Eighty-eight year-old Achutan Ramachandran Nair, aka A Ramachandran, is having an exclusive show of sculptures, a first in his six-decade-long artistic career. The Delhi-based senior painter and sculptor explains, “Time was never correct for that. Unless you are known as a sculptor, you won’t get attention. Also, earlier, people didn’t look at sculptures carefully. They were fascinated by paintings. Now they are looking closely. They are more interested in sculptures.”
Some of his iconic sculptures from the 1970s to the most recent ones created in 2023 have been selected for display at Delhi’s Shridharani Art Gallery and Vadehra Art Gallery.
It’s true that Ramachandran was never known as a sculptor. Not that he never exhibited them. His retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, held in 2016, included his seminal sculptures. Even his landmark mural, ‘Yayati’, which consisted of 12 panels inspired by the Mahabharata and imagined as the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) of a temple in Kerala, had 13 sculptures at its centre. It was with this group of sculptures for ‘Yayati’ (1984), that Ramachandran began doing sculptures alongside paintings.
The exhibition captures the evolution of his sculptures which began as compactly shaped ‘Embroynic forms’ in the 1970s and later transformed into long totem-pole like figures. These rugged, raw forms in bronze were placed on a pedestal. Explaining the journey, the Padma Bhushan awardee says, “When I began doing sculptures, I was working within a limited scope. I wanted to work in a size that’s easy to handle, easy to carve, and easy to place in a room. There was a practical approach to sculptures. I know the sculptures have a definite and different character than paintings, so they had to have a comprehensive shape of their own. You can’t show a woman in a sculpture as in a painting. So the earlier sculptures were comprehensive and could be placed on a pedestal in a room.”
The artist wanted to express the mystery surrounding life. He elaborates, “The embryo is like a seed in the germination process; the seed opens up, it sprouts and life starts! So there is a great mystery of something happening in that small space. All this was going on in my mind when I was doing these series of embryonic forms. All life forms in this world begin like that. There is a lot of disturbance before life is born.”
While many of his contemporaries were looking towards the west in the 80s, the Santiniketan-trained artist remained intrigued by Indian culture and traditions. Myths and traditions that he had come across while touring temples in his native Kerala, Udaipur, and the idyllic life in rural West Bengal were further entrenched in his memory. It all started to show up in his paintings in the same vivid way that it did in his sculptures. In ‘Yayati’ and ‘Bahuroopi’ (2006), the sculptures draw from the ritualistic atmosphere of the shrines.
Ramachandran elaborates, “Many of my elements are taken from Kerala’s sculptural traditions. We have many rituals. As a child, I used to go to the Krishna temple. In the garbha griha there would be very dim light and beautifully painted walls…that memory lingered in my mind. From ‘Yayati’ onwards, my whole effort was to look inward to look into culture rather than going towards Europe and America. I wanted to enquire about the elements that constitute our cultural moorings. Why is there so much distortion, exaggerated imagery, why larger than life-size images? I asked all these fundamental questions. All the work since ‘Yayati’ is more an enquiry into modern mind’s perception.”
With ‘Yayati’, the artist also attempted to showcase how to make sculptures part of paintings itself.
By then, Nature had also become a mainstay in his work. The details from his lotus pond, albeit in a nuanced manner, appear to be cover his elongated figures. “The images were inspired by totem pole structures, or primitive structures found in different cultures including Africa. I simplified my sculptures into vertical columns first and then modelled out a bare body without any ornamentation. I used a thread-like line drawing, working the surface to create embellishments like drapery and jewellery.”
The show features some of his latest sculptures, done in 2022- 2023; including his self-portrait and Tagore’s figure. Titled “Echo of a Poem, 2022”, Ramachandran shows a pensive Tagore with words and lines from his poem covering him. “Tagore’s work is one of my last sculptures. I am too old to do monumental sculptures so I did a small clay sculpture and asked my wife to cover the body with famous writings of Tagore. Then I decided to write “When the mind is without fear’ and repeat it in several places on the figure. I used it to give a certain connotation to the poem.”
Talking about all his influences, Ramachandran says, “I am a person who has imbibed things in different parts of the world. Whatever great things I saw I included in my art, whatever my teacher taught me became guidelines for me to work and my reading of great literature In Malayalam has also contributed. I am fortunate to be in three great cultural spaces - Kerala, Santiniketan and Delhi, which used to be the centre of all cultural activity.”
The show is on at Vadehra Art Gallery, Defence Colony, till November 22.