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Celestial splendours

Many are the temples that he has constructed in various countries across the globe. Nagaraj of Silpa Kala Nilayam, who is adept at handling diverse art forms, talks about his experiences.

"THERE IS no one in my family to keep this tradition alive after me." The atmosphere at Silpa Kala Nilayam is poignant as Sthapathi Mahankali Gopala Achari Nagaraj, reclining in his chair, recalls the words of his dying father that infused life in him. Time has obviously not numbed the pain, for tears well up in Nagaraj's eyes. This 62-year-old self-effacing painter, sculptor, artist and temple architect wipes his eyes and says, "I was but 19 then."

Education was not part of his life. A brusque order from a teacher to buy him some cigarettes irked the self-righteous boy. "I refused to go to that school after that." Later, the Besant School in Adyar refused to admit him because of age stipulations and Nagaraj was enrolled in the School of Arts in 1951. He took to art as fish to water, but formal education was clearly not on the anvil for Nagaraj. The death of his father slammed the brakes on his vision of becoming a degree holder. Deeply affected by his father's dying statement, he picked up the artisan's tools to finish a `villakkuprabha' at the Kapali temple, left incomplete by his father. For an apparent novice he did a remarkably good job. But it was not surprising considering his background. They were all sthapathis and artists of great merit — his paternal great grandfather, his grandfather and then his father. Metal, wood, cement and other materials, moulded by their nimble fingers, transformed into items fit for the Gods themselves. "My grandfather has made vahanas, and the silver vimanas for the 63 Nayanmars in the Kapali temple were made by my father," Nagaraj says nostalgically. "When I was training under my father there were occasions when my head would begin to nod, out of drowsiness. He would tap me with a hammer and say, `Look at the disinterest that you show! In my times, there used to be professional jealousy between my father and me'."

Partnership between talent and toil is an invincible combination and with a sprinkling of luck, could success be far behind? Nagaraj was busy doing Kavachams for various Gods and Goddesses when a plum offer landed from the late Kripananda Variar. He created an exquisite silver mandapam for Lord Muruga, which impressed Variar very much. Gradually, Nagaraj climbed up the ladder of success and fame. His clientele boasted of several prominent names amongst whom Nagaraj acknowledges the encouragement given by industrialist T.T.Vasu. Then came a challenge in the form of an order to construct a vimanam, and later on a temple in New Delhi. "It was my first job in cement." If Nagaraj had apprehensions of any kind they must have been dispelled when none other than master craftsman Ganapathi Sthapathi complimented him in full measure on an artwork skilfully accomplished.

Nagaraj, today pushing 62, is a satisfied man. Many are the temples that he has constructed in various countries across the globe. Flooded with more offers than he can handle, he is assisted in his business by his two brothers and six sons. Awards have eluded him and he sees no merit in lobbying for one. But there are other emotionally rewarding acts he envisions like holding an exhibition of his creations and training economically poor aspirants in this art free of cost. A born artist, Nagaraj infuses a naturalistic quality into his creations as compared to wholly stylised figures. His is a rare instance of a sthapathi who is adept at handling diverse art forms. No job is too big or small for this artist. In his hands, a one-foot bronze figure or a seven-foot stone statue receives equal attention. Exquisitely chiselled features and a fine sense of proportion mark his creations. His paintings are characterised by delicate lines revealing the skill of a master craftsman. Above all, whether it is the construction of a temple, or merely its door, the vigraham or its kavacham or even a Tanjore painting, he approaches each of them with devotion. The artefacts that adorn the grounds of Silpa Kala Nilayam bear testimony to this.

LAKSHMI DEVNATH

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