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How sculptor KS Radhakrishnan brings alive the migrant experience | Eye News

Your ongoing retrospective (at Bikaner House, Delhi) marks 50 years of your career. You left your hometown, Kottayam (Kerala), to study art in Santiniketan in 1974. What took you there?

When I left Kerala to study at Santiniketan, it was a big decision for me as most people in Kerala used to go to Madras Art College at the time. We did not have as much exposure as students have now but I had heard about Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati and its philosophy that encouraged the coming together of arts. Its emphasis on learning from nature appealed to me.

You began painting when you were eight. If you could recall your early lessons.

My father’s younger brother was a painter and followed the realist style of Raja Ravi Varma, which is what I also pursued during my childhood. I worked there till 18, when I realised there were limitations in terms of where it could take me and decided to study at Santiniketan. I had gone there to become a painter but discovered the sculptor in me. When I started working with clay, I realised how we were building from nothing and there were tremendous possibilities. During one of my earliest attempts with clay, I made a sphere and cut it into two, representing the two hemispheres and built it further — the work, The Female Torso, is part of this exhibition. My teachers, such as Somnath Hore and Sarbari Roy Choudhury, were major influences. Ramkinkar Baij, too, was on campus and worked in the Kala Bhawan studios — observing him was a learning.

One of your earliest sculptures was a Ramkinkar Baij portrait. If you could tell us about that.
I was just entering my fourth year when I received the National Scholarship and gathered the courage to approach him. At the time, sculpture students were very few and he was also very happy for me. This was in 1979, a year before he passed away. He had said no to many sculptors earlier, but agreed to sit with me. When I went to his house and started working, I realised the challenges of sculpting this man, who was such a great sculptor and philosopher. I wanted to capture the ruggedness and roughness of his sculptures and also the different sides of his personality, as a
serious sculptor and the human expression, his smile. I completed the work in
about six sittings.

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In Santiniketan, you also met your protagonist, the young Santhal boy Musui. Do you remember your first interaction with him?

I was in my third year at Visva Bharati when I met Musui on the road, and he asked me if I had bread. I was immediately drawn to his smile. I asked him if he would model for me and took him to my studio. He had overgrown hair and I gave him some coins, with which he went to a barbershop and came back with a shaved head. That was when his sculpture was born. He became a model for many others on campus. When I left Santiniketan for Delhi, I decapitated his sculpture and carried his head with me. In the mid-’90s, I turned to it when I was working on a sculpture of a rickshaw puller. Since then, he has assumed various identities, from Jesus to Nataraja. When I felt a need for his female counterpart, I conceived Maiya. Her figure is a take-off from Musui’s head, with feminine features. They are inseparable and one with the other.

If you could talk about your engagement with migrants, who appear in series such as “Human Boxes” and “My Memories”.

You could have had a different quality of life in your own place but when you are making a big departure you also uproot yourself. You come to a new place where you have no sense of belonging. The series “My Memories” shows the burden of those memories, homes and family left behind, which these migrants carry within. The “Human Box” also responds to the unfolding saga of migrants who come to Delhi and somehow create a life within highly limited spaces and circumstances. The first of these was done in the late ’90s.

Radhakrishnan’s retrospective in Bikaner House, Delhi One of his works (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

You also encourage viewers to touch your artworks.

Sculpture is all about tactile experience. Its presence is to be felt, seen and touched. Even as students, we were asked to feel the material. In 1997, I had an exhibition at Park Street in Kolkata, which continued for six months, and passersby literally celebrated when they came to know they could touch the works. My public works are also my attempt at reaching out to people.

If you could talk about juxtaposing bronze with paper pulp in your recent works.
Last year, I was attending a workshop in Santiniketan where they were making pulp from paper and other materials and during the process, I realised its malleability. I put it with some of my bronze miniatures and the fluidity of paper pulp made them appear as if they were sinking in water while crossing a river, or rising out of clouds. It created human drama. Pulp is soft and bronze gives it a certain hardness. There is no limit to what you can experience and explore.

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