As an exhibition of his sculpture opens in Mumbai tomorrow, well known sculptor S. Nandagopal speaks of his four decades in art and the influences on his works.

The art of sculptor S. Nandagopal, who has long lived in Cholamandal Artists' Village, has developed from a wide variety of traditional Indian and world art sources. His narrative sculpture oeuvre constitutes one of the most important collections in contemporary Indian sculpture today. Yet while Nandagopal is steeped in the traditions of his country, his work has a contemporary sensibility that speaks beyond the Asian art world, where viewers — even without a knowledge of Indian culture — readily associate his imagery to their own worlds.

A gold medallist at the Triennale and twice winner of the National award, Nandagopal configures and juxtaposes an imposing range of life's intricacies to make a fresh vibrant vision that leads to a better understanding of our place on earth. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

Following the development of your work from the 1970s, you seem to have moved from a fairly dense composition to one that is, if I may say so, a more confident composition. Would you agree?

In my earlier works, the accent was on what the late theoretician Josef James called "asymmetry in symmetry". In the late 1960s, almost all artists connected with the Madras Movement flirted with his concept. But there was a turning point in the late 1970s when working on "Ritual Image" (which won the grand prize at the Fourth International Triennale, New Delhi), I tried to extend its length to see how much it would take before toppling over. Here I feel I successfully managed to bring in a great deal of asymmetry. Following this was a series of pieces where lyricism comes to the fore and the sculpture becomes more pronounced. My focus has been to try and bring together this philosophy of lyricism and the language of detail informed by a strong craft tradition.

You often use the term "religiosity" when you discuss your sculptures. Please elaborate.

My attitude to life is reverential rather than religious and I feel indebted to the great myths, legends, allegories and formulations that religion has afforded me. When I look at a sculpture, I do not really see it as religious or secular. I am not aware of this distinction as I plan my sculpture. What is true to life is simultaneously one and the other. In this sense, my work is more to do with religiosity, which can occur even when confronted with a powerful Western abstract expressionist work of art. I do draw heavily from legend, mythology and ritual because I find in them rich figures for the unknown, which I feel is reflected all around me.

In this context, I would like to narrate an experience of this sort of confrontation when I visited a well known shrine in Tamil Nadu. The sanctum's entrance was hardly four feet in height, so you had to really bow low to get in. Once inside, when your eyes were acclimatised to the dark interior, you could see the presiding deity with one leg outstretched in the act of measuring the universe. Confronting this 35-foot image in black granite shining with the ritual application of oil was a truly awe-inspiring experience, which to me is what "religiosity" is all about.

In my conversations with you, there always seems to be pride in your heritage. Do you ever feel the weight of tradition holding you back?

I believe that, in any great age, the dividing line between art and craft has always been very thin. As a student of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras, I saw a lot of collaborative work involving industrial draughtsmen, craftsmen and printers. Painting, sculpture, graphic art, jewellery, woodwork, metal work, ceramics were practised in that setting without compromising the craft ideal of self-absorbing workmanship.

Traditionally classical art in this country has been connected deeply with the religious establishment. This stream developed around the kings and the temples they built. The pillars of this tradition were the great artisan guilds. The craftsman was both designer and sculptor. The division between fine arts, architecture, handicrafts and objects of daily use had no validity. The stream threw up master sculptors who conceived and executed such powerful creations such as the sculptures at Mahabalipuram, Ellora, Pattadakkal, Konarak and other places. By about the fifth century A.D., in Gupta sculptures, the Indian sculptures had abstracted the image out of individuality of the human subject and arrived at the figure instead of fashioning the image as if it might be that of some individual person. With the figures, they could abstract from widely ranging spheres and give appearances to rarer natures and states. Traditional Indian sculpture has been distinguished by this particular method of abstraction.

In this context, let me recall an experience. Some of the artists from Cholamandal were visiting Mahabalipuram in the early 1970s to see the newly established school of traditional architecture and sculpture. On seeing exquisite renderings of the nude on the drawing board, we were curious to know how the students could draw without access to nude study, which I supposed was taboo. We were amazed to be told that the students had studied the nude from life experience: observing women at bathing ponds or when suckling a child or at play.

Do you feel the Eastern approach to drawing is distinctly different from the Western method?

Traditional Indian sculpture never took perspective into account like Western drawing did; hence when a student draws a figure there is no foreshortening at whichever angle the subject is sketched from. Instead the Shilpa Shastra, the ancient Indian treatise on sculpture, provided yojanas or coded measurements for the various parts of the body. Accordingly an intellectual, when portrayed, would be represented with a broad forehead; a great man by his hands extended well below his knees This does not mean that, by knowing these measurements, anyone could draw a figure; in the hands of a great artist, the code helped create a masterpiece.

Let me narrate an incident here about the Nataraja image, which Rodin declared as the greatest work of art by the hand of man. On a visit to the Madras Museum to see the great Chola piece, some of us observed that one palm, the one turned downwards, was larger than the other facing upward. Could that be a flaw? No, it occurred to us that this was the way the traditional sculptor registered perspective; not by varying depth, as in the West, but by varying size.

How has your exposure to Western contemporary art influenced your evolution?

With an academic training from an art institution where one was exposed to both Indian and Western art, the challenge was to evolve, in my mind, a clearer picture of what I was looking for. I did not want an almost sterile Indian version of a European way of art expression.

When I see a modern work I can immediately identify the particular modernistic ideology (Impressionism, abstract expressionism, minimalism, photo-realism) that gives it its organisation. I can grant the work its premises and appreciate its workmanship and its effect. I do, in fact, admire modern sculptors, especially Brancusi, Gonzales, David Smith, Caro, Puryear But when I am caught up with traditional temple architecture on my country or the primitive commemorative Hero stones or tribal metal work, I just can't see Gonzales, David Smith, Caro or Puryear much as I admire them.

With so much Indian cultural and aesthetic tradition behind me, I find it both a privilege and challenge to draw from the vital Indian inspiration and fuse the apparent contradiction into an acceptable form. One could have, in moments of despair, surrendered to the acceptance of the endless restatements of the Western approach to art. But, for me, the fascination was in exploring what would come out of the aesthetic adventure of this attempt to reconcile in my personal way the latent memories of a magnificent highly evolved tradition and the new experiences of a vital contemporary West.

Ian Findlay-Brown is editor-publisher of World Sculpture News and Asian Art News published from Hong Kong.