When I met the sculptor G.Reghu — who has an experience of more than 30 years in sculpting — I had a persisting question in my head: is he, with the help of his art, trying to compete with nature? For a sculptor, making use of the geometry of solid figures, gives form to objects and artifacts that resemble reality more closely than a painting or a poem can. Sculpture is therefore art at its most tangible, most real and in a sense most natural. Is a sculptor not competing with nature then?
Reghu’s sculptures, composed using the human form as a template, force are arrestingly thought-provoking and original. The artist, however, would be the last person to identify his style as original.
He says that to him what matters most is fidelity to his imagination, a great example of which is his recent series of ceramic pieces being exhibited at the Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi.
Born in 1969 to a poor family in the Killimanoor village of Kerala, Reghu was exposed to an extended span of strife and domestic misery. His father passed away when Reghu was a mere toddler, and his mother, an unskilled labourer, struggled to make ends meet and take care of the young Reghu and his four siblings. “It was the hardest time of our lives,” Reghu now recalls. “Sometimes we could only manage a single meal in a day. I must have been in the third or fourth standard in school, I remember. I just had one notebook to write in while all my classmates had one for each subject and they all came to school wearing decent cloths.”
At the age of eight came the turning point in his life. Young Reghu and his friends often played on the premises of the Leprosy Hospital near his home, where Elizabeth Baker, the wife of a Britishborn Indian artist and architect Laurie Baker, worked. It was Elizabeth who provided Reghu with drawing material for the first time. “She would get me the drawing material. And I would draw and colour, and then show my drawings to her. Whatever I am today I owe it mostly to the Bakers.”
“At Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal, we would often find M.F. Husain sitting on the floor and painting. We would surround him and watch him work. To see an artist of his calibre at work was a sight indeed and a great learning experience for an aspiring artist like me.”
Later in his life, Reghu went on to study at the Trivandrum College of Art and the Roopankar Museum of Fine Arts, Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal. It was in Bhopal that he had a series of memorable encounters with some of the most prominent names in arts and culture. Reghu worked with figures like M.F. Husain, Ashok Vajpeyi, B.V. Karanth and S.H. Raza among others.
Reghu recalls, “We would often find M.F. Husain sitting on the floor and painting. We would surround him and watch him work. To see an artist of his calibre at work was a sight indeed and a great learning experience for an aspiring artist like me.”
The scholarship he was awarded at Bharat Bhawan was also a great help to the artist in his early years of struggle for recognition. But artistic talent cannot be neglected by the world for very long.
By this stage of his life, Reghu had begun honing his craft of sculpting. He headed for Bombay and there he got in touch with the director of the Jehangir Art Gallery, one of the biggest art galleries of the city for an exhibition. “I was told that there’s a procedure that one needs to follow in order to get displayed at the gallery,” he says. “And that my work might get exhibited after a year or two.” Finally, after persistent efforts, his work was finally displayed at the gallery alongside a painting exhibition. All his sculptures were also bought by an art collector. He earned Rs. 40,000 through this venture, which was a huge sum of money in the year 1988. From then on, he never looked back.
But for Reghu, the journey from being a mere boy with artistic aspirations to becoming an established artist has not by any means been an easy one. Apart from various ups and downs in his career, he has also had run-ins with the state censors in Bhopal, who once demanded that he discard some of his works, which were considered to be of an erotic nature.
During his time in Bhopal, Reghu made regular visits to the tribal areas of Bastar and Wynad. Which is why themes of rural and tribal life recur in his work. He tries to depict the serenity of the tribal living, and tribal women feature extensively in his work. But all the same, there’s enough thematic diversity to be found in his oeuvre.
Consider, as an example, one of his bronze sculptures, where he shows a boy looking into the hollowness of a torso. “The boy,” Reghu says, “is stooping into the hollowness, searching for the lost artist.”
Like the American writer Henry Miller, Reghu is also interested with the life of an embryo in the mother’s womb, with this miraculous and primordial relationship between a mother and a developing child. He says that he has tried in the past to portray this essence and feeling that can be known only to a mother – a daring act for a male artist. In one of his works, which he modelled long back, he carved a baby on the beautiful, bulging belly of a woman – there’s that unmistakable expression of contentment on the mother’s face.
Today, Reghu is considered to be one of the luminaries of the modern sculpting movement in India, and the credit for this goes not to our artistic establishment, which continued to neglect him for years, but to the artist’s own force of imagination and his will to succeed.