Minarets of interlocked building blocks. Racks lined by small, multi- coloured ceramic domes boxed in from three sides to form a cubicle. Maimed hands branching out of bodies sculpted in terracotta and bronze. Bronze leaves, drooping and bending from flimsy stems, as if they are about to fall.
Through the month of March, gallery-hopping in and around Mumbai’s art district, Kala Ghoda, meant encountering such strange abstractions.
In his solo show, cryptically titled Navel—One and the Many, at Chemould Art Gallery, 37-year-old artist Anant Joshi combined plastic, metal and motoring devices for his sculptural installations. Daphne and Eklavya at Guild Art Gallery was artist Gieve Patel’s first jab at sculpture in 31 years. Around the corner, at the Hacienda Art Gallery, a joint show of two very different artists—Deepak Kannal in his 50s and Abir Patwardhan in his early 30s—portrayed nature in bronze.
In the already euphoric art world, there’s a new sense of recognition, even exaltation, of the 3-D form. It’s as if the attention enjoyed by the canvas on the wall is suddenly spilling over to sculptures and installations (or neo-sculpture, where, very simply put, different kinds of media are combined to convey a single concept).
Last month, two of veteran sculptor Ravinder G. Reddy’s painted and gilded fibreglass works were bought for record prices at auctions. Radha, a 7ft head of a woman with flowers entwined in her hair, went for Rs1.49 crore at www.saffronart.com’s online auction, and an anonymous buyer snapped up Lakshmi Devi—a work from the same series as Radha, but with more exaggerated, almost grotesque facial features—for Rs1.36 crore at Christie’s auction of modern and contemporary Indian art in New York. A few months ago, the average price of Reddy’s work was Rs30 lakh.
For Ganieve Grewal, Christie’s representative for India, the success of Reddy’s work at the New York auction was almost a foregone conclusion. Lakshmi Devi, Reddy’s 4-1/2ft work, gawks out of the cover of the catalogue of works that went to the auction. “The art market is sensing that if the surge of painting prices continues, this segment will saturate. Sculpture is the next big bait for collectors,” Grewal says. This was the first time that sculpture made it to the cover of a Christie’s India catalogue.
It is, perhaps, a logical progression in a booming art market—collectors pushing boundaries, moving on from safe, timetested names such as Raza, Husain and Tyeb Mehta, to challenging, more unpredictable choices. They are willing to invest in the process of preserving and storing large works, a disadvantage that sculpture and installation art have always faced vis-a-vis paintings.
The new energy is palpable, especially among younger Indian artists who rose to prominence in the 2000s. They speak a global language—having assimilated influences from the West and home-grown traditions—and are ready to challenge any viewer or collector who is drawn to their works.
But being accustomed to a market that has leaped into the big-bucks league only recently, the veterans of the medium, such as Himmat Shah, Dhruva Mistry and even Reddy, are not readily elated. In his early 70s, Shah is a legend in India, having worked with a variety of materials such as terracotta, ceramics, clay and, later, bronze. His untitled work in bronze made in 2006 fetched Rs33 lakh at Christie’s New York auction (for the last few years, the average price of his works have hovered around Rs15 lakh).
Reddy, 51, responds to the auction results in a telephone conversation out of Visakhapatnam, where he lives: “In the last 10 years, younger artists have taken to the form and have made it dynamic. Sculpture is no longer about solid, static works, they’re experimenting with the form. But still, we are nowhere near the kind of attention and prices that sculpture gets in the West. The auction results are hopefully the beginning.”
Deepak Kannal, former dean at the Maharaja Sayaji Rao University in Vadodara, is known to be a champion of the art form. He is trained in the traditional styles of bronze, terracotta and ceramics, but his current works have a modern, installation-like character to them. “All artists want to work with sculpture at some point, because of the physicality and malleability of the medium. But in the last two years, I have felt the energy that was missing for years. Many students are choosing to specialize in sculpture,” he says.
The buzz around sculpture really became audible late last year, when Subodh Gupta’s sculptural installations found the right exposure—at the Venice Biennale, at London’s Frieze and shows in Moscow, Miami and Japan.
A skull crafted out of aluminium pots and pans, created by Gupta last year, was picked up by a French billionaire, Francois Pinault, after one of his curators spotted it at a group show at Paris’ Eglise Saint-Bernard Church in October 2006. Since early this year, Gupta’s mammoth works made out of kitchen utensils—tiffin boxes, pots and pans in hues of dazzling gold and silver—have not only impressed collectors and critics, but have, directly or indirectly, revitalized the art form. “If sculpture is really seeing a resurgence, it can’t be attributed to auctions and the market alone. Collectors are pushing boundaries and making offbeat choices, too,” says the Delhi-based artist.
He says that his “kitchen utensils phase” has paid off in ways he could not imagine. The British press, for example, has called him “the enfant terrible of the Indian art scene, a Damien Hirst of New Delhi”—eulogies that Gupta isn’t yet taking seriously. “The best part about all the recognition is that it has come from unusual quarters,” he says.
