Sumedh Rajendran’s definitive works in diverse media have made him an avant-garde artist. He sketches his evolution in the art world

“My longest journey was from Thiruvananthapuram to Delhi. Since then, I have travelled to and stayed in many places around the world but I have never felt the kind of culture shock I experienced then,” says Sumedh during a visit to Thiruvananthapuram, the city of his childhood and youth.

On a damp, moody evening, when the skies threaten to open up any minute, Sumedh travels back and forth in time and place while retracing his journey from Vattiyoorkavu in the city to fashionable and glitzy art centres in the world where his works have found a place for their intensity, topicality and artistry.

Following in the footsteps of his parents, Rajendran and Saroja, both former students of College of Fine Arts, was not a natural decision. He choose to take up fine arts after realising how much he enjoyed working in his father’s studio.

The days following his graduation from the College of Fine Arts in 1994 were a period of confusion for the young artist who was searching for a new language and method to express himself. The College was an oasis for creative minds and its campus was a hotbed of deep discussions and debates. “We learnt art, especially European art but outside the environs of the college, I wondered how many could relate to us, how many could we relate to... It was as if we were living in a vacuum,” recalls Sumedh.

Sumedh found a way out of his emotional and artistic turmoil by leaving the city to pursue his post graduation from Delhi College of Art. “That changed my life and my outlook towards art,” he says, far away in his thoughts.

Watching the crowds thronging the streets and the steady stream of vehicles rushing through on a muggy evening in the capital city, he muses: “I have always enjoyed walking, becoming a part of the crowd that rushes by, each wrapped up in his own universe. They are together physically, yet each person carries several worlds within him and is miles apart in every other way.”

Many of his works have captured those feelings of alienation and belongingness in a mindboggling range of boxes that feature in his works. “I have observed migrants and lived among them. All their belongings are stashed away in trunks and boxes. Those containers are where they safeguard their identity and roots. When they travel, those boxes go with them. For many of us, the boxes might not be physical but we still cart those trunks in our mind; trunks of nostalgia, memories, pain, pleasures, of remembered aromas and flavours…,” he explains.

His long fingers and hands talk as well, helping him complete a sentence, punctuate a thought and flesh out a description. Naturally, as a sculptor, it is his hands that express this much-in-demand sculptor’s perspectives of the world around him.

His concepts choose his medium and dominate his works. Perforated metal sheets, discarded containers, ceramic tiles, sheets of rexine and laminated wood turn into eloquent, provocative works of art that invite passersby to enter into a dialogue with the artist-sculptor and his larger-than-life creations.

“For instance, some of my installations are made of tins used to pack products like cheese or tea. I have used those to create my pieces. It is the context that gives a kind of subjectivity to the material. As a protest against rampant consumerism I have used discarded tins to create a work of art on urban chaos. Similarly ceramic tiles are commonly found in washrooms but they are also used in certain places of worship and immediately it acquires a different nuance. I have used that in my work. Same is the case with leather. It is the skin of an animal. But when it used as a jacket, it is worn next to the skin or as a purse it becomes an accessory. It is society that imbues such materials with different connotations,” says Sumedh.

Sumedh views his work as a kind of protest against certain trends and topics that distress him or gnaw at his conscience till it pours forth in the form of sculptures that jolt its viewers out of their complacency.

“I want to communicate with the public. To enable that I use an evocative language and images that connect to people,” says Sumedh. But his artistic imagery does not stop at the visual. It embraces several subtexts that amalgamate the palpable and tangible imagery and associations of the work of art. The activist-artist continues his sojourn through endless negotiations between reality and art.

Love sans borders

Sumedh and Masooma Syed met during a residency programme organised by Khoj, an artists’ initiative of which Sumedh is an active participant and member. “There were artists from different countries. Masooma was the only one from Pakistan. We fell for each other but since she is a Pakistani, we have had to go through difficult times,” says Sumedh, a little reluctant to talk about the marriage. “It has been written about so much…,” he protests. However, he adds that to keep their romance alive, they travelled the world and lived like nomads in different places such as Sri Lanka, United Kingdom and Dubai. Delhi is now home to the couple. While Sumedh’s creations are larger than life pieces, Masooma enjoys creating miniatures from human hair, nails and so on.

“Masooma has visited Kerala a couple of times and I have been to Lahore too,” says Sumedh with a smile.

Giving shape to thoughts

Thinking out of the box is easy for Sumedh, one of the most influential contemporary sculptors whose body of work is an interface between humanity and space. Issues of displacement, migration, consumerism, urban violence, angst of the marginalised and racial discrimination are the subjects of his collage, installations and sculpture in various media. Sumedh compares his engagement with art and humanity to an ongoing journey that began in 1995 when he shifted base to Delhi. His work has been catalogued by Christie’s and Sotheby’s and some of his pieces have found a place in the permanent exhibits of prestigious museums, public spaces and in the collections of leading collectors in India and abroad.

However, Kerala got to see to his works only during the Kochi Biennale when he created an installation of laminated interiors that raised an eyebrow at the Malayali’s fondness for ostentation and contrasts his public and private views. “There is so much of pretence in our public and private lives. I wanted to poke fun at that,” he explains. Subversive, edgy and intriguing, some of his creations meld animal shapes with utilitarian everyday objects to come up with startling results that evoke a storm of reactions in the viewers. Multiple references to political and social issues fill his composite imagery made up of textures, structures, photographs and colours.

The Thinking Man

When Technopark, the first IT park in India was being conceptualised by Vijayaraghavan, founder CEO, he wanted to include art in the public domain of the campus. Discarding demands to go for an established sculptor with clout and fan following, Vijayaraghavan decided to choose a youngster with dreams in his eyes. That lucky youngster was Sumedh who made the huge concrete sculpture of a thinking man who is gazing at the cyberpark developing at his feet.