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ARRESTING: Nandagopal's works have an exuberant quality. PHOTO: G. VENKET RAM
ARRESTING: Nandagopal's works have an exuberant quality. PHOTO: G. VENKET RAM

GEETA DOCTOR

S. Nandagopal's stunning new body of work makes a debut at the Singapore Museum of Art in collaboration with Gajah Gallery.

HE calls them "Frontal Narrative Sculptures". This however gives no idea of the exuberant quality of S. Nandagopal's series of bronze and copper pieces. They soar and leap into space with all the power and grace of a traditional piece of South Indian art whether chiselled on stone as they are at Mahabalipuram, or the exquisite bronzes of the Chola period.Yet, they are rooted in the every day. As Nandagopal points out, he has incorporated the very many bits and piece of found objects that have caught his fancy, that range from ladles with holes in them, flat spatulas with rounded heads, massive cleavers for husking coconuts discovered in the ancestral kitchen of his wife Kala, to huge mean-looking weighing hooks that he stumbled upon during a visit to the Chennai harbour. These give a whimsical quality to his pieces that often feature great winged birds and strange beasts that might have been taken from Indian mythology, with massive flanges of abstract shapes, that give them a monumental quality. These contradictions, visual, material - he uses both bronze and copper fusing them to vivid effect with glossy surfaces that suggest the textured skin of a high power automobile - and spatial, the pieces are both solidly rooted on their pedestals and yet give the appearance of being in the air, are what make his work endlessly arresting. It's undoubtedly the most significant body of work by a contemporary sculptor to be exhibited in a Museum outside the country. Nineteen pieces of Nandagopal's current series of work in bronze and copper that have been commissioned by the Gajah Gallery at Singapore will be on view at the Singapore Art Museum from February 9 to 15, 2006."When Jasdeep Sandhu first came to me with this proposal I was little surprised. It's the sort of dream assignment that most artists cannot even hope to get. I was a bit sceptical at first, but the interaction has been so good between us, he gave me complete freedom to work in whichever manner that I wanted to. I feel a great sense of satisfaction that it has worked out so well."

Quality of craftsmanship

Jasdeep Sandhu is a Singaporean of Indian origin, who has obviously seized the moment when Contemporary Indian Art is suddenly being talked about, and more to the point being bought by young Indians living in South Asia and other places. "It has a lot to do with the quality of craftsmanship that Indian artists bring to their work of course," exclaims one financial analyst working in Hong Kong, "But it has even more to do with the spectacular way that India is growing on the stock market. Suddenly, everyone is looking at what to invest in India, and they find that art too can be a good investment."Nandagopal belongs to that generation of artists who have had to wrestle with these categories of Indian and International, or traditional and contemporary, or where to find the great gurus of art in an ever changing art market. He points for instance to the example of one of the masters with whom he had had an intermittent dialogue, Antony Caro, the British sculptor who was known exclusively at one time for his massive walls of abstract metal forms. "Have you seen Caro's recent works?" he exclaims. The master of 20th Century gigantic metal structures has now mellowed enough to use figurative forms. A work entitled "Warriors" looks as though it has been inspired from the serried ranks of ancient Chinese clay warriors. Nandagopal who has pursued a lonely path of figuration for more than three decades is almost triumphant. "I don't want to go back to mythology, but you just cannot ignore 4,000 years of history," says Nandagopal referring to the choice of the subjects that might begin with a specific reference to figures from the epics, such as Garuda, Bhishma on his bed of arrows, Krishna dancing on a serpent, or Vishnu reclining on one. There is even a reference to Arjuna's penance from Mahabalipuram, though in Nandagopal's version it is the cat that gets top billing. In the past, such references might have been seen as excessively parochial or too South Indian, but in a newly liberated post-modern world where every borrower becomes an innovator of distinction, Nandagopal's images are neither too ethnic or exotic, but richly composite offerings that make the traditional as bright and burnished as the work. Nandagopal is never tired of acknowledging the influence of the sculptors from whom he has drawn his own inspiration. There's P.V. Janakiram from whom he says he not only learnt the backbone of frontal sculpture, but also the little tricks, such as outlining the edges of his figures with thin metal tubing. Nandagopal's use of this technique has however taken him into another dimension altogether. As he has said earlier, he started with the idea of being a painter. He learnt to draw with the same fluency that has distinguished all the artists of the Madras School. This was a time when artists were trying to discover the techniques that had inspired the artists of the Ajantha murals and some of them experimented with the use of the double outline, one dark, one lighter in shade that appeared to convey both the feeling of mass in the bodies of the various human and celestial beings, but also the suggestion of weightlessness. Nandagopal's use of a welded outline of metallic tubing, sometimes with a second inner line, or a carapace of parallel lines creates this same sense of fullness combined with a suggestion of airy ribbing, as if the creatures were breathing.

Added element

He also pays a tribute to the Dhanraj Bhagat, who helped him to understand abstract art, he says. This is the added element that lifts Nandagopal's images out of their traditional context into a more fluid space. The figures may belong to a specific mythology but the way in which he has used his forms, both the more solid pieces and the flowing lines together with a network of meshed shapes and circles, keyholes and rivets punched into the raw metallic wings and plates that arise from the sides like the fins of a rocket, suggest that he is keenly aware of the technology of the modern age.


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