Black whorls of metal sprout in the garden of National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru; a weaver bird’s nest in stainless steel hangs from the ceiling; and steel shrines glint in corners, worshipful of a nameless deity. “Sculpting in Time” is a retrospective of six decades of artist-sculptor Balan Nambiar’s work, and like his oeuvre, this is an embarrassment of riches. It showcases, besides his jewellery enamel paintings and sculptures, a selection of photographs of Theyyam and its performers, documented by the 80-year-old artist over several decades. Excerpts from an interview:
How did art begin? In your childhood?
In the village I come from, Kannapuram in Kannur district of Kerala, we never bought toys, we had to make it ourselves. I was good at making clay toys. In my village, there was no artist, just communities of artisans. But I never knew that one could live a life as an artist.
How does a sculpture begin in your mind?
In a painting, we say it starts with a dot, stroke or a smear of colour. In sculpture, it starts with a drawing. I always have an idea in mind when I start sketching. For instance, I once observed that if you throw a stone near a cluster of pigeons, the birds suddenly take flight. So, this sculpture (Bird in Flight; 1981) tries to capture this feeling. The vegetation I see around me has a huge influence on me. Because I come from a family of farmers. I have made rice stalks in steel, and also a sculpture of a seed germinating.
Can you tell us about the kannadi bimbam, the shrine that inspires many of your sculptures?
The kannadi bimbam is a portable metallic mirror, which forms one of the eight auspicious objects in a puja patram. What fascinated me was that in some shrines, called the Bhagavathi temples in Kerala, this mirror-idol is installed in place of the statue of an idol. But the consecration ritual is just the same. Once you enter the temple, you see yourself reflected in the mirror. There is no gender, name or history to this god. That, in a way, helped explore the possibilities; it’s a most secular form.
What explains your interest in documenting Theyyam?
There are thousands of shrines dedicated to Theyyam all over north Kerala. From the second half of November till the end of April, you can see a Theyyam performance almost every day. The Theyyam is a total art form. The practitioners are painters, craftsmen, musicians and choreographers. You can see every aspect of art in them.
After I finished my first show in Bengaluru, I started going to Kerala to watch these Theyyam and Koodiyattam performances. First, I went without any notebook or camera. I have watched on an average 20-25 full-night Theyyam performances every year. When I got a government fellowship for doing research on Theyyam, that extended to 60 days in a season. Even now, I long to go there; it is a pilgrimage for me.