Monday, 1 July 1985

Sculptor’s notebook I MA Thesis I Faculty of Fine Arts , MSU Baroda I 1985



This dissertation has been written in the form of a personal essay. As I near the end of my seven-year stay in Baroda I have tried to look a back on these years, fruitful years, to trace my growth as an artist and as a person. I sought to discover if there was a unity underlying my work, the direction perhaps in which I was moving.

I found that in the many searches: in subject, in form, in medium and technique and in the influences and inspirations, there was a common and continuous search. I found to my surprise that my work had an extremely personal element – the shapes, the forms, the content came out of my memories and experiences. It was surprising because I had always thought that it was outwardly directed: that it was about society and other people; that it was in a sense, detached observation.

And so the dissertation is not structured into chapters or differentiated into separate essays. It forms a continuous narrative, going back and forth in time, as my thoughts and memories flowed. It is a mixture of personal reminiscences and the personal solutions to the formal and conceptual problems that interested me at every stage.

I see this essay as not merely an analysis or collection of facts but as an extension of my creative work. I think it is important for an artist to go through this kind of self-analysis at every stage, to examine the validity of one’s aims and to think carefully about the direction of one’s work. For the making of art, to my mind, is not some mystical activity but something wrought consciously out of one’s experiences and ideas.

The writing of this essay has helped me to clarify my thoughts and to see the body of my work from the earliest stage to the present as having a coherence and continuity that I had not perceived earlier.

To talk of my work, my concerns. I have a fear of expressing in words something that is essentially non-verbal, which in fact exists as sculpture because it cannot exist in words. But again to think about it, to analyze it, to find out what it is about and where one is going it is necessary to use words. Yet words are dangerous, they can mystify, build a wall around the work till the work becomes the words themselves and loses all reality as a physical presence.

I chose sculpture because of its physical ness: of the complete physical involvement that it demands for its making. Being a woman, and coming from a typical Brahmin background where manual labour is despised, it was fascinating for me to plunge my hands in wet clay, to feel the novel thrill of handling different tools and learning technical processes. At every stage instant practical decisions had to be made, problems solved using one’s wits and hands.

And what have I wanted to say? To record the experience of contemporary Indian life as we live it, to define it, or to present it – in that sense ‘indigenism’ has always interested me, not In the sense of reviving some glorious past, but of speaking of the here and now. And at every level I have tried to explore different sources, trying to find the appropriate language; using various references to pile up a complexity of meaning. Ideas from folk art, primitive Indian painting and sculpture, Western art, popular and kitsch forms, hoardings, advertisements – all the kinds of visual information that I came across have gone into my work.

In my first year of BA I was a scattered and confused person. I wanted the whole world, I wanted all experience – and I found limiting myself to this body, this past, irksome and binding. But by wanting to be everything, I was nothing. I had not drawn the boundaries of my self, I did not know who I was, what I felt and responded to. And so to begin defining myself in relation to the world and to art was the start of a painful journey where I would note down and analyze my reactions, particularly to art. I began to realize that I was responding to the qualities of rounded volumes and curves and a feeling of mass in sculpture – (Indian temple sculpture, Arp, Matisse), I liked simplicity and directness, robustness (folk art – Bengal and Mollella terracotta’s, Kalighat paintings) – wit, satire, humour (KG Subramanyan, Bhupen Khakhar, Daumier, caricature, Dix, Grosz) and the sensuous use of the qualities of materials. As students we were doing life study in the Western academic manner but when I wanted to use the human body to say something I found this convention irrelevant and unsuited to my purpose. My subjective reaction to the human body was not in terms of a Venus and a David, in the geometric analysis of the body, but more related to the Yakshas and Sundaris of Indian sculpture or even of the plump heroes and heroines of film posters. So I started noticing the treatment of the body in Indian sculpture; the way the human body was seen as a growing organic form echoing the living forms of nature. Its structure and forms, though idealized, corresponded more directly to the reality of – and more important, the feelings given by the bodies that I saw around me daily. The fertile lushness of the images was also closely linked to their environment; to the tropical climate and vegetation, which surrounded me.

