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On Ravinder Reddy’s first one-man exhibition in Kolkata

A migrant labourer carrying her belongings. Photo: Special arrangement

A migrant labourer carrying her belongings. Photo: Special arrangement  

The gopurams or pyramidal towers of South Indian temples bristle with thousands of figures of deities. Rural deities or grama devatas, occasionally stark naked, are the guardians of villages in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. G. Ravinder Reddy strips these figures of their divinity and turns them into icons of working women of our times, transformed in his imagination into empowered goddesses who can hold their own, irrespective of class and social status.

Seven such mainly polyester resin fibreglass heads of goddesses of various sizes, mostly voluminous, are on display at Rasa, Reddy’s first one-man exhibition in Kolkata. It is curated by Anupa Mehta.

Grassroots aesthetics

“They are daily wage workers. They could be vegetable sellers or fishmongers. Within their means, they save some money for personal embellishment. They have an inbuilt aesthetic sense. So-called middle-class people have no aesthetic sense,” says Reddy.

Reddy pares down the facial features to the barest essentials till they are reduced to the basic structure of the upright nose, the rounded cheeks, moulded chin and high forehead above which starts the hairline. The outcropping facial features have a lot in common with rocky terrain. This is evident when he is working with clay, adding texture and building up the basic character. These are shapes created by volumes — positive and negative spaces.

The taut skin is in glowing primary or metallic hues. The full lips suggestively thrust forward are blood red. The dark tresses are neatly combed back into either a bun or a braid. In keeping with the conventional iconography of Hindu deities, the large dilated eyes with the black eyeballs in the middle are the focal points of these visages. They gaze straight ahead, fixing the viewer with a bold, intense, unswerving look, as if contemplating the future.

Size and colours

The luminous gaze is magnified even further because Reddy blows up these heads to a monumental scale. Their symmetry brings to mind Benin bronzes and terracottas that Reddy admires so, and the directness and frontality of antique Greek figures of young maidens known as Korai. “The more colours, the more confusion. Folk artists use only three locally available colours — yellow, white, red. For me, the challenge is expression through minimum means. The more colours you use, the more you break the volume. Primary colours are best. To break the monotony of surface I use more hairpins — stimulating the plane.”

After slowly walking around them, one feels even more that these huge masses with protuberances are more like nature’s creations. On his mastery of scale, Reddy says: “I work by trial and error. This is my main concern. Whether it is of 6 inches or 12 feet, it has to hold attention. The Mohenjodaro dancing girl is tiny but has vitality. Unlike European art, Indian art is not representational. It goes beyond. Indians made portraits representing personality. They were never exact.”

Contemporary mode

The first of these heads was exhibited in 1989 in Delhi. As if to validate his decision to create an easily identifiable contemporary mode of expression and figuration within the ambit of Indian tradition, the 63-year-old sculptor, who trained at Government College of Fine Arts and Architecture, Hyderabad, and Royal College of Art, London, volunteers this statement: “I have been asked why I don’t engage with current issues. How long do they hold interest? Newspapers grab our attention for only a few moments. I am not interested in what the West is doing. Affluent countries have to invent all the time. Ours is not an affluent country.”

Distancing himself even further from contemporary art that hitches on social issues, Reddy, who is among the country’s most sought-after contemporary artists, says: “Everybody is tagging on to social issues. But such works have very little impact. Art is an intellectual exercise. It does not impact the masses.”

Asked why he continues to make these already famous heads, Reddy points out how they have evolved. They have a calmer expression. The contours of the faces are less rugged. The eyes and nostrils are not as flared as before. The shape of the bun is suggestive of a penis (“It is a phallic symbol,” says Reddy), as are the decorations on the hairbands that could easily be mistaken for a myriad lipsticks. These recondite symbols notwithstanding, the sight of six similar heads, albeit of dissimilar sizes and colours, can pall after some time. And, talking of scale, the bag containing most of her earthly possessions that one of the women carries on her head seems a trifle too small.

Beautiful women

What one misses in this show most are Reddy’s magnificent full-bodied female nudes that militate against Victorian prudery. He has also done a series of modern young women in trendy clothes as clinging as the Kalighat pat beauties, which Reddy himself adores. “I definitely want to bring them here,” he exclaims.

A stark terracotta head. Photo: Special arrangement

A stark terracotta head. Photo: Special arrangement  

Ironically, amidst all that pharaonic splendour, the smallest and most understated of the heads, a plain terracotta piece, is the one that catches the eye. With a ruddy face, short hair and far-seeing eyes, she really stands out.

ON SHOW: Rasa, till August 8, Emami Art, Kolkata Centre for Creativity.

The writer focuses on Kolkata’s vanishing heritage and culture.

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 12:33:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/on-the-face-of-it/article28406651.ece

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