Reality can sometimes be as difficult to comprehend as it is for some people to accept. We hardly look at the “real” these days, preferring to forget the distressing, fact-based world while losing ourselves in the fanciful reveries of the mass media. So one can conclude that facing up to reality, especially for an artist, requires a special strength of character and integrity that many of us might lack.
The celebrated sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan’s work reflects that strength of character, founded as it is on what he calls “reality in its truest form”. Radhakrishnan is a figurative sculptor, taking inspiration directly from life as he finds it. Some of his best sculptures are his interpretations of observed reality, and in themselves, the pieces acquire a realistic essence of their own. That’s why when you look at a Radhakrishnan sculpture, you have a feeling that you’re looking at something that lives.
“I look at the people and make art that’s based on them — art that occupies real spaces,” says Radhakrishnan. “As a sculptor I deal with the real thing and that is the best part that I enjoy about being an artist. People, life, the dramas that surround them are all strongly reflected in my work. I primarily draw from what I see around me.”
Originally from Kottayam in Kerala, Radhakrishnan has been living in Delhi for more than 30 years now. He has a studio in the southern part of the city, in Chhatarpur, and he has spent the last decade looking at this locality develop into a migrant hub of the national capital, with people from across the country coming down to settle there. “People from different states are coming to Delhi every year in search of an identity,” he says. “They are making colonies here. One of my pieces reflects this and that one is among my favourites. The people are migrating to Delhi because opportunities hardly reach the rural areas, and everyone needs something for one’s survival. And here, even as people go about finding their own identity, despite the many difficulties they face, I see them celebrating life. ”
“After two years of trying to paint, I realised that my temperament was more suited to holding the hammer than holding the brush. And after realising my real passion I never looked back. I knew that sculpting was always going to be my true vocation.”
The sculpture in question here is called Liminal Figures Liminal Space (2008), and it is a powerful work of art that concerns itself with the celebration of life. It took him three years to complete the piece, which shows hundreds of miniature figures walking on an ascending ramp, as well as larger human figures on the same ramp mounted on pillars. The sculpture clearly defines the hopes and aspiration of people who have emerged from rural backgrounds into an urban setting. To understand this piece, made in bronze, and take in the carefully-composed details, one has to look at it from different standpoints. It speaks to us as a new sculpture every time we change our orientation with respect to it.
Radhakrishnan has always believed in working with bronze as a medium. He says: “No other metal will give me the freedom of what I do as bronze does. The kind of work I do comes out beautifully only in bronze.”
Radhakrishnan made his first ever sculpture at the age of 18, at Tagore’s Santiniketan, where he was educated. What he had made was a female torso. The work was much appreciated by his colleagues and teachers, and Radhakrishnan has still kept the piece with him as a fond memento of his student days. Speaking of how he became interested in sculpting, he says, “For the first two years in Santiniketan, you are required to do painting, sculpting and all kinds of crafts. After two years of doing that, I realised that my temperament was more suited to holding the hammer than holding the brush. After realising my real passion I never looked back. Prior to this I thought I was only capable of painting but when I started working on sculpture, I knew this was my true vocation. In the beginning I suffered from a certain lack of confidence. But gradually, one gets accustomed to doing things properly. With sculpture, I explored the medium to the maximum, and I became quite comfortable working with bronze.”
Radhakrishnan was also fortunate in having the kind of mentors he had. If you train under the likes of Ramkinkar Baij and Sarbari Roy Choudhury, you are bound to succeed and excel in grasping the fine points of craft. “By simply observing Ramkinkar’s work, I learned a lot,” says Radhakrishnan. “Seeing him work helped me give expression to my own work. He is called the father of modern Indian sculpture. The way he used to approach his art and the various techniques he used gave me a perspective which is now embedded in my work.”
If Ramkinkar was a great technical influence on Radhakrishnan’s work, Sarbari Roy Choudhury’s art helped him develop a unique, realist idiom of sculpting. “At Santiniketan,” Radhakrishnan says, “Sarbari was famous for making sculptures inspired from real life. Along with learning the art of sculpting, I also learned how to make clay models from him.”
A new show of Radhakrishnan’s sculptures recently opened at the Akar Prakar Art Advisory in Delhi, which was curated by R. Siva Kumar, a professor at Santiniketan and a great admirer of Radhakrishnan’s art. “He has been one of the major sculptors of his generation,” Kumar says about Radhakrishnan. “At a time when the figure was neglected in the history of Indian sculpture, he began to pay attention to it and of course there are a few others in his generation, like Ravindra Reddy and so on, who did the same. In the ’80s, artists generally began paying attention to Indian sculpture going beyond what was considered the general framework of modernism. And in sculpture, Radhakrishnan is one of the few who really brought figures and narratives into his art. There are two ways to go about your art. One can either keep walking or exploring new destinations, and the other thing is you can airlift yourself into new destinations, which means you can work in one form and start a new form after a point. Radhakrishnan belongs to that first category of artists, since he reaches new destinations by continuously walking ahead and exploring new ways of doing his work, with the same medium and with the same figures.”
Radhakrishnan likes to call himself a “lifelong sculptor” because he started doing what he does at quite an early age and he continues even today. He is also academically inclined towards the subject and lectures at various universities and colleges on the nitty-gritties of craft.
Besides, Radhakrishnan loves to travel to different countries and also prefers to shift base from Delhi, where he lives, to Santiniketan and Kerala every once in a while. He says, “I live in Delhi but I like the shift. I like to come to the rural belt because you get a different kind of space and quality of life there. Delhi has a kind of speed going, and you need a different kind of mental make up to stay here. After a month, you would like coming back to a place where life is quite slow. I like to return to Santiniketan , the place where I learned it all. I also go to Kerala sometimes, where I was born. I keep travelling between Kerala, Delhi and Bengal; I keep changing my way of life
Santiniketan anyway gave a lot besides art to the sculptor. This was the setting where he first met his wife, for instance. He says, “My wife was my classmate at Santiniketan. That was where we gelled and bonded.” And that was the setting where the sculptor took the first steps towards becoming an established, critically-acclaimed artist.
But Radhakrishnan cautions young artists against falling into the trap of thinking in terms of commercial success or failure. This is the advice he says he would like to proffer to budding artists: “Don’t fall into the trap of thinking about establishing yourself,” he says. “Just practice your art and put some hard work into it. Many a time I have noticed in my life that when you run after something, that thing eludes you; but when you leave that particular thing, it comes to you without much effort. In art, everyone has to go through their struggles. Even I had my own share of struggles. It is important to do your work sincerely as there are no narrow routes to reach the top. Artists shouldn’t be ever impatient. If you keep digging the well, you will get water below.”
And anyway, great art is more than anything a labour of love. “I am in love with life. It is a powerful force. I look at life in a very positive way and I am very passionate about life,” says Radhakrishnan. Whenever we are next to a Radhakrishnan sculpture, we are in contact with that passion for life and originality of vision that has shaped his art for more than five decades.