The immediate event that helped to crystallize my thoughts was seeing an exhibition of KG Subramanian’s  glass paintings. Here my natural reactions to people and things were echoed and substantiated in the form of art and it was a revelation to me. Suddenly the whole business of art and sculpture from being some solemn and serious ritual became something that could be fun, playful, imaginative, while still saying important things. I was also attracted to his language of using popular forms and satire to deal with everyday subjects.

Most of the sculptures are of women. Not portraits, but imaginary creatures who represent a type, or a feeling. When I first started doing my plaster busts of women in 1981, I was personally weak, without confidence. I wanted to be whole, confident, self-contained. As the sculptures took shape, I took shape. They were bold, audacious, full of a ripe sensuality. I worked with images of ripe fruits and vegetables, thin firm sun-warmed skin bursting with inner vitality. I needed an image of woman not as martyr or victim (as I felt then), but as a strong whole human being who looked straight at the world.

The figures were awkward, fleshy, plump faced with bulges at belly and back. They were formed by my childhood memories of women’s bodies, of playfully pinching the fleshy rolls below the sari blouses of my mother and aunts, their plump arms and soft skin.

Voluptuous, coquettish, they were also reminiscent of the bra ads that I saw in buses, the women of kitsch calendars, the heavy rounded limbs of Yakshis. They were made in plaster of paris because of its soft and porous surface, and coloured with powdered clay and oxides rubbed into the surface to give them a startlingly ‘real’ presence.

But through all these references of the image of women in the past – nature goddesses, and the image of women in the popular culture, I gave then an assertive personality, a mischievous independence. The faces smiled, sometimes mockingly or secretively, or parted I mock anger. Yet these figures, in spite of their bulk, looked fragile, vulnerable. I had wanted also to talk of innocence, chasteness, not in the sense of virginity but of a wholeness and purity as against fragmentation and disintegration.

At the same time I did two busts of women that looked lacerated, wounded, ripped open. Eyes opened anxiously with parted lips, which seemed struggling to speak, to express something. Though I used again metaphors of vegetation (breasts like brinjals) they were wrinkled, dried up, not in the sense of bursting and burgeoning forms that were present in the other group. They were the counterpoint, the opposite pole of wholeness.

In the first few years of the BA course my work was completely experimental. In 1979-80, in my first year of sculpture, I did some abstract shapes and busts in clay using the pinching method. At that time I was looking through pictures of primitive sculpture (particularly the stone Hanumans of Gujarat and Rajasthan) and African architecture, mud pigeon cotes – the strange, irregular shapes seemed to emanate some primeval power. The clay rolls were built up to form their own shapes with very little control and modeling, with either cut out eyes and mouth or stuck on enamel eyes. The images looked grotesque and comic, arranged in groups like mud huts.

I had worked then in papier –mache as well, using these primitive forms with ‘pop’ elements. A group of papier-mache heads had on modeled features and plastic toy sunglasses. They were based on my memories of sinister photographs of ‘Ladies Club’ committees to which my mother used to belong. Since these group photographs were taken in the noonday sun these worthy matrons wore heavy black sunglasses for the occasion, presenting a row of eerie authoritarian faces, unsmiling and blank.

Underwear has always amused and fascinated me – banians, lond striped men’s drawers, brassieres – an inescapable feature of urban life, they are everywhere: displayed in stalls and on pavements, in advertisements, on hoardings, on buses, in newspapers and magazines. One can see them recurring in my work, especially bras because they symbolize the modern woman.Bra advertisements are a comic sight but in India wearing a bra means a break with the past, it means modernity and urban culture.  – And in the hot summers of the South the men only wear banians and dhotis while relaxing, with the dhoti perhaps tucked up ‘half-mast’ to show long striped underwear beneath.

In 1980 in my first year of specialization in sculpture, I did a terracotta relief of a banian and khaki shorts, banian coloured with white engobe – with the suggestion of a middle aged man’s pot-bellied body. While in the hanging papier –mache woman ‘Venus’ the bra indicated that it was a ‘modern’ goddess, in this work the underwear meant relaxation, naturalness in society ( while nudity would be unnatural in society).

