Sculpting India, past and present
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur

February 5, 2010 

Once again you confront the staggering cultural diversity of India. The mute forms here are eloquent testimonies of an under-writ reality - the 10-day national wood carving camp 2010 at Lalithakala Academy Campus, Thrissur, Kerala.

The artists engaged came from the length and breadth of India, from traditional artists immersed in traditional forms with traditional motifs to intellectuals with socio-political concerns or aesthetic quest who reinvent metaphors and abstract images. Here we travel from the past to the present.

A family, Ravi Krishna Bhat with his wife and toddler son are from Ahmedabad, Gujarat. His ancestors have carved artefacts and figures of religious and cultural expressions. The images that the family displays, in strong primary colors, are those that fill spaces in carnivals. Stylized animals, half mythical and half ritualistic have been part of our cultural traditions. He carved a figure with a flute, obviously, Krishna. Moving from the terrestrial to the celestial, here is a journey with spiritual nuance, India’s special feature.

Ravi Krishna Bhat and family 
from Ahmedabad
The pillar that decorates the community dwelling of 
tribal youth-carved by Pandiram Mandavi

Pandiram Mandavi and his group have come all the way from Chattisgarh. A tribal group having international exposure is perhaps rare. They have gone to Italy, Germany and Moscow. In his village, folk prefer stone and casting, but Mandavi loves wood. The pillar the team has carved resembles a tree with four sides. The carving tells the story of a dancing girl with a drummer on the other side. Captured in action with the exuberance of youth and vitality, the carving is an insight into their way of life. The Ghoutul tribe has a different set of values. The young in their teens enter into a community life. After a day’s work, the couples come to an exclusive dwelling place to have an exclusive life. The place is decorated with such pillars, fine arts fine-tuning Erotica. Or call it Life Force.

The sculptor from Lakshadweep, Mohammed Haneefa, has a different theme, the angst of islanders bound by the sea. The diminutive figure wound and crushed by a serpent has a mythical touch, yet it speaks of the human spirit suffocated by geographical constraints.
Chuchai Sodhi from Chattisgarh, carved a folk artist, a drummer. In imaginary realm, the drummer unleashes rhythmic patterns, still to be heard. 

Woodcarving traces its history from Vedic times. The trees used for making icons and trees used for making household things were catalogued even then. People all over India carved in the available medium. Coastal and mountainous regions have gone for wood carving. Kerala has preference for wood while neighboring Tamilnadu used stone. So when Kerala Lalithakala Academy gave a piece of mahogany to each artist to carve their work, it is not a coincidence, but has a sense of history behind it. "The mask has been a motif in our performing arts," says Ram Sanjeevan, Lalithakala Academy, Delhi. His masked face is the symbolic evil, quite in tune with the traditional. 

Folk drummer by Chuchai Sodhi
By Mohammed Haneefa from Lakshadweep

But with Johnson the mask acquires a larger meaning.  MK Johnson, a freelance artist of Kerala known for his creative photography, has worked mostly in stone. Both folk and classical performing arts have been using masks in Kerala. His sensibility shaped by rural Kerala, Johnson has carved a head, with its mask, smaller and behind it. It could well be each one of us, a real face and another for public consumption. But, for him, his work is inspired by a street play popular in Kerala that took up the mask as an allegory. In the play, a small boy in a village gets an alien object, a mask. The village head persuades the boy to discard the useless thing. Soon he finds two people wearing this strange thing. It multiplies until the village head is forced to wear the mask to be inclusive to the village. You can empathize with the artist who finds he is like the village head, coerced to fall in line with the forces of globalization. 

Linu, a product of RLV collage of Fine Arts, Thrippunithura, Kerala, carves the trunk of a coconut tree, stunted in growth, devoid of leaves. The tree symbolizes the present Kerala, the land of coconut trees. The piece is a critique on the lopsided development that destroys the very roots of life and vegetation.
Ravi PP, Lecturer, Fine Arts College, Thrissur, showcases his 'Figure on capital’ which highlights political issues. A small sized naked human figure standing on the top of a capital is clutching a red cloth to his heart. The red is juxtaposed with the rough texture of the wood to capture attention. Kerala embraced communist ideology for emancipation. Now a follower, the common man, finds himself on the capital bandwagon that the Party has decided to follow. The carving is a scathing commentary on the politically passionate Keralites who find themselves hoodwinked.

VK Rajan, who loves to work on huge pieces of granite, shapes an abstract piece. Sculpture is basically the interplay of space and form. As an artist, he finds everything having a geometric pattern. Chipping, chiseling, and grinding alone in highland regions, amidst waterfalls and Nature’s orchestra has unveiled the strange aesthetics of sound. So, carving 'Bridge' is an attempt to create an iconography of the sound; you can feel the poise and a harmony in this abstract, yet geometrical beauty.

Ravi PP
The IT age, hand with a mouse, by Narayanankutty

"Art denying the past must correspond to the intellectual needs of the times." For Narayanankutty, Principal of the Fine Arts College, Thrissur, art should mirror alarming changes in social systems. So, his huge hand with its cuff-buttons intact, holding the mouse with a long cable attached, is the symbol of the IT age, the conquest of cyberspace, and virtual reality that rule our lives.

After these carvings are displayed, they finally will find a place in the Museum that the academy hopes to build very soon. The products of an earlier camp are still in Thunjan Parambu in Kerala. The effort to document the impulses of a subcontinent geographically united, yet culturally diverse moving through history, is a laudable effort that only Government sponsored institutions can do today. 

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to