Created using simple lines, circles and curves, Dhanraj Bhagat’s untitled sculpture — made of plaster of Paris, shows a musician deeply engrossed in playing his sitar, almost meditating on the music he is creating — welcomes viewers into the premises of the Jaipur House. A few steps ahead, the work Shiva Dance, created in an abstract form in 1956, has the god dancing on a bed of coal. Harbouring a certain lyrical quality to themselves, over 400 such works created by the Padma Shri-awardee form the exhibition “Dhanraj Bhagat (1917 – 1988): Journey from the Physical to the Spiritual”, to mark the late artist’s 100th birth anniversary and familiarise viewers with Bhagat’s works that have largely remained unseen.
Born in Lahore in 1917, Bhagat did his art training at the Mayo School of Art, Lahore, before migrating to India after the Partition, and began his career as a faculty member of the College of Art in Delhi in 1947, before retiring as its head of the Sculpture Department in 1977. Sculptor Adwaita Gadanayak, Director-General of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), who has curated the exhibition, says, “He is like the character of Bhisma from the Mahabharata. He was a sculptor who was attached to his roots. He would go to the Konark temple and the Ajanta and Ellora caves and sketch the figures of the deities there. The journey from the physical to spiritual often can be felt in his works.”
The work Family Horse, made of wood, stands as an example of how man carries the burden of his entire family, as human figures of different sizes stand like chess pieces on his back. In another work, with the help of iron rods, the artist created the silhouette of Durga, with her outstretched arms, demonstrating how he never forgot to retain the human element even in the abstract form. The Partition too creeps into many of Bhagat’s sculptures. In Mahakala, a large face bathed in black can be seen eating tiny figures of men. Gadanayak says, “There is this feeling of how man is eating another man.”
Born into a family with limited financial resources, Bhagat worked under a commercial sculptor at the age of 16 after dropping out of school and saved money to study at Mayo. Cement, iron, plaster of Paris and wood were his preferred medium, perhaps owing to the lack of funds or access to other contemporary mediums. Gadanayak says, “The separation must have been a hard time for him, because people didn’t even have enough funds to build their own house.”
With former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru being regular visitors at his Delhi studio and home, Bhagat was commissioned to create repousse panels for the New Delhi Railway Station and the Railway Board building. Gadanayak says, “Only a part of the New Delhi Railway Station work survives today in its office, thanks to the renovation that was carried out in the later years. My wish was to bring the work here but we couldn’t do so. There were works at Pragati Maidan too, where he had made sculptures while at the College of Art. They were broken down and couldn’t be found anywhere.” In 1978, the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi had also held a retrospective of Bhagat.
At the exhibition are several paintings from his initial days, after he graduated from art school: a realistic vision of the rural landscape, interspersed with huts, and scenes captured from hilltops, alongside sculptural replicas of fluffy Peru birds in plaster of Paris. This was long before he turned to abstraction and encompassed geometric shapes. “It is interesting to look at the life of this artist. He constantly keeps going here and there, searching for something. I think even he didn’t know what he was searching for and was simply trying to transfer that energy to his canvas,” says Gadanayak.
He recalls the time Bhagat lived in, right after India became independent, when most art schools were influenced by Western art. “The initial works he did were realistic, in the Western style. Indians didn’t do realistic paintings, as can be seen in miniatures or traditional temple sculptures. Bhagat must have seen the contrast here and wondered where he was and where India stood,” says Gadanayak.
The exhibition is on display till February 20 at NGMA, Sher Shah Road, Delhi