The plaster of paris sculpture of the ‘Woman Adjusting Bra’ is a take-of on the pink plaster busts used for bra displays on shop fronts and the Sundaris of Indian temple sculpture, with the daily images of women dressing in the Ladies Hostel where I stayed. Yet I wanted to give her a very human and maternal presence by treating the body and face very warmly and tenderly. She is funny but she is not a figure of fun.

Then the print of the ‘Languid Woman’ done in a spirit of fun more than anything else – taking off from the courtesans of Kalighat and Calcutta woodcuts, shows a woman not particularly provocative leaning against a cushion in bra and petticoat.

When my mother died in 1981 it seemed to me to mean the end of my childhood, of being a girl, a daughter. With a terrible nostalgia I searched the house for old photographs, family snapshots and childhood portraits. She had been my strongest link to the old Kannada culture and traditions, without her I felt I was floating, rootless. She was theatrical and had loved acting., although she had to limit herself to ladies club affairs, usually playing male roles because of her height. As children we were made to take part in tableaus and studio portraits. Life at home was also theatrical and melodramatic, exaggerated emotions and grand gestures – high melodrama.

From this comes my love of theatricality, exaggeration, playing parts. My women too have exaggerated proportions and comic, almost caricatured expressions. I think of them as characters in a play, more than life size. The theatricality may lie in the sense of something – some event or expression or moment spotlit as on a stage to heighten one’s perception of it. An ordinary, familiar event may in such a way be transformed into an extraordinary and meaningful event.

In 1982 when ater my BA I spent a year at home in Bangalore, I was thinking about the world of my childhood as I remembered it and as I saw it again in old photographs, my years in Baroda. When I started doing a series of woodcuts and terracotta reliefs they were about scenes that I remembered, typical characters that I met, animals that I loved.

In Karnataka we have a curious custom or should I say ritual! Young children of (both sexes) are dragged off at least once to the neighbourhood studio for a photograph dressed up with a flower- decorated braid. This braid is a costly elaborate affair made of heavily perfumed flowers stitched together and then stitched to the real plait of hair. The child is always posed in front of a large life –sized mirror so that the braid can be reflected and seen in all its glory.

Then the tin of talcum powder and the hair oil which are ubiquitous features in a South Indian home. When we were children, my cousins and I, we would sit in a line for our hair to be combed. Hair oil would be rubbed in roughly and the long hair yanked and pulled into tight plaits. If the child was dark her face would be turned around and slapped with a mass of talcum powder. Grey against the darkness of the skin around, the powdered face would look like a mask.

These experiences belonged at once to me particularly and also to a whole society and way of life which I see sometimes with love, sometimes with dislike. They sharpened my awareness of a certain culture, a certain place, rooting me to it to become a part of a fund of resources, which I use to particularize my work, to give it a time and place. Again, images like the mask-like powdered faces of my childhood which I still see around me, appear later in my terracotta figures.

When I took a year off my academic studies I wanted to try out different ways of making art, of expressing myself. I started out to paint but found it very difficult to compose on a flat surface after years of doing sculptures. With my interest in pictorial art then, I found woodcut printing an easy and interesting medium., being in between painting and sculpture in the sense  that one had to use a sculptural technique, carving, to create a two-dimensional picture. My small clay reliefs were also related to this, and by trying to work out these faster ways of working I could rapidly work out many new ideas. It gave me a wonderful feeling of freedom.

The woodcut prints made then, ‘Best Friends’, ‘Aaah’, Adollescence’, ‘Lovers’, ‘Pani Puri’ , ‘Pose’ were full of gaiety, a celebration of life. I played with the surface of the wood and the contrasts of black and white to create curving lines and decorative patterns. I had a Madhubani calendar with me and copied creeper and flower motifs and borders for backgrounds. I used them not just to fill up the space but to give a certain’ backdrop’ for the action. For the lovers, the flowered creeper, the crescent moon, stars and birds are romantic trappings for their meeting on the park bench. The two girls of ‘Best Friends’ have blooming flowers all around them symbolizing spring, youth and the happiness of having a friend- the geometric border of the ‘Pani Puri eaters becomes a festive shamiana for their outing, while the dancing Adolescent has phallic shaped fruit hanging above her.

