Riyas Kunnamangalam’s sculptures in tree roots talk of issues plaguing society

For sculptor Riyas Kunnamangalam, his art always begins with a search—for roots. His exhibition ‘God’s Own Country — Verugalilude’ is the fruit of a three-year search for 12 sturdy and large teak roots upon which he could carve the stories he wanted to tell.

Each piece was once a buried root that has been dug up from places in and around Wayanad; and each carved root now talks of issues such as pesticide overuse and the Internet trap—reflecting the state of Kerala as it stands today.

Riyas’ own roots as an artist began from his childhood drawings, which his father disapproved of. After Class X, he left his Kozhikode home for Mysore where he worked as a tourist guide until he met wood sculptor P.C. Chacko in Thrissur. As a 17-year-old he studied under him for a year and a half, learning to work wood into different patterns and figures, following which he was employed by several furniture shops. “I was unhappy here too, because all the designs I was carving were what they would dictate. That’s when I decided that I would instead create the pictures that I was drawing,” says Riyas. One of his earliest works—a portrait of Mohanlal etched in wood—sits at a corner of his exhibition today.

But Riyas has since evolved into a teller of troubled stories. “There are so many issues today in Kerala that need to be spoken of, and I want to use my work to do that.” For instance, one of his pieces depicts a baby with a deformed head as a result of his mother’s exposure to endosulfan.

Another shows a schoolgirl with a mobile phone in one hand, a bottle of pills in the other hand and tears on her face. “This was inspired by the Ambalapuzha suicides of 2008.”

In his line of work, it is vital to understand the innate nature of the root, and maintain that natural form, rather than impose one’s creation on it, says Riyas. Therefore, each piece is a three-dimensional work that reveals its complete story only when observed from every angle.

Other works show Mother Teresa crying at the state of the world today, the fate of single mothers and the abuse of elephants by their mahouts. The exhibition is on at Durbar Hall Art Gallery from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. till October 16.