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Encountering tradition

The sculptures by S. Swaminathan, in the gardens of the Alliance Francaise, Chennai, are a paean to the `monuments' of a bygone era. He has skilfully blended stones, and remodelled ancient art forms to merge with the surroundings.

WITHIN THE grounds of the French Institution of Alliance Francaise de Chennai, one cannot miss the huge blocks of stones reminding one of Stone Age sites. A small track to the side of the main building has a signpost that reads `To the Stone Age'. In the 21st Century, these markers are perplexing. But talk to S. Swaminathan, sculptor, whose brainchild the project is, and the concepts begin to take shape.

Swaminathan, who is a graduate of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, is a young sculptor with profound ideas. To him, tradition is the mainstay of any culture and should be kept alive visually in the form of preservation of temples or other ritualistic memories, which the passage of time should not wipe away. The intensity of his feelings towards this will be commemorated for a long time to come in this project commissioned by the Alliance Francaise.

While travelling in South India, Swaminathan came upon religious structures and other commemorative monuments that were in a state of dereliction. The village community, and more so, the government, has an apathetic attitude towards these or/and, if found inconvenient, they are removed mindlessly for road-widening and other civic purposes.

It is these structures, which in their simplicity of form and design, but loaded with deeper implications derived from ordinary pace of life and living, that impressed upon his temperament. Hence, influenced by them, Swaminathan decided to make or recreate them as garden sculptures.

Alliance Francaise de Chennai invited a few city-based artists to submit key sketches for their proposed project in putting up a sculpture garden. Swaminathan won the commission and he began work in January, this year. He employed granite quarried from Uthiramerur in Kancheepuram District. The ideology behind the project was a paean to the `monuments' to reinvent them in another place and time to maintain their `aura' and historical validity before they are lost forever.

Situated at the side of the entrance to the main building is the maadam or a niche. A large, rough, block of stone about 7' high has a niche within its matrix. According to the local myths of the Veeravanallur village to which Swaminathan had travelled, there was no concept of death as such, rather the body shrunk and reduced to the size of a small flame, and hence the practice of lightning the lamp in a niche placed on the outer walls of the houses in the village to commemorate and remember the ancestors. The simplicity of the concept lends valency in conjunction with the traditional idea. Interestingly, the shape of the stone also contributes to this largely, evoking forms that appear as fragments of architectural ruins.

Another captivating piece is Sumaithangi. According to local legends, memorials were erected to mark the resting sites of dead, pregnant women. But over a period of time, the original symbolism/meaning has been lost. Today, in the villages, these memorials serve a practical purpose for placing travellers' baggage as they take a breather under verdant canopies. Made out of granite, the character and form of this piece of sculpture is configured by Swaminathan, based on the original memorial, but on a much larger scale.

Its construction is elementary, akin to the post and lintel, which is a horizontal slab of stone, carried on two vertical posts. The stairway that Swaminathan has designed and designated as `Stone Walk' is situated along the side path. For him, it raises the question within of scant respect shown to the aesthetics of the ancient art forms and monuments, as many of these structures are indiscriminately white washed to make them useable and presentable.

Swaminathan has ingeniously juxtaposed the constructed with the found boulders. That is, using black granite, he has carved out the staircase, and on each step, he has placed a boulder that he found at the site of the ancient temple at Thiruporur and Pazhaya Seevaramin Kancheepuram District to give authenticity to the whole.

Situated next to it is the `Stone Age', reminding the modern visitor that electric cremation may wipe out the trace of the human remains forever but a memorial to the dead is a lasting symbol. As with the previous sculpture, unfinished and broadly shaped elongated vertical stones are juxtaposed with boulders to symbolically mark the mortal remains.

The conceptual approach towards traditional forms and imagery, translating them as garden sculptures, imparts a new dynamism to the whole. And interestingly, Swaminathan has craftily blended the stones, remodelled as ancient art forms, to merge with the surroundings, without in any way affecting undue attention to it. In an age of virtual reality and space, where we think globally but act locally, this is a device and method that brings in freshness of vision to sculpture, where the mundane and ordinary are given spiritual elevation.

Swaminathan is a sculptor of great promise and his concepts on installations are significant and insightful. They reflect on the human subconscious created with rigorous intellectual deliberation and a versatility of approach to materials.

ASHRAFI S. BHAGAT

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