficult to bring from far away quarries. The sensuous feeling of marble appeals to me. I know a kind of prettiness can creep in, in the use of marble, and that is a problem but one can overcome if. Compared to marble sandstone has warmth, it absorbs and reflects light better and in a greater quantity. But sandstone cannot be polished, at least not as well as marble.

The technique of rough and polished surfaces might become a formula, so one should be careful. In order to avoid it, I switched over to different types of forms and worked in wood like shisham, seven around 1973-74. Then there was a brief period in which I made forms using old chairs to try out another variety of playfulness. These were constructions, often mobile with a bird or a ball moving or swinging. I also made a number of drawings on the concept of a chair but could not make sculptures of them all. I had wanted to make a dentist's chair and a barber's chair etc. and had planned to make the hands of the chairs like human hands, and had even wanted to mount them with some other material, but it all remained in the form of drawings.

I attempted some big sculptures (for the first time after 'Pink Bust' of 1975) in 1979 during an international sculpture symposium in Yugoslavia. All the sculptors worked in the quarry itself, and their finished works were permanently displayed in a huge park. The park was full of trees and had many levels. The sculptors could choose the place suitable for display of their work. The stone was much like our marble and within three months one could complete what one intended to do. It was my first experience with using electric tools and I worked on three stones. I made two forms of Nandi where I introduced erotic elements like in 'Pink Bust'. First, I made sketches in clay and then worked in marble. The composition included one Nandi about to descend from the pedestal and another on the ground watching it. These were basically phallic forms of about 7 feet tall.

After Yugoslavia, I made a large 'Bird' (1982) which is now in Surat. Then in 1987, I attempted further large sculptures, including one in 1PCL in black stone which combines the image of a bird and a fruit. It is difficult to do large sculptures especially on account of the problem of bringing big stones from a quarry or from a distant place of work to the site; you need a crane and lots of manpower. It is also very expensive; quite difficult to manage without financial support. I was able to do this one, and other big sculptures with help from IPCL. I chose an outdoor space for the large sculpture on the theme of 'Bird' {1987). It had the character of an African totem with some erotic elements. Usually, my sculptures are designed to be seen from above, but this one was designed to be seen from below, so I thought of a contour line and tried to relate the bird form with the space around.

I was in Romania in 1979, and also travelled in Eastern Europe. I made a point to visit Brancusi's village to see his great sculptures, which include 'Round Table', 'Gate of Kiss', and 'Pillar of Eternity' or 'Endless Column'. The memory of these sculptures is still stored within me. To do this kind of work one needs total involvement. I like Brancusi because of his understanding of totality and simplicity/and his emphasis on elements. Although he worked on a large scale, size is not all that important in his work. Perfection, simplicity and spirit are more important. His small works also have a monumental quality. Of course when you make sculptures for a specific site you think of the appropriate size as well as of medium and concept.

I often ask myself if the sculptures I have made are made with some environment in mind or not. And I have no answer to that. Most of the time you just make a sculpture and place it somewhere, but you rarely make use of an actual environment. What I did last on the traffic island in Baroda was something meant for a specific environment, but I am not fully satisfied with the work. The sculpture stands by a neem tree which makes it beautiful, but it looks a bit static so I wonder how it would be if it were full of movement. Or if it were in part static and in part moving.

Sandstone, 16.5 x 26 x 6 inches, 2007

Among the places I have worked in abroad, the experience of working in Japan gave me a lot of satisfaction. There it is common to use mechanical, electrical tools and sculptors make very simple, geometric forms but their approach is different. I learnt a lot of things there. For instance, concentration and planning, managing your time according to deadline. Initially the thought of finishing a large sculpture within a month scared me but with the mechanical tools I could accomplish that. With these tools one could often end up with craftsmanly work, but if you use your mind, and apply it to your needs you could obtain the finish you want, the kind of perfection you aim at. By the time some Japanese sculptors came to Baroda for a camp to work on the IPCL campus, I had come to know of their method. They used machines but without losing sensitivity. Geometric forms would not become lifeless and straight lines did not exclude sensitivity. Their works were full of life and liveliness. I also felt that the attitude of the Japanese was similar to ours despite their industrialized background. Perhaps we think alike in our respective philosophies of life. In a sense they consider sensitivity very important and do not let the work lapse into becoming decorative. They try to balance the elements and bring in a quality of peace and meditation in their work.

'Pink Bust' (1975) is among the works I feel satisfied with because I have worked on the material only as much as necessary, and form and colour have become one. 'Black Animal' (1974), 'Pink Animal' (1981) were not related to open space, but I like their totality. My thoughts about sculpture in general seem to be borne out by these sculptures. I think sculpture should be seen from all sides and there should be total integration of viewing the form from everywhere. It should be so integrated that the formula of viewing it from a particular angle would become redundant.

Presently I am involved in making sculptures of environmental situations and forms, something on the theme of water tanks. Looking at them, you might want to climb the steps to reach a place to sit near the water or walk by the side of the tank or you may even want to enter the water. The sculptures might indicate a place from where you would jump into the water, or suggest another point for animals to enter into it. They would be sculptures where the inside and outside spaces are related. These sculptures are as yet designed on a modest scale about 4 feet in width, but you could think of them on a larger scale. I don't want them to look like swimming pools. Though, they may have architectural elements, but they should remain sculpture. 1 thought of these sculptures when I was in Japan, where I spent a lot of time by the lakes.

I dream of many things but most of all to return to the village to work there, to make something close to the environment and life of people living there; to make big sculptures, using local materials. There is a feeling that if I leave the city, perhaps my childhood experiences may revive. Whether that happens or not, I am sure I would get much greater satisfaction living and working there. 2010 © Copyright | All Rights Reserved.

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