At the entrance of the Balan Nambiar retrospective now on in the National Gallery of Modern Arts (NGMA) Bengaluru there is a photograph of one of his most powerful and sharply political works. ‘Monument to the Assassinated,’ Nambiar’s 1996 sculpture that stands on the premises of the Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi, is made of Kota stone, granite and steel. It is a representation of the assassination of the forest king Vali (Bali) of Kishkinda, as plotted by his brother Sugriva and carried out by Rama from behind a row of seven sal trees. Nambiar has used seven slabs of Kota stone, 2.5 m high, with a groove cut at chest level along the side of all the slabs, to trace the path of the arrow.
Vali, or Bali, is one of the most important characters in the classical performing arts of Koodiyattam and Kathakali. The death scene of Bali has great dramatic significance in these performances. It is also one of the Theyyams performed every year by the artisan community of northern Kerala, and there are innumerable little shrines to Bali that mark the regard in which this mythical figure is held.
This is the first retrospective of the full scope of Balan Nambiar’s oeuvre. The 80-year old artist’s work is deeply rooted in the soil, elements and traditions of his native landscape. At the same time, working in a wide range of media with equal measures of imagination and expertise, Nambiar has constantly explored how to capture the world of movement, space, and time using new forms of expression.
The breathtaking retrospective, curated with deep insight by Nambiar’s long-time friend, the arts writer and critic Sadanand Menon, presents a rich and comprehensive insight into the artist’s development over six decades. It begins with watercolours in 1957 and traces Nambiar's artistic growth all the way up to the soaring metal sculptures and the luminous enamels on silver and copper that he learned to make in the studio of his late father-in-law, the Italian artist Paolo De Poli, in Padova, Italy.
The exhibition has surely benefited from Nambiar’s meticulous attention to archiving and documenting his own work over the years. Bringing together an array of his paintings, sculptures, enamels and extensive collection of photographs, the retrospective is spread across the NGMA’s ground floor gallery space as well as garden space. The catalogue and exhibition designed by Rm. Palaniappan includes some of Nambiar’s design drawings for his monumental sculptures, as well as photographs of the making of the works. From his early years, Nambiar has been conscious of his responsibilities as an artist: to educate, conserve, archive.
Nambiar was born in 1937 in Kannapuram in Kerala to a farming family. During his childhood, when ploughing the field was part of his routine, natural forms such as the blade of grass and the paddy plant became a part of his imaginative landscape. So did sculpting in clay. In Menon’s curator’s essay, Nambiar reflects on the little clay sculptures of his formative years. “Probably sculpting is the starting point of my career. I do remember making toys of animal forms, with clay collected from a potter in my village in Kerala, and driving a hard bargain with playmates while bartering them for gooseberries or mangoes. That was the starting point.”
Nambiar joined the Indian Railways as a draughtsman and moved to Madras. There, with the encouragement of K.C.S Panikker, the then Principal of Government College of Arts and Crafts, Madras, Nambiar quit his job at the age of 30 to formally study sculpture.
Four years and a degree later, Nambiar moved to Bangalore where, since 1971, he has been working as an independent artist and sculptor. The city also became the base for his extensive travels to Kerala and Tulunadu for academic research into the Theyyam and Bhoota rituals of the region.
He has carried out extensive documentation of 27 different ritual art forms of Kerala and the coastal districts of Karnataka, which includes 10,000 photographs taken by him and recordings over 150 hours of music, for which he received a Nehru Fellowship. A collection of his photographs was later acquired by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.
It is fitting that the retrospective opens in Bengaluru, home to Nambiar’s long career. It is here that he had his first big exhibition of sculptures. An early commission for the Hegde and Golay watch factory, in 1973, gave Nambiar an opportunity to work on a large steel sculpture. Two years later, he had his first major exhibition of large welded steel garden sculptures in the lawns of Hotel Ashok, where he showed 24 steel sculptures between two and six metres high.
As a sculptor, Nambiar has worked with clay, wood, bronze, mild steel, glass fibre reinforced concrete (GRC), enamel, and stainless steel. His work has involved soaring artistic vision combined with meticulous computer-aided design and laser-cutting technology.
Nests and conches
His monumental pieces in different media include six outdoor sculptures in GRC at the R&D Centre of Portland Cement Factory, Heidelberg, in 1978; a granite composition for the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, in 1995; a boulder-edged installation, ‘The Resurrection of Janaki’, in the same decade; and a series of large stainless steel sculptures including, most recently, a hanging sculpture ‘Nest’ for Ganjam Jewellers, Bengaluru, in 2015, of which a scale model is part of the retrospective; and ‘Reach for the Sky’, a seven-metre high piece for Bank Note Paper Mill, Mysuru.
Set in the calm green environment of NGMA Bengaluru, the retrospective presents a unique opportunity to see the evolution of Nambiar’s work over the decades. For example, ‘Valampiri Shankha’ is a massive stainless steel sculpture of a conch shell.
His earlier ‘Conch’, in GRC, created in 1978, was his first large sculpture in this form. In appearance, ‘Conch’ was not only shaped like the seashell used for ritual prayer, but also suggested a tightly closed flower bud that was about to open, or a cocoon from which a delicate butterfly was about to emerge. ‘Valampiri Shankha’, created two decades later in stainless steel, is taut and minimal, with a sense of energy, movement and music.
As Menon says in the curator’s essay, “Nambiar’s fecund symbols of growth like leaves, darbha grass, paddy stalk, lotus, solar objects and such leap out of their form to inhabit that no-man’s-land between nature and culture, that ambiguous zone where technology, language, magic and the social imagination overlap.”
With their overarching green canopy, the gardens of the NGMA Bengaluru are a perfect setting in which to view Nambiar’s sculptures: a cluster of vilakkus in cast steel; a dark tangle of jagged lines that are birds in flight; the delicacy of a suspended weaver bird’s nest forged in powerful steel; tall paddy stalks emerging like sinuous black threads out of the earth, reaching up for the sky.
The writer is an IAS officer based in Bengaluru.