The work of sculptor S. Nandagopal, from the artists’ village of Cholamandal, outside Chennai, is full of elements he has borrowed from the everyday life of the householder and villager. Flat, rounded ladles rear up to become the multiple heads of mythical serpents, curved scythes become winged birds and the mean-looking beaks of hooks salvaged from the harbour at Chennai take on another form of life altogether as they support the soaring pieces of copper and bronze.
“How can it be otherwise?” asks Nandagopal. “It’s not that I have a fascination for mythology as such, but can you ignore 4,000 years of history?”
He lives in a quiet village by the sea, close to the ancient port city of Mamallapuram. As any visitor to Chennai knows, the main attraction of this township of stone monuments is the Shore Temple that has been on the Coromandel Coast for the last 14 centuries. In one of its carved stone chambers is the figure of a sleeping deity, believed to be Vishnu, lying on the barely visible body of the primordial sea serpent. In one of Nandagopal’s compositions, Vishnu, this well-known image is completely metamorphosed into a vibrant piece of sculpture where the main element is the curving, twisting body of the serpent rising up to hold the triple-headed body of the deity.
Forms of life: Nandagopal’s The Cow
In almost four decades, Nandagopal’s work has gradually moved away from the more stylized pieces of his early years, when his compositions—with titles such as Hero-stones and Rider or Naga Symbol—were monumental and iconic. From a distance, they actually looked like the outlines of a south Indian gopuram, or entrance to a temple, or the guardian deities of horse and rider that are created in terracotta and placed at the outskirts of any village community in parts of Tamil Nadu.
His work has a great love for surfaces filled with decorative effects though, as he records in his latest book documenting the four decades: “A pictorial formation is one which is totally free of coordinate systems, such as that of horizontals and verticals. It is not anything planned and completed to stay up as an object, but one that completes itself in the mind of the beholder, like a picture, or some heightened visionary experience. That is not well put, I know. But consider the traditional sculpture of India, particularly the world famous bronzes of South India, the region to which I belong. They are clearly pictorial, and so are the great reliefs, a good many of them free-standing sculptures, and even the architecture. These and the abundant craft work of the region and its culture have never seemed distant to me.”
The tension that Nandagopal has constantly addressed in his work is how to contain the tradition of the south Indian art forms and yet remain contemporary in his formal concerns as a sculptor. As he often explains, he started off as a student of physics. But, as his artistic heritage (his father K.C.S. Paniker is one of the pioneers of the modern art movement in the south and the guiding force behind the Cholamandal Artists’ Village) took over, he trained to be a painter. He still has a very strong drawing line, which explains why he makes meticulous drawings of his sculptural compositions before working out how the immensely heavy components of his pieces will be held together.
His compositions are more free and airy and contain a gravity-defying ability to soar upwards and outwards to suggest a sense of the imagination taking flight in complete abandon. They are also burnished to a high gloss under his own supervision to create a patina of textures. At one point, he used to add colours, fusing them using an enamelling process; now he gets the same effects by the intense buffing and polishing to which he subjects certain portions of his creations. The signature elements remain, the hollow copper tubing that outlines his forms, the punctured holes, the notations of arrow-heads, noughts and crosses, the chevrons and cross hatching that are used much as a musician allows himself the need to improvise when he is in full flood.
At the same time, he is no longer apologetic, as he used to be, about the need to plan and “craft” each piece. In some cases, the heavy skeleton of steel that supports his latest pieces is as intricately made as the front of the sculpture. No more can his compositions be entirely termed “Frontal Narrative Sculpture” but, as one of his artist friends, R.M. Palaniappan, pointed out, the reverse side is, to someone like him, more interesting than the front.
Part of this freedom is the result of an exhibition that Nandagopal had in Singapore, sponsored by a young Singaporean named Jasdeep Sandhu of the Gajah Gallery, in 2006. There, with the freedom to work as he pleased, Nandagopal’s vision took on an entirely new, and to some extent larger than life, dimension. “What is very encouraging about Nandagopal’s work here in Singapore,” explained Sandhu at the time, “is that it is being bought by collectors from all over. It’s not just the Indians; I have very important Chinese collectors who like his work”. In short, he had transcended the tag of being too rooted to his south Indian heritage by riding on that very aspect.
His themes included fishermen wrestling with mythical sea-creatures while dancing on waves, or curving catamarans held up by all manners of quirky, ladle-shaped serpents and monsters. He no longer just collects actual implements from the boatyards and farmyards, but casts his own pieces to resemble these forms that have an organic resemblance to wings and body parts.
In fact, in one notable instance, a work that had been innocently titled The Moon and Four Ladles was mistranscribed as “The Moon and Four Ladies”, the round and hollow spoon-headed shapes being mistaken for women chained to their kitchens.
It had to be hastily withdrawn in the wake of protests from women’s organizations as it was seen as a typical male attempt at stereotyping them.
Nandagopal, who is nothing if not ruled by the women in his family (wife Kala and daughter Pallavi), obviously feels secure enough to exhibit this work as a prominent part of his oeuvre. It now occupies a dominant position on the cover of his book. Both a triumph of his imagination as an artist and one who acknowledges that in this wacky world, maybe it is the Moon and Four Ladies who have the upper ladle.
S. Nandagopal will exhibit his recent works Past Present—In search of the Heroic at Gallery Espace, New Delhi, from 8-22 March.
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