Photo Essay – Changing forms of Indian sculpture

‘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: 

National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi         
Nagji Patel, ‘Seed’, Marble
Natraj Sharma, ‘Standing Man’, finer glass and wood 
Natraj Sharma, ‘Standing Man’, finer glass and wood 
Rajat Kumar Ghose, untitled, terracotta
Ramkinkar Baij, ‘Horse Head’, cement 
Ishwar Chandra Guota, ‘Putna Wadha’, terracotta   
R Stojadinovic, ‘Nude Girl’, bronze (left); Subhashini Puri, ‘Chasm’, bronze (right)   
R Stojadinovic, ‘Nude Girl’, bronze
S G Vidyashanker Satpaty; ‘Gopika’, copper and bronze 
M Dharmani, ‘Frustration’, marble
Narender, ‘Sculpture-1’, fibre glass 
Suman Yadav, ‘Family’, bronze 
Swaroopini Roy Shanti, ‘Man in Circle-II’, bronze
Neelam Yadav, ‘Head with the Red Nose’, stone (left);
Leela Mukherjee, ‘Figure Lifting Foot’, wood’ (right)
Leela Mukherjee, ‘Figure Lifting Foot’, wood’ (right)
Unknown, ‘Mother and Child’, wood (left);
Piraji Sagara, ‘Sculpture’, wood (centre);
Dhanraj Bhagat, ‘Cry’, wood painted (extreme right) 
Unknown, ‘Mother and Child’, wood (left)
Tapan Basu, ‘Brahma’, copper
Shashi Arora, ‘No Answer Mama’, ceramic
Panwar Goverdhan Singh, ‘Seasonal Beggar’, terracotta
Shyamal, untitled, terracotta (left);
Shashi, ‘The Budding Venus’, stoneware (right) 
S C Ahija, ‘Musician’, aluminum 
Harbhajan Sandhu, ‘Harvest’, bronze (left);
Mohini Trikha, ‘Who the Victim, Who the Slayer’, bronze (right)
Harbhajan Sandhu, ‘Harvest’, bronze
Tarak Varol, untitled, bronze
Ashok Prajapati, “Sculpture-1”, bronze
Swaroopini Roy Shanti, untitled, fibre glass
Gopal Prasad Mandal, ‘Composition-1’, wood;
Lt. Gen. Ved Prakash, ‘Sculpture No.1’, neem wood
Krishna Shresta, ‘That Far’, plaster

In a rare showing, Delhi gets a glimpse of indigenous art from National Gallery of Australia

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Fiona Foley, HHH

New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art is currently showing masterpieces from Australia’s indigenous artists – a rare, large-scale project that is not only a precursor to the upcoming Australia-India Fest, but also part of India’s long-standing initiative of cementing ties with other nations through the realm of art and culture.

In the recent past, for example, the NGMA has hosted art exhibitions from different countries such as Slovenia, South Korea and Italy. In its latest showing, titled ‘Indigenous Australia: Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’, more than a hundred masterworks tell the story of the world’s oldest continuous culture. The artworks, which date back to the 1800s to the present, reveal diverse artistic styles of Australia’s most important indigenous artists.

Having existed on the Australian continent for tens of thousands of years, the art and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are among the oldest and richest in human history. Their art reveals a deep relationship between creative expression and everyday life. Themes related to nature, fertility, aquatic life, spiritual seeking, race and colonialism find expression in these artworks.

The masterpieces–from paintings, videos, sculptures to installations–are a significant contribution towards understanding the traditional and modern art vocabulary that emerged in the last three hundred years. The exhibits offer a peep into the NGA’s vast collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks, numbered around 8000, the largest of its own kind in the world.

“The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists draw on a long tradition of oral storytelling, and their art reflects this deep, ancient knowledge. Traditionally, legends were expressed through rituals, secret ceremonial songs and dances, body painting, rock engravings, and designs and patterns on domestic and ritual objects. The exhibition mirrors this variety of expression with paintings on canvas and bark, weaving and sculpture, new media, prints and photography.”
Art Critic Meera Menezes

Here’s a virtual tour of the collection:


The exhibition is on view until August 26.

Glimpses of Slovenian contemporary art in New Delhi

A new exhibition at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art not only opens up an opportunity for showcasing Slovenian contemporary art to Indians, it is also a reflection of the artistic ambitions of a relatively new republic.

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Cultural Death II (or A Culture of Death II), Tina Dobrajc. (Photo – Ankush Arora)

Mounted inside the sprawling colonial-era building of New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is a collection of artworks by artists from Slovenia, a small country in Europe that declared its independence from the erstwhile Yugoslavian federation not very long ago. It’s a rare artistic showcase to engage Indians with the rich contemporary art practices of the central European country that celebrated its 25th independence anniversary this year.

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New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. (Photo – Ankush Arora)

The exhibition, titled “Slovenindia”, is also part of the cultural exchange programme between India and Slovenia, and is supported by the National Museum of Slovenia.