Collectors of three-dimensional, large artworks are a lowprofile breed, but are key catalysts in propelling the new momentum in sculpture. Geetha Mehra, owner of Sakshi Art Gallery, says the new collector chooses to remain anonymous. She should know, because Sakshi Gallery has hosted shows of works by all leading sculptors and installation artists in India—from Ravinder G. Reddy and Dhruva Mistry, the veterans, to Vivan Sundaram, Sudarshan Shetty (who, many consider to be the real enfant terrible of modern Indian sculpture), Bose Krishnamachari and young artists such as Shilpa Gupta.
Mehra says collectors no longer buy art to display in their living rooms and farmhouses. They buy to preserve in warehouses, to be displayed or sold in the future. They are making informed choices and are guided more by instinct and foresight about a work of art. “You’ll never get to meet collectors at art openings. Most of my collectors come to the gallery when we are in the process of putting up the works and by the time it opens, most works are sold. Some, like Anupam Poddar in Delhi, have even commissioned large artworks for themselves,” says Mehra.
For any artist producing large artworks out of India and connoisseurs and patrons who aspire to be serious collectors, Poddar’s private collection is a benchmark. In a warehouse located in South Delhi, he preserves works that reflect a cross-disciplinary interest. Sculpture, installations, photography and video art vie for space along with select works of Indian folk art.
Poddar and his mother, Lekha Poddar, who own the Devigarh Hotel in Rajasthan, have recently started the Devi Foundation, which aims to replicate New York’s temple of modern art, the Dia Foundation, and according to insiders, also have plans to open an art museum in the Capital. “It is a private collection, and I prefer to keep it that way,” said Poddar, known to be a recluse. “He interacts with artists on a one-on-one basis,” says Anant Joshi, whose work is part of the Poddars’ collection.
The mother-son duo was the first in India to promote Subodh Gupta—they own a life-sized, pink fibreglass statue of a grazing cow and a huge globe made of milk cans. “He has rooms that house installation works just the way they were exhibited,” says Joshi. The artists whose works figure the most in his collection are Gupta, Mithu Sen, Sudarshan Shetty and A. Balasubramanium—all of whom work in the neo-sculpture genre.
So, another obvious fillip to the sculpture scene in India: Private/Corporate IV, an exhibition in Berlin’s famous DaimlerChrysler Contemporary gallery, a mecca of collaborative sculptural art, where 60 works by 30 artists, mostly Indian, are on display from the gallery’s own collection and the Poddars’ private collection. Says Nadine Bruggebors of DaimlerChrysler: “We’ve already had over 3,000 people visit the exhibition so far. There’s a buzz about it in Berlin. From now on, we’ll be looking for sculpture and installation works from India.”
Around the time that young installation artist Shilpa Gupta’s exhibition ended, Sakshi Gallery acquired a platform at the Beijing Exposition that is opening in the first week of May. The gallery is showcasing the works of three artists—Sunil Gawde and Chintan Upadhyay from Mumbai, and Arun Kumar from Delhi—in the annual art fair known to showcase innovative artworks from the world over.
Sakshi has nurtured 37-year- old Gawde’s shift from abstract painting to sculpture in the late 1990s. For Beijing, he’s taking The Butterfly, displayed at Sakshi last year. The work is a feat in mechanical ingenuity. From a distance, it’s a giant butterfly perched on a long and thick steel pole. Electrical motoring devices propel it to whirr at frequent intervals. On close viewing, one involuntarily moves back because the butterfly’s wings are an intricate semblance of hundreds of blades, with holes carved in them. Its trunk is a glimmering dagger of steel.
Gawde is another apt representative of the young Indian sculptor who is likely to gain if avenues continue to open and the initial buzz translates into a boom. He is already a benefactor of the rumblings of change: “Now I am thinking much bigger, in terms of scale because there are people to fund the kind of materials and processes necessary for my ideas. Collectors and patrons are beginning to think big,” he says.
An odd, somewhat mismatched figure in this transition is 60-year-old Gieve Patel. The physician, poet and painter, whose first show opened at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery in 1966, is known for his figurative works on canvas, that depict cityscapes populated by the hoipolloi, their every posture etched out in detail.
Shalini Sawhney, the owner of Mumbai’s Guild Art Gallery, came up with the proposal that Patel work with sculptor Thomas John Kovoor at Jaipur’s Studio Sukriti for an exhibition for her gallery. “I have always wanted to try sculpture, but there was no infrastructure available so far,” says Patel. Drawing from Graeco-Roman and Hindu mythology, Patel has created 25 medium-sized works that depict Daphne and Eklavya—“figures maimed or ruined by forces that demanded their submission”.
Whether Patel continues exploring the medium or abandons it as a passing fancy, don’t be surprised if these works are worth millions 10 years from now just because they belong to this time in the history of Indian sculpture. After all, the art market does run on fuzzy logic.