Moulding metal to perfection
S. Nandagopal's works are distinct for the choice of aesthetic medium. In an interview coinciding with his recent show in Chennai, the veteran shares his views on art, craft and the sculpture scene today...
The head of Cholamandal Artist's Village and senior artist of Chennai, S.Nandagopal, is now showing his work of the last two years at the Art World gallery.
He is one of the few sculptors who is continuing the tradition of ``frontality'' made famous by the Madras school artists such as Janakiram and Vidyashankar Sthapathi. His works are universally recognisable by the beaten metal aesthetic and the impressive amount of work done on each one of them.
Nandagopal's finely crafted sculptures are also found in several public places. The one installed at Priyadarshini park, Mumbai, is well known. Currently, he is seeing through a proposal to install a sculpture in Chennai near the airport. Before the inauguration of his one-man show, the artist spoke about his views on such key terms in his vocabulary as craft, tradition, "frontality" etc. Excerpts from that interview:
Your formative years at the College of Art were marked by the influence of the master crafts persons, who worked there. What is the relevance of craft in your work?
In the 15th Century during the Rrenaissance, artists were also master craftsmen. In any great age, craft and art merge and become one and there are no distinctions. During the Pallava period, there is an inscription made during Mahendravarman's reign that says, in certain cases, the craftsmen had a seat an inch higher than the emperor. That is the regard they were held in. It is only in a decadent age that one distinguishes between art and craft. When I say craft, I don't mean ``crafting'' but real craft, the use of the materials... we were lucky to have studied in the College of Art, Madras. It was the only institution that has recognised craft.
Can you describe the``craft''element in your work?
Beating copper and welding are all craft elements and this comes in to my work automatically, I do not fight shy of it at all. There is a different school of sculpture like Minimalism of Donald Judd, where the sculptures are manufactured, but if we take the lineage of sculptors from Archipenko, David Smith, Tim Scott and Purvear, it is a different tradition altogether. For them skill and craft were very important.
How do you distinguish yourself from a craftsman, say, the sthapathis who work at Mahabalipuram or Swamimalai?
A traditional craftsman can replicate a Nataraja or a Vishnu but what is really not there is the spark. In the sense that he is not really innovating anything but is only replicating what happened hundreds of years ago. He is making it finer and finer. The craftsman does not know what is happening in the world. He only knows what his ancestors told him. They are not looking for a new form and they do not know what their contemporaries have done in the west. This is the basic difference. But the danger for the contemporary artist lies in his getting crafty, so he has to have an intellectual foundation. He has to be aware of his contemporaries but then sadly most artists nowadays are not. The painter Krishen Khanna once took me aside and asked what the difference between my work and that of a craftsperson was. I told him, if one can find an order in what they did 1,000 years ago, there is a possibility one can find an order in what I am doing today.
Is there perhaps a certain revivalism and a nostalgia for a great artistic past in your stress on traditional craft?
The biggest mistake made in the Bengal school was that they were looking back and trying to go forward. They were painting such things as Shah Jehan (reference to Abanindranath Tagore's wash technique trilogy on the Mughal emperor) but what I am proposing is not in the least nostalgic. It is just that models that we choose to follow should suit one's own conditions and be grounded in our contemporary reality.
Why is it art in Chennai still clings to such formalist notions like ``frontality'' when artists elsewhere in India made a clean break with that kind of modernism decades ago? Is it because we have nothing to say anymore?
All the major sculptors who came from college had a painting background. It was the case with me also. And that is where pictorialism of the Madras school comes from. If you take sculpture in the north, they are rounded, while here it is based on the line and is ``frontal". It is, however, not ``relief''. Which is why I keep the sculptures a little away from the wall. I try to show that a sculpture need not be seen from behind. South Indian sculpture traditionally has always been mathematical and precise. In north India, you notice that they are very emotional but in the south we are much more reserved and detached. This difference can be seen in our music and even in such things as our wedding ceremony and certainly in our art.
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