The artworks form a heterogeneous mix of creations by established as well as young artists from Slovenia. Created with mixed media materials like acrylic, oil, duct tape, photographic prints and even backlight, the exhibition is also a reflection of the artistic thinking and ambition of a relatively new republic. A quick walk through the gallery of more than a dozen artworks reveals Slovenian artists being preoccupied with wide-ranging themes and questions – from the interpretation of natural landscapes to the more intense existential, creative and feminist topics; along with spiritual and abstract explorations.

Feminist, Existential, Creative Angst

The most striking painting– and perhaps the least abstract also – has been created by Tina Dobrajc, who shows a half-naked woman, wearing a Slovenian folklore headgear, and holding a pig in her arms. The image appears to give an impression of shifting vulnerabilities and strength of the two figures depicted on the canvas – the woman and the animal – and questions socially conformist ideas of female identity and sex. This uncanny work overturns “stereotypical female iconographies”, by placing the woman in “inappropriate and unexpected situations”.

In Sladana Mitrovic’s painting, the feminist overtones acquire an overtly abstract quality, by exploring the relationship between the female body, corporeality and identity. In her use of a bright blue colour in the background, with splotches of what looks like golden o brown, Mitrovic seems to be attacking the very notion of representation, and the cultural problems that arise out of a depiction when associated with the female body. In her feminist project, she goes a step further and questions the limits of the visible itself.

In Brina Torkar, who is also the curator of the show with Breda Sturm, the feminist, the existential, and the mythological overlap. The result is a painting of a natural landscape, titled “Atlanta”, which shows a woman meandering her way through a dense forest – as if she’s asking “where is my place on earth”. The myth of Atlanta, a virgin huntress abandoned by her father because he wanted a son, contributes to the feminist theme. At the same time, in the depiction of the person lost in wilderness, the microcosmic world of a human is juxtaposed with the so-called bigger happenings. In that larger juxtaposition, the feminist question of “where is my place on earth” gets transformed into an enquiry of the human being.

Within this trope of the personal angst, a unique abstract painting by co-curator Breda Sturm – which is titled “Turn on a New Page” – confronts the anxiety of a poet/artist, when he or she starts a new project with a blank page. Using mixed media on canvas, Strum, therefore, depicts the pre-creation stage of an artistic project on her canvas.

Creation (and by implication, the universe) takes on a stunningly exuberant artistic expression in the mixed media paintings of Spela Laela Cvetko. “Her way of seeing the world is playful and sunny,” according to the exhibition catalogue. Through the use of elemental symbols such a big dark yellow sun in the near-centre of the painting, she juxtaposes the so-called outer space against a circumscribing chaotic world. A samurai’s sword over-arches our view of Cvetko’s painting “It is all yours”, adding a playful quality to the whole artwork which may have otherwise looked more intense.

Cvekto’s two-worlds theme figuratively extends into Sergej Kapus “Inside the Cut”, that seeks to take a “flight beyond the terrestrial globe”. Apart from acrylic, the work uses digital prints of photographs to show the surface of Mars, a form of artistic “interplanetary voyage”.

Slovenian Wilderness

Of course, no discussion on creation is ever complete without talking about nature. And rightly so, especially if the artworks belong to a nature-rich country like Slovenia. The country, sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Croatia, is home to Alpine mountains, thick forests, the Adrian Sea coast, and historic cities.

The representation of wilderness has a flirtatious narrative of its own in “Slovenindia” – so much so that the motif subsumes other parallel themes. For example, Simon Kajtna’s creation of a forest, with its atmospheric colours and phantasmagorical essence, has been likened to the Garden of Eden; and its art “reminiscent of the tradition of post-impressionism”. While Peter Gaber’s treatment of the forest is comparatively different, for the sake of artistic inquiry he may be somewhat like Brina Torkar’s mythologically charged painting “Atlanta”.  In his acrylic and sort-of abstract work “My Place in Nature”, Gaber paints “the artist’s relation to nature”. The painting has parallel brown lines that look like trees, done against a soft green background – in that geometry, and title of the work, there is probably an existential theme lurking somewhere.

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Forest in Red Light, Peter Gaber. (Source: artist’s website)

If Gaber’s working of nature is gentle and minimalist at the same time, Mito Gegic’s portrayal of “Autumn” and “Winter” might come across as typically gruff. His radical use of duct tape all over his acrylic work accentuates the coldness of the scene, combined violence, often represented through scenes of hunting. The pervasive duct tape also creates an impression of distorted reality.

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Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Mito Gegic. (Source: artist’s website)

On the other hand, the colours of nature explode in Andreja Erzen’s backlit works “Summer Afternoon” and “Night”. In their interaction of colour and light, these effervescent works are created in a kind of “painterly magic realism” style.

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Summer Afternoon, Andreja Erzen (Source: artist’s website)

The show thrives on such artistic innovations, where artists seek to push the envelope of their creative energies. In the end, you can argue that this project achieves a rare feat – that of hosting artworks by foreign artists in an Indian gallery, which is a irregular practice.

The current cultural exchange program between India and Slovenia also opens up the opportunity to showcase Indian art in Slovenia. While such national-level projects expose artists to a wider audience, such initiatives are few and far between.