Kishore Nagappa, the sculptor behind statues for the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Ambedkar, Sathyamurthi, Muthuramalinga Devar and the most recent one of Pennycuick

When Kishore Nagappa’s grandfather was a young man, he used to walk to the Government Arts College, peep from behind the gates and observe the techniques practised by the sculptor-students. “He lived in a modest house on Narasingapuram Street (Ritchie Street now); the area was desolate then. The son of a clay idol maker himself, my grandfather was keen to learn the art of sculpting. The principal of the arts college found him visiting often, and it was he who discovered his immense talent and encouraged him,” Kishore says, adding that his grandfather’s very first statue was so good, his career as a portrait sculptor took off immediately.

Art, therefore, was always in Kishore Nagappa’s blood; but he didn’t think of it as his calling, not until his father, Jayaram Nagappa — an eminent sculptor in his own right — fell ill and he had to pitch in. “I was keen on administrative service, and was getting ready for the IAS exams. But my father took ill, and he asked me to complete some jobs. I gave it a try, and the first statue — that of an MD of a sugar factory in Andhra — came out well. In fact, it was mistaken for my father’s work! From then, this has been my profession,” says the soft spoken Kishore.

Over the years, the fourth generation sculptor has several important sculptures to his credit. “I made the Sathyamurthi and Muthuramalinga Devar statues that were unveiled in the Parliament, by the then President Abdul Kalam. For the Kerala State Legislative Assembly, I made 12-ft statues of Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru; they were unveiled by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,” he says, showing me a photo album filled with pictures of sculptures and plaster-of-Paris versions.

Sculpture making is a long process. The image is fed into a computer, and an enlarged version is readied. (In his grandfather’s time, the negative was projected at night on a lime-washed wall with a big bulb, and the positive image was quickly sketched with charcoal.) A clay model is prepared based on the measurements of the image, and whoever ordered the statue is invited to inspect and give feedback at this stage. “We do the corrections right away,” says Kishore. “Someone could have small eyes in a photo; but those who know the person will tell you that he / she actually had large eyes. Once the clay model is approved, we make a plaster-of-Paris model; this will become the master print, from which we make a sandwich model with red clay and wax. The final stage involves melting the wax (by heating the sandwich model to a certain temperature) and pouring in molten brass inside the two layers of clay.”

Though the process of making a sculpture requires single-minded focus and is exhausting, it is, in the end, hugely rewarding, says Kishore. “You get to meet high-profile people, and my father had always pointed out that as the highlight of this business,” he says.

Kishore’s ambition is to have a gallery, along the lines of Madame Tussauds, in Chennai. “Statues and sculptures are a good tool to record history,” he says. Kishore recounts a recent experience, when he had been to Theni, to install the statue of Pennycuick. “It was hard work, getting the statue right, as I only had a small photograph to work with. I also had to do a lot of historical research, to get his outfit (engineer dress of his day) right. When we installed the statue, so many people — mostly agriculturalists — came and fell at his feet. After all, Pennycuick had sold his property and assets to build the Mullaperiyar dam, which gave people in five districts, water — and livelihood! When they came to know I had made the statue, they told me, ‘thambi, punniyam ungalukku serum’ (a message of blessing). And the hard work over all those months were worth it.”