How Kerala sculptor Anila Jacob sculpted her way to the limelight with her signature pieces in different materials


The Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram is truly a fitting recognition for the versatile artist

Anila Jacob did not want to be a sculptor. She wanted to paint, like her grandfather and paternal uncle, who had studied art abroad. However, KCS Panicker, legendary artist and Principal of the Madras College of Arts and Crafts (Chennai), thought otherwise. He convinced her father to enrol Anila for the sculpture course instead.

Barely into her 20s, she wept and protested. “There weren’t any girls in my class. I was the only girl among 21 boys. The whole point of going to college was in talking and having fun with your friends. Panicker sir assured me that if I didn’t like it, he would let me change my course,” says Anila. More than half a century later, she is still sculpting, and the Raja Ravi Varma Puraskaram (2016) awarded to her by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi is a fitting recognition.

Anila Jacob

Anila Jacob   | Photo Credit: H Vibhu

Much like her class in college, she is the only woman on the list of awardees since 2001, which includes stalwarts such as MF Hussain, A Ramachandran, Akkitham Narayanan, Ganesh Pyne, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, CN Karunakaran, Kanayi Kunhiraman, Artist Namboodiri and KG Subhramaniam.

“It is only hard work that has kept me creating and sculpting for the last 54 years,” says the soft-spoken septuagenarian.

“Sculpting is not easy. People are afraid, they get intimidated, plus it is physically demanding. And in my case, expensive too.” The drawing room of her house at Marampally, in Aluva, Ernakulam district, on the banks of the Periyar is lined with her works.

These are a melding of mediums, of wood and metal. Her works are not diminutive, instead they are large in size.

‘Mother and Children’, a sculpture in cement by Anila Jacob

‘Mother and Children’, a sculpture in cement by Anila Jacob   | Photo Credit: S KOTHANDARAMAN

“I don’t like to make them small. The bigger, the better... that gives me satisfaction,” she says. Despite the bulk, the sculptures are deceptively fluid, giving the impression of motion, of moving forward.

“Bringing together these two mediums is not easy. My works show movement, I want to keep moving ahead. Look carefully and you’ll find your own story!” Inspiration derived from totem poles also reflects in the construction of her works.

Letting art speak
  • Anila confesses to being shy. “I don’t like to be in the spotlight. That said, I want the opposite for my works, I want them to be in the limelight and want them to be seen by as many people as possible.” Her eight-and-a-half-feet-tall sculpture themed ‘Unity in Diversity’ at the Cochin International Airport Limited’s (CIAL) international terminal (T3) incorporates the three elements of water, earth and sky. A boatman ferrying three girls — suggesting three main religions — stands for water, an elephant for earth and a hornbill for the sky. “All these are symbolic of Kerala,” she says. Creating the work took 45 days. “I do make a sketch before I work, but often I don’t go with it. Both mediums are different. Mine is three dimensional and I let the material guide me through my idea.”

Working primarily with wood, copper, brass and bronze, she found her artistic vocabulary when she came across the works of British sculptor Henry Moore while in college. He is known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures. In the college library, she preferred books on sculptures to those on paintings, which led her to Moore’s works. These served as a point of reference for the young artist.

“I liked his style very much, but I felt that I had to evolve my own individual style. Initially, I did look west-ward for inspiration, but over time, I developed my own style. Originality is very important for an artist to be taken note of,” says Anila. She was one of the handful of women artists who were part of the Madras Art Movement of the 1960s.

Anila Jacob receiving the award for her wood sculpture ‘The Image’ from SN Bendre, then Vice Chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi at the National Exhibition of Arts, in New Delhi in 1965

Anila Jacob receiving the award for her wood sculpture ‘The Image’ from SN Bendre, then Vice Chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi at the National Exhibition of Arts, in New Delhi in 1965   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The south India-based Madras Art Movement looked inward, creatively, to regional art forms for expression. It is an idea that has informed her work, more so as inspiration.

“Fisher-women, fishes, birds, animals... all that I see here finds a place in my art,” she says. The fisher-women she travelled with in buses on her way from Adayar to Cholamandal Artists’ Village come alive in her sculptures, as do the birds and the animals.

Born in Kottayam in 1941, she was raised in Mumbai and Chennai, besides Kerala. She credits her supportive family, especially her father who enrolled her for an ‘arts’ course rather than send her down the conventional route. Many questioned the decision, but she was firm.

“This was in 1961. People asked why I was being ‘abandoned’ and then there were questions such as ‘who will marry her?’”

What Panicker saw in her, to change her course, she doesn’t know.

“May be it was a will of God! We don’t get to decide. He was world-famous and well-travelled, he must have seen something in me. He was more a father figure than a teacher/mentor, a very loving father in fact,” she says. S Dhanapal, her teacher, too played a pivotal role in shaping her skills. As she made a portrait (sculpture), Dhanapal would make a portrait of hers to encourage her.

Pillar of support
  • There is a story that when Jacob Thomas was to marry Anila, KCS Panicker interviewed him. Jacob, who retired from the British Bank of the Middle East (Dubai), laughs at the memory. “Yes, he did speak to me. He told me to always encourage Anila and never to stop her from reaching her potential and pursuing her career.” It is something that Jacob has clearly taken to heart and has been a strong source of support and encouragement. “I wouldn’t have been able to do all this without his support. When the kids were young, he helped and gave me the space to work. So when the need arose in 1979 when he had to move to West Asia, I took a break. But I never once thought of quitting,” says Anila.

When Panicker established Cholamandal Artists’ Village in 1966, she was among the 40 artists invited to be part of it. It is a tie that still binds her. Although she no longer owns her space there, she is still a member and visits every year, even when she had to take a break when she moved to Dubai with her husband, and her staunchest supporter, Jacob Thomas, in 1979. That 19-year break saw her do less as family commitments took precedence.

“I would still return to Cholamandal to work, I had a few exhibitions in the meantime.” She managed a couple of exhibitions in Dubai.

However, by 1979, Anila had already been part of a number of exhibitions — in India and abroad. In 1965, she won a Lalit Kala Akademi (Delhi) award and in 1968, another from the Lalit Kala Akademi (Chennai).

A sculpture by Anila Jacob

A sculpture by Anila Jacob   | Photo Credit: H Vibhu

One of her granite sculptures for Expo 70’ (Japan) has been placed in Delhi’s Connaught Place, her other works have been installed at the beach in Kozhikode and Palakkad Fort and are part of galleries and private collections. Even when she wasn’t actively working, she kept in touch with the craft via her regular visits to Cholamandal.

That she is part of history as far as fine arts go, that she is part of a group of artists (women too) who created a new idiom of art eludes her.

“I didn’t think of ourselves as creating history. We were a group of artists doing what we liked very much. But I did know that I could go ahead in my career and succeed. I was prepared to work hard for it,” says Anila.

She fondly remembers her association with fellow women artists such as Arnawaz Driver, TK Padmini and Rani Pooviah. The late TK Padmini was a few years older than her.

“We were not in the same class, but I knew her. After all, there were only so many of us (women) there. She was brilliant, with so much potential... but gone too soon.”

Even today, very few women venture into sculpting. “For one, it is overwhelming. And it is not at all easy and you need all the support you can get, physically and emotionally, to pursue this line,” says Anila.

She is appreciative of the Lalit Kala Akademi for the work it is doing and wants to do more for Kerala artists in her capacity as Central Council Member (Modern Art).

That brings us to the inevitable question — how different is the scene now for the practising woman artist from the 1960s? “Not very,” says Anila with a smile.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 1:07:16 AM |

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