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The inner life of copper craft

Gallery Sumukha has on display S.G. Vasudev's works in rich hues of copper. They not only document his artistic evolution over the years, but also consciously bridge the artificial gap between art and craft.

S.G. Vasudev's works titled "Tree of Life" and "He".

GALLERY SUMUKHA appears transformed. Its walls glint with the rich hues of copper, tooled, etched, incised, and metamorphosed into art through the imagination of a Mysore-born, Bangalore-based artist named S.G. Vasudev. The eye takes in shades of his artistic evolution since 1975, captured through Copper Extracts: Soliloquies in Sheet Metal, on display from January 18 to February 1.

What makes these works stand apart? They consciously break the artificial boundaries between art and craft. They mirror Vasudev's imagistic concerns since he graduated from the Madras Government College of Arts and Crafts — via series titled Fantasy or Vriksha or Earthscape or He and She or Maithuna or Theatre of Life, and others. Whether rendered in oils or as copper reliefs, they throb with life, generating elephants that interact with man, monkeys that bound over primeval hillocks, man and woman in joyous communion, sun gods who preside over fantastical landscapes, earth scenes denuded of their greenery.

In each frame, the themes prove integral to 61-year-old Vasudev's persistent concerns. Momentary ideas, like stray strands, intertwine, then veer apart. Moods beckon, then disperse, summoning up colours in the mind through fluid, circuitous lines. "With copper reliefs, you have to be very sure of your drawing," stresses the artist. "In a way, I've shifted some of the compositions of my paintings onto these sheets, but you have to be conscious of positive-negative spaces, the impact of the tools used, how to evoke without colour."

Referring to a 1982 relief that reflects shades of red paint, Vasudev says: "I tried to evoke another dimension by applying oil paints, then I rubbed some areas. But later I thought: `Copper is such a fantastic, rich colour. Why should I add anything to it?'"

He points to Tree of Life from 1977, where an elephant is rooted in the earth, as a man and woman sprout into fruition. And then to a breakaway 2002 piece, an assemblage of 11 separate pieces against a rich maroon backdrop of fabric. Explaining that he worked on 10 to 12 works that were similarly crafted last year, Vasudev says: "Copper is a very traditional medium. It was used in the temple gopurams, in Tanjore plates. But I didn't want to couch my works in age-old ways. So I've adapted the tools to my expression."

Whether through the intricate lines that delineate bark texture or the knot-like surfaces evocative of foliage and fruit, the artistic Kannada calligraphy that adorns a tree trunk or the ornate-tailed monkeys that leap off a rocky precipice, the hieroglyphics are individualistic, essentially Vasudev. Working with a team of skilled copper workers headed by Chandran, the friendly carpenter at the Cholamandal Artists' Village at Injambakkam, outside Chennai, he muses: "I've quite intentionally preserved the decorative element in my work, despite criticism. It's so much a part of Indian art, whether in the miniatures, the murals or the sculptures. You recall how it surfaces in figures of Kali or Durga or Shiva?"

And then, his train of thought takes him to Marc Chagall's magnificent stained glass works, done by a skilled artisan outside Paris. How were they executed, Vasudev wondered. The explanation? Chagall would paint, and hand it over for execution. The artisan would order special glass to match Chagall's palette, cut out the intricate shapes, then assemble them under the master painter's guidance.

Tracing a parallel in his own life, Vasudev recalls his interaction with the brilliant weaver Subbarayulu of Vijaynagar, who has translated his paintings into silk tapestries over the past 10 years, "He insisted right at the beginning that there should be no time or money constraints. I agreed. And Subbarayulu stressed: `Please don't paint for tapestry. There would be no challenge for me if you do.' I really respect that. Each medium has its limitations and possibilities. We have to work within that framework."

But Vasudev's life in craft as art goes back to his student days as a national scholarship holder in Chennai from 1964, under the tutelage of the legendary K.C.S. Panicker. "He was a friend, philosopher and guide to me," he reflects. "Panicker always encouraged us to try different media, to express ourselves through enamel or terracotta, if we felt like it."

As a natural corollary, when Panicker founded Cholamandal in 1965 with a group of his students including Vasudev, its basic communal principle was the eking out of a living through crafts such as copperwork, batik, or ceramics, in order to survive in art. "Kuppuswami taught us to work in copper, after we left college," Vasudev recalls. "And we taught our skills to Chandran. Even now, I share detailed drawings with him, including depths and textures."

Vasudev, who was the art director for the award-winning Kannada films, Vamsa Vriksha and Samskara, lived and worked at Cholamandal until his relocation in Bangalore in the late 1980s. Apart from tapestries and copper reliefs, he has also had a shy at wood inlay with master craftsman Nagaraj from Mysore, under the auspices of the Crafts Council of Karnataka.

What of Vasudev's recent artistic forays? They include an exhibition of tapestries and paintings at Mumbai's Sakshi Gallery in September 2002. And Tribute to A.K. Ramanujam, an exhibition of line drawings shown in London in December 2002, in response to the late poet-folklorist-translator's masterly oeuvre. And his Theatre of Life series, exhibited in Munich last November-December.

As Copper Extracts gets set to glow through three halls of Mumbai's Jehangir Art Gallery in February, Vasudev waxes nostalgic: "When I began using images of the elephant, which took me back to the Mysore Dasara with my grandfather, who worked at the palace, and the Kannada alphabet surfaced in my work, I was puzzled. Until, one day, Ramanujam explained to me: Every time you go forward, you go back to your roots."

Honoured with the Lalit Kala Akademi's national award for his 1967 painting, The Procession, then the Karnataka Rajyotsava award in 1994, Vasudev continues to explore art with incessant energy. Couched for the current viewer through the retrospective glow of copper. His is a creative flame undimmed by time.


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