In the terracotta plates, the iconic mandap-shaped space taken from Mollella reliefs contain irreverent subjects like ‘Dressing Up’ ( with the inevitable tin of talcum powder), ‘My Dog and Friends’, ‘Cat and Mouse’ a bitch suckling puppies, a beedi smoker. ‘The Flowered Braid’ was based on old studio photographs of my brother as a child dressed up as a girl, posing in front of a mirror. I did animals posed alert and staring bright-eyed as if caught by the beam of a torch light. In these relief sculptures, the clay was modelled and smoothed over, drawing scratched with a pin – I had not then used the particular qualities of clay as a material.

These woodcuts and plates are light works, sketches almost, exercise to loosen up, adventure out. Later, I used them as a base for larger works.

As a young child I was painfully shy and timid. We lived in a large old house with cavernous rooms which, in my childish imagination were filled with old people. My parents were already in their forties and fifties and there were my mother’s parents, my old grandparents.

Then the house had a central courtyard ope to the sky. There, on the stone slagbs would be dried raw papads, chillies for frying. In the mornings there would be sounds of ragi and rice being tossed up and down on bamboo soops, or dry chillies being pounded.

Some of my earliest memories: sitting in my petticoat on the steps by the back door, the morning sun warming my bare legs and arms and peeling an orange – suddenly a monkey runs down and snatches it away; sitting right on top of my grandfather’s belly and bouncing up and down listening to his stories… Sunday mornings: long thick hair being oiled and vigorously scrubbed with shikakai and then my mother would dry my hair with incense smoke –wet hair spread outon an overturned basket, burning incense underneath. Sometimes I would go running and screaming wildly through the silent, ordered rooms of the house, or come thumping down the wooden staircase.

When I do a sculpture of a girl eating a banana, a man smoking a beedi, or a dog scratching itself, I want to capture those transient, fleeting moments that are the fabric of memories, of happiness. Acts, that are prosaic and transitory, but also eternal and universal.

‘The stillness of the image is symbolic of timelessness. The fact that paintings (sculptures) are prophesies of themselves being looked at has nothing to do with the perspective of avant-gardism whereby the future vindicates the misunderstood prophet. What the present and the future have in common and to which painting ( sculpture) through its very stillness refers  is a substratum, a ground of timelessness.

The language of pictorial art because it is static is the language of such timelessness. Yet what it speaks about – unlike geometry – is the sensuous, the particular and the ephemeral.’

John Berger ‘Art into Time’
( words in brackets are mine)

The heads

Faces behind faces
Like a curtain pulled across the face
And parting to show the face behind

Veiled faces
shadows of faces.
Face wrapped up, blown from inside

The cracked face – open, lips parted
Cracking open?

The face with plaits
The face: the texture of the earth, the ground from which lush vegetation grows
Hair like tropical creepers, foliage, fruits
Banana leaf
Leaf cup, stitched leaf plate
Like coconuts; fibrous, cracked, layered; like bark
Tenderly wrapped.

The exaggerated expressions of puppets or Japanese masks

When I came back to baroda in 1983 for my MA my mind was still full of the images that I had worked with in Bangalore. I started doing sculpture in the round in terracotta using many themes from my terracotta reliefs and woodcut prints. I had been thinking about being a child and growing up – and consequently in my series of terracotta works I deal with childhood, adolescence and then the young woman. Now, I started using the properties of clay as an important factor in the work, letting the expressions, moods of the characters grow out of the nature of the process itself, improvising as I went along.

First I would make the basic shape in clay, take a plaster of paris piece mould of it, press slabs of clay onto the moulds and join them together. Arms and details would be improvised directly on the cast. Using this method, many variations of the same basic shape would be made. I played with the plasticity of the clay, sometimes pressing wet clay for a smooth surface, dryer slabs for cracks, making marks on them with finger lips, bottle lids, nails. The joints of the slabs would sometimes be left as they were, sometimes smoothed over. On some works I used black and white engobes for colouring.

The way I worked now was quite different from the way I did the plaster busts. They were done directly from drawings, consciously controlled and modeling clay itself was controllable. Now, when I made the arms by folding clay slabs, they assumed their own kind of shape, thin and gawky, I could not impose a full and rounded form. So too the ears, fingers, details. Instead of adding clay bit by bit, I was now twisting and folding and pushing out slabs of clay. Because of the different ways of handling clay, the pressed cast parts have a tight, compact look while the folded arms, legs, or the puppies in ‘Bitch’, shaped by hand, have a looser, breathing quality. If the sensuousness of the earlier sculpture came from the cool smoothness of plaster of paris, the sensuousness of these sculptures is in the tactile qualities of their rough and textured surfaces, the petrified evidence of hand marks, their look of being worn and weathered by time.

With the tender treatment of the body and the look of vulnerability of face and hands, I try to establish a relationship of love or empathy with the sculptures. But my terracottas are more ambiguous than the plaster busts, which have a literal and pictorial quality. They contain a combination of softness and a certain savageness, which may be unsettling. The material and the use of the material may itself give rise to contradictory feelings – the juxtaposition of the clay slabs on the faces appear like bandages, as if the face is tied, or bound up, while again as if I is like an armour protecting the vulnerability of the face – slightly bizarre images, whereas the earthy warmth of the baked clay surface is soft, appealing.

With the details of contemporary dress I try to root the figures in a particular milieu but they are also like costumes worn in a play, deliberate, artificial. Ribbons bows puff sleeves hairpins are not only a literal interpretation of objects but used in an incongruous play of forms where flower petals may look like banana peels, ribbons and bows like leaves and vegetation, pins like insects. Sometimes there are references that are like a private joke like the trefoin pattern on the blouse of ‘Girl holding Shell’ which is taken from a Mohenjo Daro terracotta.

The terracotta process itself was exciting ; solving the technical problems, trying out different ways of using clay, the complicated tying of the piece moulds, the supports needed and then the firing of the dried clay work. Then the clay, affected by and dependent on time, by the temperature, the seasons, the humidity in the air – in the monsoon one can work slowly because the clay does not dry up, while in summer the clay slabs become hard and crack when bent or folded. The patient waiting for the clay cast to stiffen and support itself – in the plasticity of the clay, which depends upon its decomposition over a period of time…

And the romance of the firing- the kilns like ancient structures, womb-like, fed with fire, and the fun of altering and building them, controlling the fire, and the sense of doing something as old as time, when the clay figures emerge burnt and unexpectedly coloured from the ashes like archeological finds from buried cities; images of Pompeii and Herculaneum. And the ambiguity that came from the youthfulness portrayed and the archaic looking surfaces; from the modernity of the subject and the ancient process -  seemed to connect this moment with all time and history.

Being a misunderstood prophet does not interest me. I want my work to mean something to people, to be among people. The images I deal with are of ordinary life and not something obscure or esoteric.

Humour is important in my work as something intrinsic to it, and as a vehicle for communication. Laughter is the most direct, immediate response; In modern art, literature, fairy tale it has been used as a means to convey the most serious ideas. In a self-conscious sceptical world where every issue has many sides, the comic sense provokes, shocks one into awareness.

Laughter immediately establishes a rapport or complicity on the part of the beholder, it instantly communicates at one level. Or at the level of the tragic-comic, when a tragic situation is suffused with the comic as I the scene of a hungry Chaplin eating his shoe in ‘The Goldrush’ it can bring a complex web of feelings into play – pathos, admiration, compassion, empathy.

Yet, there can be the savageness of satire, the pitiless exposure of the follies of people as in daumier, Dix and Grosz, or Subramayan’s Bangladesh terracotas; as also the deadpan humour of a marquez.

Or it can be the gentle humour of Fellini’s ‘La Strada’, and of the books of RK Narayan, that can lend a halo of Light to the most humble, everyday things to make us look at them with a fresh look of wonder. Then laughter can be the expression of delight, elation, joy; life –affirming and ecstatic. The comic sense, the language of laughter can so embrace the whole spectrum of life and experience.

Humour is the central point of my perception of the world. It is the device by which I express the contradictory feelings of attraction – repulsion that I feel towards people and society – critical yet affectionate. This attraction- repulsion may be expressed in a concrete form by using a mixture of caricature and sensuality, sympathy and mockery. An attempt is made to provoke a reaction, but there would be discomfort in the reaction; it would not be entirely pleasurable. The elements of caricature and sensuality may shock and disturb, while again the formal concern may give a feeling of pleasure.

Criticism also implies self- criticism: the sculptures are at once myself and everybody else. The themes I choose therefore, are something unique or eccentrically personal to me but something typical to a situation and in that sense, universal. My idividual experiences or memories may give them an extra immediacy and poignancy.

When it comes to the question of language – where exactly does the humour lie? Something so effervescent is difficult to pin down, but I can say that my work is anti- solemn and the humour is a weapon against windbags, stuffed shirts, pomposity and hypocrisy. In fact, the humour is created by a situation in which traditional iconic forms are used for irreverent purposes, to celebrate the relaxation of beedi-smoking and the existence of dogs, cats, squirrels and ladies with purses.

It is the humour that lies in the incongruity of a situation: like the roadside shrine with the dhobi, the barber and the bicycle repairer all plying their trade in front of it – the god and all the activities of daily necessity, all together; something that is in the unexpectedness of the subject – a pig, a bitch, a girl eating banana.

The sculptures tell a story, like real people with a personality and a history, captured at a passing expression or transitory moment of existence that then becomes fixed. It is this frozen action that is akin to caricature, and which gives them a comical air. Familiar forms may be used in a new context, where the Sundari of Indian temple sculpture at her toilet may become the modern woman wearing her bra. And this Sundari is not a beautifully proportioned goddess but looks more like a big- bellied gana, comic in her self- absorption.

The human body, particularly the woman’s body looked at with detachment, but also as something that is familiar and so with fondness at its familiarity.

I speak of love of the body, amusement with the body- the woman’s body – not as a perfectly beautiful object or an object of display - but with a delighting curiosity about it as something that is ones’ own, a delight in physical being.

A playfulness about looking at various parts of the body – breasts like brinjals, arms like gourds, thighs like melons. A de-mystification, a human prosaicness given to the female form; joy in looking both at the smoothness of skin and roundness of limbs and also in looking at chapped dry cheeks, cracked lips, awkward limbs and plump fleshy protuberances. The real body that actually exists, versus the ideal body - distortion used to accentuate the bulkiness or gawkiness, to play around with the structure of the body.

By mixing the comic and the lyrical, exaggeration and distortion of the body with the tender treatment of limbs and hands, laughter creates a feeling of empathy and identification and becomes an assertion of value.

If I think of sculpture it is in terms of the body, using the body and the reach and scale and akin to the arts of body and gesture: theatre, dance, mime, puppetry. The face as a mask, the entire body as a mask, the real person inside like a puppeteer, or like an actor in a paly, being both themselves and the person portrayed, simultaneously.

The characters created disguise themselves by the masking that is used in the work – with the dark glasses of the rough iconic authority images of ladies club members of the earliest papier-mache sculpture – the theatricality, the exaggeration, fixed expression, deliberate costume, no eyes, blank face, veiled look, to the clay slabs used like plates of armour – and then to the actual mask and the dramatic flexion of the body.

When I was a child my favourite fantasy was to imagine creeping under the skin of another person, someone different from me, for I knew that the world would look different if I looked different. When in the old family pictures, my mother and brother appear in various costumes – my mother sometimes in male dress, my brother as a girl, there is too, the fun of impersonation, the fun of pretending for a while to be another. By playing parts one can be both oneself, inevitably, and also experience the fact of being someone else, and so escape the bounds of this inevitability. If I started to define myself through my explorations in making art, my love of impersonation, disguise, is related to the yearning to go beyond myself, to break the bounds of my past, my personality, my situation and to embrace all experience. Finding myself by making sculpture I also wanted to lose myself, to be myself and everyone else simultaneously.

Pushpamala N
Baroda 1985