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Monday, February 05, 2001

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Chiselling history


YOU COULD almost miss the board which announces his studio but once inside, you cannot miss the feeling that you have stepped back into a past which will never die. It's a ramshackle room with a fine layer of dust coating everything in sight and it houses a pantheon of faces straight out of history books. Making their home here are Indira Gandhi gazing as authoritatively as ever, Dr Ambedkar who looks as fresh as he must have on the day he presented our Constitution, Rajiv Gandhi seeming youthfully immortal, MGR resplendent in his cap and glasses. Keeping them company are hundreds of statues covering every political personality you could possibly think of, with a smattering of business barons and royalty completing the perfectly chiselled picture(s). A birdlike man looks up from the bust he is giving shape to, plucks off a bit to explain that it is made of China clay which is "like butter but not really from China," and then reshapes the beak-like nose with a nonchalant twist of his fingers. This is Dr. Mani Nagappa, sculptor of time, but with no time to retire, doing what he has been doing since he was 16.

Coming from a family of traditional shilpis, this "chip of the old block and pet son amongst five brothers" ended up being "forced to learn, through observation, what some are born to do and others achieve". Before him, his even more famous father Rao Bahadur MS Nagappa created everything from King George V to Lord Wellington for the British Raj and put Chennai on the map of hollow casting in bronze, an honour shared by "only one more man from the North whose name was Mhatre". It comes as no surprise that these artists are remembered only by their "sculptures which are forever", for, as Dr Nagappa explains, the Indian shilpis do not have their names on their creations ("A Rodin is remembered for his Thinker but does anyone know who crafted the exquisite Nataraja Swamy at Chidambaram or the fabulous carvings at Halebid and Belur?" he wonders). Sculpting, besides being predominantly solid in structure, was historically of a "monumental style" which meant reliance on "the imagination of the sculptor. For example, a handsome male with an aesthetic figure will become Rama in a particular pose, costume, jewellery and mudra with his bow and arrows or Muruga with the vel and so on."

Today, the emphasis is on natural rendition, aided by photographs from different angles. While "speed has shortened the world" and "some day we will just have to stand in front of a machine, put in a coin and a bust will fall out", Dr Nagappa labours over his unsigned masterpieces for over a month. The media has progressed from the original "marble, granite and metal" by adding "concrete and fibre glass" to a list which requires the sculptor to understand "the engineering necessary for moulting and carving" of the whole range of materials which are cast from the clay model. He wishes the highest of government and business offices, who regularly commission his work, would tell him "you know best" but that's not how it works. Dr Nagappa originally envisioned the Jawaharlal Nehru he sculpted freeing a dove at the Kathipara Junction, as a relaxed peacemaker with his hands linked at his back!

Today, Dr Nagappa continues to sculpt heroes from history - some as small as they are lifelike, some much larger than the man who gives them life.

LALITHA SRIDHAR

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Section  : Features
Next     : Art bridges

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