Around 40 years ago, Kanayi Kunhiraman began erecting sculptures in public places and since then he has been living with controversies. Right from the beginning, he provoked the public conscience and aesthetics and generated debates on the morality of his works.
His first major sculpture in concrete, “Yakshi” in Malampuzha Dam gardens in Palakkad district, was completed 40 years ago. It is a huge imposing 30-feet structure created against the backdrop of the Western Ghats and the expanse of the reservoir.
Yakshi was condemned as obscene; a deviation from existing forms of sculpture. In fact, it was the first time that a nude female sculpture was erected outside the temples. Kanayi always excelled in female forms because, to him, woman represented mother, nature and power. He has adhered to this principle drawing copiously from heritage, myth and folklore.
During his training in Chennai, he sculpted “Amma” (1960), which won laurels at the national level. Kanayi’s passion for huge sculptures was well known and one of his teachers sent him to Palakkad for the path-breaking “Yakshi”.
To him, “Yakshi” was the personification and installation of the Mother Goddess of the evacuated tribal people in that area. It won him both laurels as the first modern piece of sculpture and criticism.
Kanayi was exposed to modernism at the College of Fine Arts, Chennai, and later at the Slade School of Arts in London, where he studied on a Commonwealth Scholarship. He experimented with theme and the language of plasticity of sculpture.
Carving a niche for himself, he has built larger-than-life sculptures: the 105-feet ‘Saagrakanyaka” in concrete at Shankhumukham beach near Thiruvananthapuram airport is gigantic.
Recently he has ventured into sculpting words, proving that he is adept in creating images with writing as well. His poems are more evocative and allegorical than his sculptures in concrete, metal and other media.
Kanayi believes that art can be used for social transformation if art works are erected in public places and are secular. With this objective of social change, Kanayi settled down in his native land, forsaking the exposure and recognition that he could have got in bigger cities.
Because of his uncompromising and passionate efforts, people are now aware of the value and importance of sculptures in public places.
Veli, where the backwaters and the Arabian Sea are separated by a sandy patch, is now a tourist spot in Thiruvananthapuram. But earlier it was isolated and filled with anti-social elements. In the 1980s, Kanayi, with the help and active support of a visionary and unassuming bureaucrat T. Balakrishnan (later Secretary, Kerala Government’s Tourism Department) started a people’s participatory tourism project. Though the local people initially opposed the project, Kanayi convinced them of the benefits and laboured as one among them in landscaping the marshy land.
At Veli, Kanayi built sculptures like the huge Shankhu (Conch) and Maadan Thara, an open cultural temple as a permanent installation. The latter — a series of tribal and aborigine Gods and Goddesses — is representative of the relation between nature, faith, and worship.
In 1979 Kanayi did an installation; the first of its kind using bamboo, areca palm, different colours of coir and sand for a national level “Functional Art Meet”. The tremendous influence of Theyyam, a colourful ritual folk dance of native north Kerala, is predominant in Kanayi’s works. “Mukkola Perumal” (Holy Trinity), an installation done in 1973 at Kochi, combines classicism and modernism and its virtual immobility is arrested time motif.
Kanayi has been making innumerable sculptures for successive Governments and private institutions using different media: metal, wood, concrete, stone, clay... His reliefs at Mullakkal Temple, Alappuzha, combine art and architecture and modernity and mythology.
Forms of expressions
Kanayi has now taken to poetry to overcome the limitations of painting and sculpture. He was fortunate to study under Rug Butler at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. His association with artists like Henry Moore, Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Duchamp and Kenneth Armitage convinced him that every artist has to evolve his own unique style. Kanayi Kunhiraman has been steadfast on his path and created a niche for himself. He has bagged awards galore for his creations, including the prestigious Raja Ravi Varma award of the Kerala Government.