Painted in blue, her eyes are wide open and lips are smeared with red lipstick — Ravinder Reddy’s Portrait of a Migrant is not desolate or despondent but she does carry the burden of her past and is anxious about her future. Standing 112.5 inches tall, with a sack weighing on her head, she gazes at the viewers, just as 13 other sculptural women heads designed by Reddy. “She represents how migration is taking place in India so rapidly, from villages to cities and also within the cities,” says Reddy.
Curated by Anupa Mehta, the exhibition titled ‘Rasa’ at Emami Art — a contemporary art gallery at Kolkata Centre for Creativity (KCC) — brings together three decades of the Visakhapatnam-based artist’s work, from 1989 to 2019. “I have been wanting to show a huge body of work in Kolkata. Though I have been handling the same subject, how I go about it has changed. From a more primitive expression in the earliest works, I now see more refinement in the proportion, features or even the ornamentation,” says 63-year-old Reddy. According to Mehta, “Ravinder Reddy marries tradition with the contemporary to create works that are at once iconic as they are rooted in the vernacular.”
While his trademark larger-than-life sculptures have now travelled the world — from the US to France, the UK and Singapore, among others, Reddy recalls how he made the first bust as a student of fine arts at MS University in Baroda in the early ’80s. “The head is the immediate recognisable form for any human being. It’s universal, so I said, why not do the head?” He painted her in white to ensure that the focus was on the form. While most of his contemporaries were sculpting in stone, wood and bronze, the young student chose fibreglass. “I felt people were not looking at the sculpture, they were looking at the material. Fibreglass was cheaper and could take any form. I am a modeller who liked to work with clay. If there is a mistake, I can rectify it in clay. I could also make any size I wanted without being dependent on others,” says Reddy.
Encouragement came from teachers such as KG Subramanyan and Gulmammohammed Sheikh. “They were very supportive. I still remember when I first showed the work in Delhi in the ’80s at Art Heritage, people were curious to know more about the material. Artists such as MF Husain and Tyeb Mehta also came,” adds Reddy. During a short term course at the Royal College of Art in London, this line of thought was further strengthened.
Exposed to world art, he drew influences from the terracotta sculptures at Museum of Mankind in London, as well as art that he saw in Africa, Egypt and Mexico. He also found inspiration in religious Hindu iconography, tribal and folk imagery. “In the ’80s, in most art schools, we were looking at the work of French and British artists but I felt it was important to look at the rich tradition we had in sculpture. I started reading about Indian art, from the primitive period to the Mathura school and later. I realised how the sculptors were depicting contemporary life of the time and wanted to do the same,” says Reddy.
Back in India, his ideas began to take form in his sculptures that gradually attained complex layers and were dominated by shades of gold, red, yellow and blue. Not drawn on paper and directly cast, he would adorn the figures with gajras, jewellery and kohl-lined eyes. With the market for art still limited, Reddy earned a living teaching at the Department of Fine Arts from 1990 to 2009. The studio practice meanwhile evolved, with recognition coming from different quarters. With Akshatyoni-III (1989-90), he began to focus on oversized female heads. The turning point perhaps was the exhibition ‘Tradition/ Tensions: Contemporary Art in Asia’ at Asia Society in New York in 1996, where his figure, Devi, was widely appreciated. “My heads do not resemble any one person. There are elements I borrow,” says Reddy.
In the ongoing exhibition we see some of his most recognised protagonists — Krishnaveni (2017) with her copper-gilded face and long braid to Parvati (2019), who wears an elaborate bun with embellishments. Lovely (2019) is painted in red, her hair carefully combed into an ornamented bun. A sole terracotta bust stands apart. Sculpted in 1989, like all the others, she gazes directly at the viewers, but unlike others she is more sombre.
With the prices of his works soaring now, lost works are also being discovered. In 2015, Saffronart sold his sculpture Devi for Rs 2.7 crore. Last year, an ’80s fibreglass nude was bought for auction by Christie’s. Gifted to a private collector by John Wood, from Goldsmiths University, it was left in London by Reddy when he was returning to India. “My primary aim is to establish a rapport with the generation that I am living with. A good sculpture should arise your senses to go deeper into the work and interact with it,” says Reddy.
The exhibition is on at Emami Art, Kolkata, till August 4