An artist returns to his elements

S. Nandagopal’s universe was animated by imagination and the transmogrifying quality of fire

April 15, 2017 11:06 pm | Updated November 29, 2021 01:16 pm IST

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 22/01/2015: INFUSED WITH LIGHT: S. Nandagopal with his latest body of work at Forum Art Gallery in Chennai on January 22, 2015.
Photo: R. Ravindran

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 22/01/2015: INFUSED WITH LIGHT: S. Nandagopal with his latest body of work at Forum Art Gallery in Chennai on January 22, 2015. Photo: R. Ravindran

There was a sense of irony to standing and watching artist/sculptor Nandagopal’s body being consigned to the furnace at an electric crematorium in Chennai this afternoon.

The small group of fellow artists, friends and family, who came to accompany the 71-year-old artist on his final journey, must have experienced different emotions. But I found myself reflecting on the symbiotic relationship between a metal sculptor and his primary medium, fire.

Recurring image

I couldn’t shake off the recurring image of having seen Thambi, several times over the past almost four decades I knew him, standing with his goggles and gloves in front of his own studio furnace, softening copper or bronze sheets over the flame, beating and flattening and shaping it, cutting with an oxyacetylene torch and wresting out a phantasmagoria of lively forms – part mythic and part from the anthropomorphic world – a universe animated as much by imagination, as by the transmogrifying quality of fire. No wonder the sthapatis and musharis of old were so unqualifyingly venerated.

And I stood there and mused with rather inappropriate (Hamletian) black humour, ‘Ah, Thambi, you are at last in your elements’.

As the son of the artist and inspirational teacher K.C.S. Paniker and, along with him, as one of the founding members of the Cholamandal Artists Village in Madras in 1967, Nandagopal was, perhaps, the youngest of the group. He had just graduated in physics from Loyola College, Madras, the year before. However, the next five years, he studied painting and ceramics at the College of Arts and Crafts, Madras. I still remember with wicked joy, having travelled on top of a truck as a student of Loyola College myself in 1970, to reach the Cholamandal artists’ commune, to invite these artists for a massive student do we were organizing. As 20-something students, and also inspired by the May ’68 events in Paris and its international ripples, a group of artists in Madras wilfully abandoning the comforts of urban commerce and retreating to a ‘rural idyll’ was, of course, quite charismatic for us. We wanted to invite them over for a public ‘conversation’.

After much discussion, eventually the inspiring artists Haridasan, Gopinath, Paramasivam and Nanadagopal agreed to come over. But when they reached the college on the appointed day, the sight of over two thousand cheering students in front of their open-air platform, completely unnerved these quiet chaps. I had been given the task of moderating the discussion and, come what may, they simply lapsed into a profound and charming silence. Finally, it was Nandagopal who opened up due to his familiarity with the environs of the college and greater felicity with words and ended up answering all the questions and rescuing the event from being a fiasco. Not to be fazed, the students gave them all a standing ovation at the end.

Nandagopal’s artistic trajectory has followed the same pre-occupation as that of the thirty-plus members of that collective, derived from their mentor Paniker – an incessant quest for identity. It was a deep question at that time, albeit posed in naïve ways. It is a question centrally connected with questions of modernity in Indian art right from the times of Abanindranath Tagore in the late 19th century – can Indian modernity be a carbon copy of Western modernity or can it posit a distinctly different aesthetic and social concern?

In an interesting way, the tension of which is still evident in the works of the artists from Cholamandal, they are still trapped between Ajanta and Paul Klee. Reflecting on Nandagopal’s works in beaten metal (copper/bronze), embellished with lacquered colours, engravings, enamelling and silver plating, give an excellent entry into this artistic tension.

While aspiring to abstraction, he doesn’t abandon the need for narrative linearity so much a part of this soil. He wilfully goes against reigning practice, to renounce dimensionality and volume in his sculptures, in favour of perspective and flatness, which contributes something like a painterly frontality to his work, enabling it to be snucked against a wall.

Here, an old concept of ‘asymmetry in symmetry’ introduced to him by Josef James, the resident critic and theoretical guru at Cholamandal, went a long way in formalising what were otherwise attempts at riding on existing mythologies, tantric concepts and the mystic pull of the ‘indigenous’. The need to integrate the formal discoveries of modern art with indigenous ‘tradition’ was at the root of this quest, in order to make his art meaningful and relevant.

Distinct style

The way Nandagopal evolved his technique was distinctly unique. Borrowing from craft traditions, he would draw on box-boards, enlarge it to transfer on metal sheets, put it through the flame, use metal wires and rods to braze one segment of his narrative with another, apply nitric acid in an almost painterly way, buff it, and then apply the final ployurythene lacquer – he brought together the skills of a metal worker, ceramist, jeweller and painter to his work.

The fact that he got his Lalit Kala Akademi award at 24 and the Grand Prize at the Fourth International Triennale, Delhi, for his work ‘Ritual Image’ at 32, set him apart for greater things. He used to say that only when an artist is “dejected or dissatisfied” that he can create.

There is a feeling that in the past few months he was increasingly in a rage. When I last met him a few weeks ago, during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Cholamandal Village, he was in a bit of a tizzy against the media and the way it had marginalised this artistic experiment. The tension and his frayed nerves were evident. It was not a healthy sign.

Today, Thambi’s wife Kala said quietly, ‘He did all that he wanted to do before he went; his great dream was do a book on his father, which he just did a few months ago’ [‘Paniker’, published by ArtWorld, Chennai, 2016]. Now, it will be interesting to see how the Cholamandal Arts Village he nurtured along with other artists all these years, a tad rigidly perhaps, will fare in the future.

As for Nandagopal, he must already have found another other-worldly element to sculpt his indigenism with.

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