Updated: December 1, 2009 12:53 IST

An analysis of contemporary sculpture

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In the post-modern world where ‘borrowings’ are acceptable and the concept of ‘global-local’ is commonplace, the suggestion that contemporary Indian sculptors should consider western influence an intrusion and look solely to indigenous tradition may seem incongruous. American-born, Mumbai-based sculptor, Carmel Berkson appears to take such a stand in ‘Indian Sculpture: Towards the Rebirth of Aesthetics.’ This book deal s with knowledge already made familiar through Berkson’s earlier publications; the difference in this instance is the attempt to situate her contemporary sculpture within the conventional idiom. The title is deceptive, as one would imagine a broader approach to the topic of sculptural aesthetics. Conversely, while working from the broad domain of the Indian sculptural tradition and its aesthetics, the narrative deftly manoeuvres towards the singular area of the author’s contemporary sculpture. Her work is analysed within the context of the sculptures at Elephanta, Ellora, and Mahabalipuram, with tradition providing the framework and structure within which her work is viewed. The book has four sections but the sequence is uncertain, going by the table of contents; yet, on advancing through the text, the pattern of progress is revealed, allowing the reader to delight in the connections made. Diagrammatic renderings in the form of superimpositions on photographs, highlighting the underlying patterns in sculpture, make for easy understanding of the author-sculptor’s viewpoint. But a list of illustrations would have proved useful. Further, the design and the layout do not do justice to the content.


The first section deals with the relationship of indigenous aesthetics and motivating philosophies, such as universal and temporal time, connection with the intrinsic self (atman), consciousness and unconsciousness, and transcendental and immediate worlds. She lays stress on perceiving differently, of viewing Ellora as “a continuum of metamorphosing phenomena” where one can “observe the site as a paradigm for some of the pre-eminent modern concepts.”

The pattern, structure, and systems are considered in the next section, for they are associated with the brain and human thought, as “art is a language which encodes inherent brain structuring potential.” While the sculpture reflects the thought processes of the sculptor, it also connects to the spectator while engaging him in a participatory relationship. By convention, god concretised as an object for contemplation and meaning is implicit in content, while content is embodied in form.


The third section relates to the “life of form” that animates the inanimate by means of complex oppositions operating within the structure: convergence/expansion; rhythm/dissonance; harmony/dynamic ambiguity; levitation/gravity; distortion/rest; mobility/stasis, and so on. Interestingly, the author draws parallels from western art — for instance, Wajashrawas and Nachiketa are compared with Abraham and Isaac; and Durga and Mahisasura with the Amazon and Theseus.

The last section is dedicated to Berkson’s sculpture, and is replete with glossy black-and-white photographic images. Her work references extant sculptural panels depicting the same themes, with the visuals being juxtaposed with the mythic narrative. Her sculptural oeuvre, while alluding to traditional mythology, be it Hindu, Christian or Buddhist, is typically modern in its simple, clean forms. Her work acknowledges her debt to Indian sculpture in concept, style, and vigour.

This book comes from the author’s long association with Indian sculpture, and the added advantage of being a practising sculptor herself. She is convinced that while Indian contemporary sculptors are influenced by western art, they see it merely as an ‘overlay’ with their true self remaining genuine. Incongruous though it had seemed at the start, Berkson has made a valid statement by suggesting a re-look at traditional aesthetics in order to appreciate and acknowledge the legacy of a glorious sculptural past.

INDIAN SCULPTURE — Towards the Rebirth of Aesthetics: Carmel Berkson; Abhinav Publications, E-37, Hauz Khas, New Delhi-110016. Rs. 750.

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