He was one of the few Indian artists who helped bring sculptures back to the limelight in the early Eighties. It was the medium K S Radhakrishnan had discovered for himself after he journeyed from a village in Kottayam to Santiniketan. Four decades later, his works dot open spaces from Calicut in India to Cotignac in France. In this interview, the 60-year-old artist talks about his ongoing exhibition “Mapping with Figures: The Evolving Art of KS Radhakrishnan” at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, how Santiniketan influenced his work, the legacy of Ramkinkar Baij and Musui and Maiya, his eternal inspirations. Excerpts:
You seldom depicted the human body as a whole when you were a student at Santiniketan in the ’70s. How do you compare that phase with now, when the figures are a complete whole?
I had just joined Santiniketan then and was finding my own language in art. The distortions were a quest to look at the basics of the human body, one had to learn what to distort from. Towards the end of that period, the organic fragments turned into geometric structures, lithe bodies and even an assemblage of figures. It was a natural process of evolution. In this exhibition, we are trying to trace that process. Among the latest works are three monumental sculptures of Musui and Maiya titled Behroopi. They are heels over head in this case. It depicts a kind of journey you undertake to be elevated.
From the late ’90s, Musui, the young Santhal boy who you first met in Santiniketan in 1977, has stayed with you. He is your permanent protagonist. What attracted you to him?
When I first met him on the roadside, he was asking for bread. One would not expect it, but he had a smile on his face. I asked him if he would come and model for me and he agreed. I paid him Rs 2. In a few hours he was back, with his head shaved. I had found my Musui. He became a model for many others on campus. I had done a figure study of him which was too large to be carried when I left Santiniketan for Delhi. So I decapitated the sculpture and carried the head with me. In the mid-90s, I turned to it when I was working on a sculpture of a rickshaw puller. I brought Musui back to life, his body from this fragment of a head. Since then, he has assumed various identities, from Jesus to devil, Nataraj and so much more, but his smile never goes away. I was in touch with Musui till 2010, when he died.
You also developed his female alter ego, Maiya. How important was it to have her?
Maiya was born out of Musui’s rib. She is not his mirror image but a companion who complements him. Together, they represent every man and woman. Over the years, their bodies have been altered innumerable times, they have become wiry, their movements have become fluid, almost like they have no bones.
A lot of your work has personal references, memories of Kerala — lanterns, tile-roofed shelters, boats. Is that the home that you miss? Is the series ‘Human Box’, on migration, also autobiographical in that sense?
It all comes from personal memories of my childhood in Kerala, what we saw and perhaps, things that are slowly vanishing. A lot of art comes from personal experiences and is a response to what the artist sees or is affected by. You can say that the ‘Human Box’ is based on my journey, from Kerala to Santiniketan to Delhi. The first of these was done in 1998. It represented a host of small figures flying down onto the surface of a little box. The box also became a hemisphere, with figures flying towards the north.
What made you travel from Kottayam to Santiniketan? Most artists in south India those days would invariably go to the Madras College of Art.
Yes, that was the norm. I too had tried, but I feel there was a bias against Malayalee artists at the Madras school back then. Of course, the tradition of Santiniketan offered much more energy to me. The renaissance in Bengal was just extraordinary. It was an institution established by (Rabindranath) Tagore on certain ideals. Coming from Kottayam, it was a place I could connect with more; we were learning straight from nature. I got exposure to huge open air sculptures, while working with greats such as Ramkinkar Baij and Sarbari Roy Chowdhury.
What were your earliest lessons in art?
I took to painting when I was still eight, inspired by my uncle PN Narayanan Kutty. He used to work in the Raja Ravi Varma style of art. I worked there till the age of 18, when I realised there were limitations in terms of where it could take me. That’s when I moved to Santiniketan. I started working with materials like clay and plaster of Paris and realised that my temperament was more inclined towards sculptures than painting, I could carve a stone and in the process, discover a form hidden inside. This is also where I discovered bronze.
Do you find it ironical that it was your international success in the 1990s that made people in India look at your work in a new light?
When my solo opened at Centre des bords de Marne in Paris in 1993, the then Indian ambassador to France, who had come for the opening, said it was among the biggest by an Indian sculptor in Paris. I knew that there had been many more, but the response was encouraging. In India, people clap when others are applauding you outside. I also got some exposure through the photographs of Prabuddha Dasgupta, with whom I shared a very special relationship. He photographed my sculptures for almost 30 years — from 1987 when he photographed my little bronzes in Mumbai to the work I did at Khirki village in Delhi in 1990 and the series ‘Wheat Field in Obson Ville in France’ in 1991.
You curated a retrospective of Ramkinkar Baij at the NGMA in 2012. How challenging was that?
At the show’s opening, KG Subramanyan made an interesting statement. He said that curating a show of Ramkinkar’s work is any art historian’s nightmare considering there’s so little to go by in terms of documentation. It was not easy at all. All that one could really depend on were exhibitions held in Santiniketan, organised by students in the Fifties and Sixties. Ramkinkar himself has signed some of the paintings much later, so there is a lot of confusion on that front. Also, Ramkinkar was very liberal in parting with his work, so many of them went out of his studio without being recorded. At that time, commerce was not a concern at all. Ramkinkar used his paintings to prevent water from leaking into his house, he painted canvases several times over because at times he could not afford a new canvas. Some of his paintings have been done on jute cloth and bed sheets. He was an institution by himself.
How much of him and Roy Chowdhury do you see in your own work?
More than anything else, I hope my art reflects the kind of relationship they shared with their art; that basic sensibility of the relationship an artist shares with his/her work. It is the connect that needs to be established between the maker and what is made. It is dangerous if that is being questioned. Nowadays, artists just sign and ideate. Back in those days, even a fingerprint on the work would mean it was the artist’s.
You are one of the few artists of your generation who do a lot of open-air public works. You have donated many of them, including the Heritage Column at the Garden of Five Senses in Delhi.
I decided to keep aside some money for large public works. If Baij could make so many of them, I felt so could I. I wanted to carry forward his legacy. Moreover, in India we don’t really see many public works; this is my attempt at reaching out. It was to avoid the limitations of external demands that I decided to remain free, and only cast public sculptures as donations. As they were not paying me, I could remain independent on the entire project. At present, I am making two of them — one for the promenade alongside river Mandovi in Panjim; a large portal like an impish Musui will sit. And another Behroopi for my hometown, Kottayam.