Sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan narrates to P. Anima the evolution of a sculpture – beginning from a thought and culminating in a vision

Images spur memories. Memories tell stories. Stories make life. An entourage of water lily leaves nudging each other and purposefully floating around in the pond at Gandhi Park, Kozhikode, prompts veteran sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan to tell a story, one that changed his life. It is the story of cajoling a master to be his mentor. A young man had journeyed from a village in Kottayam to Santiniketan to pursue painting. He instead discovered sculpture and Ramkinkar Baij.

“I wanted to meet him,” recollects Radhakrishnan. But getting to know Baij was not easy. “He spoke only Bengali. I asked people around what his weakness was, something that would make him melt and open a channel of communication between us. Someone told me he loved water lilies.”

The young student scouted the village nearby, gathered a bunch of lilies and knocked on Baij's door. “A loud voice from inside asked who it was and when he came I just kept those lilies before him,” he says.

Therein began Radhakrishnan's first lessons in sculpture from one of the pioneers in modern sculpture. “I was with him for six years in Santiniketan. He died in 1980 and I left Santiniketan in 1981,” he says. At this point in his three-decade-long career with signature sculptures scattered over the globe, the 56-year-old Radhakrishnan is back in his home State convening a camp at which the best in the business will sculpt a bit of history for Kozhikode.

His sculpture cast in bronze will be his gift to his roots. The 600 kg, 25-foot-tall sculpture, titled “Time Tides”, will have Musui, a staple character in most of Radhakrishnan's works, as a witness, towering above to scan the past and the present while taking a peek into the future. He patiently watches time annihilate itself and build again.

Radhakrishnan's trademark sculptures are depictions of Musui or his counterpart Maiya. Musui, the Santhal boy who was his subject in his earliest sculptures, became an essential presence in his later works. “When I first met Musui, he was standing and begging for bread, but with a smile,” he recollects. That smile permeated the sculptures and his Musui almost always radiates happiness. For being the model for Radhakrishnan's sculpture, Musui was paid a fee of Rs 10. “With that money, he went and shaved off his hair. When I saw that I took off the hair from my sculpture too.”

Ever since, Musui, whom Radhakrishnan believes must be as old as he is, has grown mostly in the sculptor's imagination. Over time Musui became his alter ego, his consciousness, nourished by the sculptor's experiences. Sculptures depict Musui in Egypt and Morocco, Musui as Nataraj and Christ. “Musui became integrated with me,” says Radhakrishnan. His Musui and Maiya are often portrayed amidst impossible movements. They are impish, reed-thin, airy, acrobatic, primeval, often balanced on their hands and cast in bronze.

Radhakrishnan finds bronze a perfect element. “It is malleable, fluid and yet hard. It is the strongest metal to work with,” he says.

Radhakrishnan's sculptures evolved not only in character, but also in size over the years. In the mid-1980s, when times were tough and opportunities rare, he sculpted figures that were about three feet tall. With each assignment, he saved money for the next sculpture, making it slightly taller. Radhakrishnan believes the scale of a sculpture matters when it comes to making a mark on an onlooker.

“It should arouse curiosity, nourish a sensitive mind, make them think and in turn introspect,” he says. Though an intensely physical endeavour, sculpting, says Radhakrishnan, “is done with your head.” The final piece might be pretty, but, he is quick to remind us, it is never just that. “It is not a decorative piece, if so it becomes a handicraft. A sculpture is an intellectual product. It is quite like a poem, to be read and found meanings in,” he says.

The senior sculptor is optimistic about the future of sculpting. “The world has opened up. Sculpture, painting, installations – all these mediums are overlapping. Further, a sculpture exists in real space. You do not have to go to a gallery to see it. It is a public art.”

Radhakrishnan works out of Santiniketan and Delhi, a city that has been home since the 1980s. Beginning with an open-air sculpture in cement for the Rajasthan government in 1986, Radhakrishnan has sculpted for governments and private enterprises alike.

About 30 of his sculptures enhance the landscape of Provence in France, where Radhakrishnan has sculpted for a private foundation. Though he visits his mother in Kerala often, work has brought him to his home State only in the past three years.

Meanwhile, his hands are full. He is working on an exhibition in Bangladesh and continues to tour with the retrospective on Baij to Bangalore and Mumbai. At the moment, back in his roots, he is soaking in the little things that have long been memories that trickled into his works.

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