There is an unabashed provinciality to artist Ravinder Reddy’s “woman heads”. Despite the exaggerated flourishes, such as the stunned expression in their eyes, the resplendent gold or bright hues and elaborate ornamentation in the hair, they are distinctly Indian, even south Indian, and tribal. Perhaps one of the reasons the woman in fibreglass is an iconic artwork all over the world and a discerning collector’s staple from India.
A lot of contemporary art follows directly or indirectly from Western trends and Western technical and digital ingenuity. Their universal appeal is often a matter of technique rather than form or subject. In Reddy’s work, it is easy to spot the provincial in the universal, and yet the universality is what you react to, on first and later viewings—Reddy recently told me, over the phone from his Visakhapatnam studio, that it was “a kind of an amalgam of Egyptian and Mexican figures, Nigerian bronzes, real-life women in rural Andhra Pradesh and Warholian pop sensibility”. The faces could be as close to Kalighat paintings as to African folk art.
In vogue: A woman head by Reddy in gold leaf and fibreglass.
Recently, an 11ft-high bronze head which Reddy made for the CentralWorld Plaza, a shopping mall in Bangkok, as part of an Indian-Thai diplomatic initiative, made it to the front page of international newspapers when the Thai capital was under siege. It was unscathed by the fire in the complex. The eyes were eerily eloquent about the devastation.
Mumbai’s Sakshi Art Gallery, one of the first galleries in the city to promote the heads, is showcasing one of them as part of Third Dimension, a group show of contemporary art. In the last five years, Reddy’s “everywoman” has appeared in Christie’s and Sotheby’s catalogues, and many books on Indian contemporary art, such as the lavishly produced New Delhi New Wave by the French art publishing house Damiani. It is part of famous art collections such as the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan, the Frank Cohen collection, and closer home, Anupam Poddar’s personal collection, besides many smaller private collections.
How did this work travel so far and why did it connect instantly with collectors?
Reddy, 54, has been making art since the 1980s. One of his first works was part of an exhibition in Mumbai in the mid-1980s, at a show called Time Art Auctions. In the early 1990s, he showed in Mumbai again, as a part of a public art show. At a bus stop in south Mumbai and inside what was then the Victoria Terminus Station, Reddy showcased sculptures depicting a couple sleeping with a quilt over their bodies. “That caused quite a stir,” recalls Sakshi’s Geetha Mehra. People were scandalized and curious; Reddy had made an entry into the art world.
In the 1990s, Reddy made the first head. He says: “I had seen Nigerian bronzes in 1984 when I was in London’s Royal College of Art after my graduation from Baroda (MS university). They reminded me of figures and features from Andhra Pradesh, the kind of faces I had probably grown up seeing. The broad features had resonance across geographical borders.” Several years later, when he decided to make something similar, he had been exposed to more art forms. “Pop art was a big thing at that time. You just couldn’t avoid it.”
Among the first collectors Reddy showed his works to was Ebrahim Alkazi and soon after, to Thai curator and art critic Apinan Poshyananda. In a span of two or three years in the late 1990s, he was showing in SoHo galleries and London’s Grosvenor Gallery. “Back then, India was not on the international radar. Reddy was one of the few sculptors to actually get attention in the right places internationally,” says Mehra.
In 2007, the woman head ensured an economic turnaround for Indian sculpture. At the time, for a combination of reasons, the art market was experiencing an unprecedented upsurge. In March that year, Radha, a head in gold leaf and fibreglass, fetched Rs1.49 crore at Saffronart’s online auction. Soon after, Lakshmi Devi, a similar sculpture, fetched Rs1.36 crore at Christie’s auction of modern and contemporary art in New York. Christie’s had anticipated the interest the sculpture would generate. The work, estimated to sell for around Rs30 lakh, was on the cover of the auction’s catalogue—the first time an Indian sculpture, and not a painting, was on a Christie’s catalogue cover. Now Reddy’s works are estimated at around Rs2-3 crore, say gallerists and curators. The art world has gone through a phase of price correction, and prices have plateaued. But interest in Reddy’s works has been increasing steadily. Mehra says many foreign curators and first-time buyers show interest in Reddy’s heads.
Minal Vizarani, co-founder of Saffronart, who collects Reddy’s work for her own collection, says the artist’s appeal is his ability to meld various kinds of iconography in one work: “There’s a grace to his ungainly forms. He is able to engage with what India is about. He can capture the dualities and contradictions of Indian life.” She says living with his work requires engagement, it constantly attracts you and makes you react to it.
The Indianness of his works attracted French collector and curator Hervé Perdriolle, who visited Reddy many times. “The heads are iconic because of their eloquent simplicity,” Perdriolle says. “As with Subodh Gupta’s Very Hungry God, he has found with this the universal in the local.” But he says it’s the singularly Indian qualities that draw collectors to them. “Their spectacular size connects with both sacred art and the secular by representing the statutes erected in public places of famous people.”
Reddy, who is now working on a series of works for a show in Japan, speaks in measured words. Born in Andhra Pradesh’s Suryapet village, he has settled in Visakhapatnam. “I don’t really get so many visitors,” he says, “it is quite peaceful to be working here.”
He is not a prolific artist, and is known to have spent at least nine months to a year on a work. “I think I was conscious from the beginning about the fact that I was making the head a combination of various art forms. The universality of it was very deliberately achieved. To make something monumental and timeless. And when you are blowing anything up to such a size, it fits into the ‘pop’ mould,” says Reddy.
Ravinder Reddy’s Gilded Head 1 is part of Third Dimension, on show at Sakshi Art Gallery, Colaba, Mumbai, till 10 July.