Sculptor S. Nandagopal's “Frontal Narrative Sculptures” uses commonly found articles like ladles, hooks and cleavers in a series of whimsical yet interesting bronze and copper works. Nandagopal continues to blend the ancient with the modern as he infuses figures from Hindu mythology with his innovative style.

“Frontal Narrative Sculptures” was hosted by Artworld as part of the Chennai Art Summit last month. During a conversation before the exhibition, the sculptor traces his artistic journey of 40-odd years.

The art scene in the 1960s and 1970s in Madras had been vibrant. As a young art student in the Madras Art College and later as a young professional, what were the sources of inspiration you gathered from the local and international art scenes that enabled you to develop a personal sculptural language?

I studied at the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Madras in the 1960s and 1970s when the Madras Movement was at its height. It was a marvellous place. I owe much to its curriculum, setting and remarkable ethos. It had an excellent craft section where I used to spend a lot of time. It had some of the most renowned craftsmen in the state: ironsmiths, goldsmiths, furniture designers, textile weavers, dyers and so on, working and teaching alongside artist-instructors in painting and sculpture. There was an arrangement by which one doing painting, for instance, could go across and work in the sculpture section or in the ceramic workshop, textile design section or in the workshop of any other master craftsman. I would therefore move around in the workshops and observe the craftsmen at work, assist them sometimes or go over work in progress in the workshops and studios of craftsmen, painters or sculptors I looked up to. I knew very little about art those days but I could react to its workmanship no matter what medium and could be quite carried away by it.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was there, a number of painters and sculptors were doing outstanding work. There was so much interaction, initiative and upsurge that I felt some of it happening inside me too. There was an important movement on. Notable among those I personally empathised with were the sculptor P.V. Janakiram, and the painters Reddeppa Naidu, L. Munuswamy and A.P. Santhanaraj.

I am particularly indebted to a school of drawing my senior colleagues and teachers had developed. It consisted of a line as soft and spontaneous as a Japanese brush stroke and just as free. With that they had developed a figure drawing that was so structured that it could do such complexities as an elephant-headed presence or a monkey-mannered wind-borne spirit or one that could multiply its limbs, head and body at will or issue out into configurations of calligraphic signs. That drawing remains with me and nourishes me still. It is that which activates my sculpture. On the international front, I have studied the work of abstractionists David Smith, Anthony Caro and Michael Puryear but remain a figurative sculptor as I believe that “Man will remain Man's greatest subject”.

Can you describe/characterise the major shifts that have come about in your sculptural articulations in the last four decades?

Like most sculptors of the Madras Art Movement, I began my career as a painter before I took to sculpture full time. My early work was inspired by folk and iconic sculpture and “frontality” was a key element right from the start. There were, of course, a few instances where I ventured into third dimensionaliy but I was unhappy with it as I felt it reached a dead end. The 1960s were a turbulent time in the Indian art movement when a synthesis of the West and the East was pursued relentlessly. Reviewing my work in Art International, the critic Phyllis Granoff gives an insight into my early work: “Nandagopal's sculptures are often large but perhaps their most obvious characteristic is that they compel the viewer's attention in two strikingly different ways. They first impose themselves as objects isolated in space and then invite a close-up reading of their numerous surface details. This remarkable synthesis of large imposing external shape with intimate playful surface detail Nandagopal himself relates to India's ancient artistic tradition, both folk and courtly.

The 1970s saw a consolidation of “frontality” and “linearity” in my sculpture. The late Dr. Mulk Raj Anand's view on my work at this stage gives you some idea. “The vision of Nandagopal conjures up images which are startling with their twists and turns of the figure. The sensation of the onlooker has to yield to deeper realisations of the subterranean currents of our age and transition. The aesthetic of Nandagopal's sculpture is in the disharmony which compels the overflow of emotion. Beneath the outer form with the violent gestures one can see the shadows of delirium of the human soul.”

The 1980s saw a subtle change coming into my sculpture. The critic and theoretician late James Josef commented on the element of lyricism that was creeping into my work. “The medium and workmanship in which Nandagopal has excelled has a lineage and history in mainstream world sculpture from which he has certainly taken his lessons. But it was the developments in Madras and especially the developments in pictorial figuration which really launched Nandagopal.”

From the early 1990s and into the new millennium, my work has taken on a new phase: the narrative element. Geeta Doctor sums it up aptly: “He calls them ‘Frontal Narrative Sculptures'. This however gives no idea of the exuberant quality of Nandagopal's series of copper and brass pieces. They soar and leap into space with all the power and grace of a traditional piece of South Indian art, whether chiselled on stone, as they are at Mahabalipuram or the exquisite bronzes of the Chola period. Yet they are rooted in the every day.”

As a sculptor, you have done very large to very small sculptures. What are the formal, technical and other considerations while undertaking such different projects in different scales?

My work varies from very small sculptures to monumental ones. My work at Priyadarshini Park, Mumbai, commissioned by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, is 20 ft tall and the Garuda at the headquarters of the Transport Corporation of India Ltd in Gurgaon in 15 ft tall. As they were to be placed open to the skies, they had to be made of a material that would not corrode. Hence both sculptures were fabricated from stainless steel, which is a wonderful material for outdoor purposes. When it comes to interiors, I prefer to work with copper and brass, which when polished and coated with a polyurethene film lasts for a very long time.

Shivaji K. Panikkar is an art theoretician and has served as head, Department of Art History and Aesthetics, M.S. University, Baroda.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012