‘Roopantar’, an art exhibition of nearly 100 sculptures, has been curated out of the National Gallery of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Experimenting with different materials such as wood, fibreglass, stone, bronze, the exhibits demonstrate a multitude of thematic explorations, from exploring the human, animals forms to delineating abstract/spiritual representations.
The NGMA exhibition, curated in-house by the Delhi-based gallery, reflects around 50 years of modern and contemporary art practice in India. It includes some of the well-known sculptors: Balbir Singh Katt, Ramkinkar Baij, Leela Mukherjee, C. Dakshinamoorthy, Nagji Patel, to name a few. The collection is remarkable in the astonishing scale of different forms of sculptures that it covers. The sculptures stand out for their stillness and provocative nature, while the others call out the visitor’s attention for their unambiguous ‘living’ quality.
The prominence of the form of figures in the show merits an important observation related to the origins of sculpture in the Indian subcontinent, which witnessed the earliest works of “plastic art” in parts of Indus Valley. “This first emphasis on vitality of the whole figure is important, because it was to characterise almost all the later art,” according the 1962 editorial of Marg magazine, while referring to the ancient terracotta figures of the hump bull exuding a forceful expression.
However, one major drawback of the NGMA show is the lack of context about the movement of sculpture-making in India in the time span that it covers. Why did artists make the sculptures the way they did? What kind of artistic movements or socio-political ethos of the day informed their practice? How did the form of sculpture transform over a period of 50 years? The exhibition does not answer these questions.
For example, Britain’s domination of India for 200-odd years caused a major setback to one of the world’s greatest sculptural traditions, due to the introduction of colonial education in art schools, which included: sentimental portrait sculpture, glorification of the imperialists and naturalist imitation of the Graeco-Roman models. In this context, Abanidranath Tagore, among other artists, has made a significant contribution towards the revival of sculpture forms in India. (Marg, 1962, Volume 1)
Despite the curatorial lacunae, a walk through ‘Roopantar’ is a transformative experience, and can be summed up in the words of the Marg editorial: “The communication of the processes of Becoming of the sculptor, seem also to offer a deeper experience to the onlooker, because they call upon all the faculties in us to be alive to the processes in which the artist is engaged. And thus the aesthetic of creative sculpture opens up new areas of awareness to the tentative sensibility, deepening the inner life and thus bringing about the only kind of subtle change that is possible in art experience, the intensification of the consciousness, the enrichening of the emotion, the refinement of feeling the integration of the whole man.”
Below is an overview of the NGMA show: