Wednesday, 1 November 2000

Saffronart Art Café I Interview with Balan Nambiar I 2000

Pushpamala N. interviews sculptor and scholar Balan Nambiar.

Balan Nambiar, [born 1937, Kannapuram, Kerala] studied sculpture in the Madras College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai. In 1971 he moved to Bangalore and has been working in the city as an independent artist. Balan Nambiar has intensively researched and documented the ritual art forms of Kerala and Tulunadu in Karnataka, for which he received the Nehru Fellowship.
PN:     Balan, your recent work 'Valampiri Shankha' is a stainless steel image of a conch shell. What connection does the shankha, which is an archaic Hindu religious symbol, have with the state-of-the-art technology produced by Texas Instruments who commissioned the work?

BN:     The first conch sculpture I made was in 1978 in the Portland Cement Factory in Heidelberg in Germany, where someone pointed out to me that it was based on the golden section. The golden section or the golden mean has a proportion of width to height of 1:1.618, which is supposed to be the perfect proportion, and has been used extensively by Greek and Renaissance artists and architects.

While most conches have an anti - clockwise spiral, the Valampiri Shankha [which means 'right turning' in Malayalam] has a clockwise spiral and is considered auspicious and rare. I heard a story that a German collector offered 50,000 DM for one! A properly grown clockwise conch when blown produces a sound which is closest to the 'OM' sound. 

The sculpture is the logo of the Centre of Digital Technology, a laboratory sponsored by Texas Instruments who are the pioneers in introducing digital sound processing [DSP] to India. I was thinking of the inherent mathematical effect of the sound of 'Om' produced by the Valampiri Shankha in terms of digital power. I wanted to make it in stainless steel, using the most sophisticated processes like computer and laser technology. The software AUTOCAD was used to design the sections.
PN:      Visually, the sculpture has a light, shimmering, glassy quality- almost like a mirage. ...Balan, you have used ritual symbols and stories from myths in your work but some motifs like the flame, rice plant, cactus and bird you say are autobiographical. Tell me about your life.

BN:      I come from a land owning family from Kannoor District in Kerala- but members of the family also worked in the fields- I used to plough the fields, plant rice and grow vegetables when I was a boy. There used to be Theyyam performances in my village and I used to watch the make up- they make elaborate ritual costumes from tender coconut leaves ...In high school I was very good in both mathematics and drawing. So after high school I did the Madras Govt. Drawing Examination, got a job in the railways as a draughtsman and moved to Chennai in 1959.

I was painting all the time and sending my work to exhibitions. Fellow artist Akkitham Narayanan introduced me to KCS Paniker in 1962. As the principal of the Madras Art School, Paniker took a personal interest in my work. He gave me the courage to give up my Railways job and I joined the art school as a student at the age of 30!

PN:      When you came to Bangalore in 1971 you must have been the only contemporary sculptor working in Karnataka. What was it like?

BN:      I am like the cactus plant, which survives in the most uncongenial place! When I moved to Bangalore in the 1970s, there was no proper art institute or gallery. The only other freelance artist besides me was the painter Roomale Chennabasaviah. I formed the Bangalore Art Club as soon as I moved here, where I ran evening classes for adults and children's classes at the Max Mueller Bhavan. The Brothers of the Holy Cross had given me their big hall on St. Mark's Road to use- I organized film shows, seminars, poetry readings, dance performances. I lived in an outhouse in the compound and did painting and drawing.
In  1973, Shankar Hegde of Hegde and Golay Watches asked me to do a sculpture for them. I made an 8 ft. high welded steel sculpture symbolising time in front of his factory- he was very pleased with the work and offered me a shed and facilities to work. It was a lucky break! Most factories are not keen on artists using their space because they feel it is not profitable. In 1975 I had my first big exhibition of large welded steel sculptures on the lawns of the Hotel Ashoka [there was still no gallery!].

PN:     Your outdoor sculptures 'Monument to the Assassinated' and 'Resurrection of Janaki' which you made in the Art and Nature Workshop in Delhi in 1995 have an unusually sharp political content. Can you talk about that?

BN:     For a long time I have been disturbed by some of the characters in the Puranas. One incident from the Ramayana is the death of Bali. Sugriva is the younger half brother of the forest king Bali, who wants the kingdom of Kishkinda. He makes a treaty with Rama to eliminate Bali in return for his help in searching for Sita. I consider this the first recorded illegal treaty in the history of India! Rama hides behind a tree and kills Bali. In Northern Kerala where I come from there are hundreds of shrines for Bali who is worshipped by the artisan community- blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and carpenters. In Kerala, in the Koodiyattam and Kathakali performances, the most experienced actor always plays the role of Bali, while Rama's role is always given to a junior artist.

There are several versions of the Ramayana- in the Malayalam version; Rama was hiding behind seven sal trees. In 'Monument to the Assassinated', I used seven 2.5 metre high slabs of kota stone placed in a row- a groove was cut at the chest level of all the stones to show the path of the arrow shot from the bow of Rama. Rama was depicted by two footmarks carved on a slab of kota- and at the other end; a split boulder on a raised platform depicts Bali.
Janaki is another name for Sita - the one who was born out of the ploughing of the earth. After her marriage she goes through every kind of suffering and at the end she disappears back into the earth. She is the daughter of the earth. 

In the work 'Resurrection of Janaki' I made a 10 metre long slit in the earth, which was surrounded by a line of boulders in an oval shape to suggest the womb of the earth. A big tree in the location was part of the work. Seven stones were placed on seven slabs at the head of the slit representing the Sapta Matrikas or Seven Mother Goddesses. They are the only witnesses for a possible resurrection... 

Pushpamala N 
Bangalore  2000