Sculptor S. Nandagopal speaks to Gowri Ramnarayan about balancing the visual with the ideational and his contemporary quest that draws poetic resonances from folk and classical art.

Ask him about his work and he will tell you all about Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, Constantin Brancusi, Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro… Ask him about his life and you are flooded with anecdotes, quotations, jokes, yarns about everything except himself.

It is easy to see that sculptor S. Nandagopal, a pioneer of the Madras school of frontal sculpture, lives not only in his lovely old-world house in Cholamandal Artists' Village by the sea, but with all the artists and writers he tirelessly raconteurs about.

“You didn't tell us Paniker is your father!” exclaimed an art critic when he became the youngest winner of the National award. “I didn't want to!” the son flashed back. K.C.S. Paniker's painting is an arresting presence in his drawing room though Nandagopal's youth was spent running away from being “Paniker's son”. He dropped the family name. “Thank God father had retired from the Government Arts College when I joined!” he laughs.

Did he become a sculptor to be different from Paniker? “I was exhibiting my paintings at the national level when suddenly I felt it was all static, mechanical. But watching V. Janakiram, Anila Jacob or Vidyashankar Sthapathy annealing their work at the Arts College was entrancing. One day, as I struggled with work, I found Janakiram beside me. He took my boxwood piece, bent it, left it there… Years of problems were solved in that moment!”

Predecessor Janakiram was a mentor. The distinguished father? “I was fascinated by the way he taught. He'd praise a student's drawing, and leave him wondering just why he didn't say a single word about the colours!”

Nandagopal shares an insight about his father. “After teaching the entire ‘Arthasastra', Chanakya told Chandragupta that no strategy would work unless he met a true warrior. Then he took Chandragupta to Alexander the Great.”

Who is Nandagopal's Alexander? “Caro!” he chuckles. “Can't learn from an abstract sculptor, but meeting him was enough.” Caro told Nandagopal that he was advised by painter Kenneth Noland — “Put all your madness and quirkiness on your canvas, not in your appearance or behaviour!” Clad in sweat shirt and jeans like everybody else, Noland cultivated no deliberate ‘artistic' look.” And Nandagopal's wife Kala breaks her silence with a mischievous comment, “But he had a Hollywood girlfriend!”

Nandagopal regrets that living in Chennai is to miss out on interactions with such passionate people. There is little encouragement for the kind of huge sculptures in open spaces that he wants to do. “Small is beautiful, but not always,” he says wryly.

It felt great to be commissioned at age 22 by renowned architect Jeffery Bawa, to fill up a space in Hotel Connemara with a silver-plated copper mural.” At age 44, the 20-foot sculpture for Mumbai's Priyadarshini Park was a terrific challenge. A 15-foot sculpture had to be lifted by a special crane and lowered into a platform at the centre of a building complex in Delhi, with people from all six floors crowding into balconies to watch Garuda descending!

As life member of Cholamandal, Nandagopal got involved with village projects along with his personal journey as an artist. The year 1978 saw him receive the state, national, and international (IV Triennale) awards.

Exhibitions, grants, fellowships and commissions came his way, as did nominations to serve on art committees and jury panels. The Madras Metaphor exhibition by Ebrahim Alkazi (1991) was a milestone for the city's art movement as well as Nandagopal, while the ambitious Cholamandal Museum (2006), the only such centre established by artists themselves, was evolved by joyous teamwork. “You can see the history of contemporary art in Chennai,” he exults.

Though Nandagopal dismisses artists' camps, he notes that the international Patiala camp conducted by Mulk Raj Anand catalysed the Cholamandal camps, where artists from diverse countries turned the village into an international sculpture park.

His “frontal narratives” in silver-plated copper/brass, and stainless steel, have evolved a rich vocabulary, balancing the visual with the ideational. His contemporary quest draws poetic resonances from folk and classical art.

“Gunther Grass said I can't write if I don't know 2,000 years of German history.” But today's Googlers will ask, “Why should I know Kalidasa?” Netizens can take any image from the internet and jazz it up. Astounding, impressive. But can you retrace the process of how you evolved that image? It's resonance? Depth? Connotations?” he asks.

Once a Delhi critic remarked, “You're not cutting edge.” Nandagopal replied, “Thank you.”

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