Manjunath Kamath’s exhibition, ‘Era Elsewhere’, at New Delhi’s Gallery Espace uproots the very idea of history as a definite version of truth, while creating an atmosphere of a ruin (or even a museum) populated with fragmented objects. His deliberately distorted sculptures acquire their form and beauty through disparate terracotta items, achieving a rare unified structure without hiding their simultaneously heterogenous appearance. These sculptures have a unique architectural quality, where the artist seems to have performed a dissection on them, often revealing protruding scaffoldings, hollowed out spaces or even termites.
At the basement of the gallery is placed a large, circular wall installation, which is a reminder of the image of the wheel of dharma, an important iconographic symbol in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Except Manjunath’s wheel portrays a dystopian world as he conjoins dissimilar elements into a monumental terracotta exhibit. The painted terracotta object, 78 inches in diameter, is titled ‘Unfolding Moon’.
This process of making and unmaking is also reflected in Manjunath’s exquisite works on paper and silk, which are also part of the exhibition. Human, animal forms are similarly revealed in a partial way, hidden as they are under clouds (Behind the Clouds, Gouache on Silk). The overall effect is that of an aristocratic era or a religious setting, suspended in fantasy, as the artist plays around with ideas of truth and untruth.
Explaining Manjunath’s practice of combining multiple cultural symbols and iconographies, a note to exhibition reads: “With the artist’s vested interest in studying iconographies and the evolution/changes of the same that take place according to time and diverse influences, enables him to create images which are an amalgamation of different cultures yet not belonging to any one in particular, and also acts as an attempt to subvert them and free them from their historical purpose.”
The influence of traditional art forms (miniature paintings and murals) found in his work can be traced to his childhood years. The Mangalore-born artist grew up looking at Raja Ravi Verma’s prints as well as other religious, traditional paintings. The storytelling sessions by his grandmother cultivated his sense of the visual by way of imagining things.
As a child, having grown up in a region known for many ancient temples, visiting religious sites was a regular practice. The sight of the temple, adorned with stone statues, murals, and depictions of mythological episodes, was no less than a centre of art for the people of his village, according to the artist. It was also around that time that his training in art began, which did not take place at a formal school. The village craftsman, who made Durga and Ganesh idols for festivals and homes, was his first teacher.
Manjunath’s career in art began as an illustrator with The Economic Times in New Delhi, a stint that lasted about five years until he realized he had to eke out on his own. After quitting his job, he went to Cardiff as artist-in-residence at the School of Art & Design, University of Wales Institute, where he learnt digital art. Visits to museums in the UK, where he spent a lot of time looking at Indian miniatures, gave him a fresh perspective about traditional art forms from his own country. The experience not only made him a voracious collector of sculptures and other crafts but also laid the foundation of what would eventually be seen as a unique form of visual vocabulary in his art.
Manjunath, who started exhibiting his works in the 90s, has worked in painting, drawing, digital prints, video and sculptures. But it is the medium of terracotta that has been his preferred choice in the recent past.
For the artist, who studied sculpture from Mysuru’s Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts, the process of sculpting is not all that different from drawing, in terms of creating a form.
“I start developing a form [of terracotta] as I would do in my drawings, keep building some parts in detail and leaving some unfinished. I oscillate from one form to another and work on them later, almost like working on a puzzle, by not just joining but by breaking as well. Carefully cutting away portions of the sculpture and breaking them open to allow a peep inside, treating the sculptures’ interiors as architectural forms. Painting on terracotta sculptures, gives birth to a new skin/layer, recreating elements of history in a new context,” he said.
In the present exhibition, forms of gods, animals and humans appear as instruments of Manjunath’s chosen act of dehistoricization. Conflict is at the centre of it, whether it is a bull and tiger engaged in a fight in ‘Ego Icon’, the figure of a deity trampling an animal in ‘Pokkadettaya’ or a collection of half-human forms in a painted terracotta wall installation titled ‘Skin of a Myth’.
While the “essential Indianness” of the exhibits is hard to miss, the artist deploys his belief in traditional art and culture to interrogate history, which is made more prominent by the use of an ancient medium, the terracotta.
Featured Image: Skin of a Myth
Writing and photography by Ankush Arora
The exhibition is on view from Jan 25 – Mar 2, 2019 at Gallery Espace, New Delhi.