Manjunath Kamath with his sculpture Yugalachooda, Bikaner House, Delhi (Photo: Arun Thakur)
Shakekthu Shalpaka—a title that rolls off the tongue in a pleasant manner, even as it evokes images of grandeur and times gone by. However, this title, despite its grandiosity, means nothing. “It’s gibberish and even the indigenous script it’s written in is completely made up,” says its creator, artist B Manjunath Kamath. This bold move questions the need for humans to ascribe meaning to everything. “I want to question the ideas that we take for granted. Things like what is the meaning of art? Or the meaning of anything for that matter?” That is the driving force behind Kamath’s latest solo show, presented under this moniker.
The exhibition, by Gallery Espace that is currently on display at the Centre for Contemporary Art at Bikaner House, Delhi, is a collection of terracotta sculptures of varying sizes, large-scale paintings on canvas and silk, and intricate painted drawings on paper. His first solo exhibition after five years, it has been conceptualised around the architecture of its venue. Inspired by the neo-classical spaces and arched doorways of Bikaner House, Kamath imagined and created his works specifically to fit into this complex and layered arena. The work is a distinct departure from his creations of the past.
From the titles—both of the exhibition and the works—and the haphazard nature of the creations, it’s clear that Kamath’s works defy the need for an explanation. He explains, “The concept of ascribing meaning to things, objects or works of art is manmade. We impose meanings on them based on what we have been told. Why can’t we let our imaginations determine a meaning of our own choice for what we see?”
These queries first entered Kamath’s mind in his childhood. Growing up in Mangalore, south Karnataka, his first exposure to art was at the temples and churches he visited. The mythological images of gods and goddesses he saw in these places of reverence had a deep visual impact on him. “I ascribed my own meanings to them because at that age, I wasn’t reading any scriptures. I didn’t know what to make of them except what came as explanations to my mind, and I was fascinated. That is what I hope people feel with this exhibition as well.”
“Usually, when artists are given a chance to go abroad, they are fascinated by contemporary art, but my fascination was always with ancient art. I isolate myself from the contemporary space even now,” says Manjunath Kamath, artist
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That early exposure to religious sculptures, frescoes and carvings was coupled with the imagery he saw at local Yakshagana plays, the stories from Indian epics he listened to, and later, with more exposure and knowledge, the works of Raja Ravi Varma, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt that he was inspired by. These diverse cultural influences were instrumental in shaping Kamath’s mixed-media practice ranging from the more traditional offerings of sculptures and paintings to experimental digital art.
As a keen student of all creative mediums, he is constantly absorbing skills from others. He has in the past been influenced by the art of Persian miniatures, the intricate architecture of the Middle East, Victorian motifs and even Chinese pottery. His most recent muse, which makes an appearance in some of the works in Shakekthu Shalpaka, is Buddhist thangka art, which he is drawn towards owing to its meditative nature.
Mythological figures have always impressed him and he is an avid collector of objets d’art from around the world. His large personal collection includes popular religious and classic iconography as well as interesting variations of pop culture figures. His biggest inspiration, however, is the beauty of ancient art. “Usually, when artists are given a chance to go abroad, they are fascinated by contemporary art, but my fascination was always with ancient art. I isolate myself from the contemporary space even now,” says the recipient of the Charles Wallace India Trust grant.
THIS FASCINATION with ancient art, and more specifically, the way it manifests today with its numerous erasures and distortions, plays out in his work. He reproduces the effect of time-ravaged materials on his canvases through several layers. Speaking of the painstaking process, the artist says, “I observe natural seepage in walls and seek to recreate that in my work. Another thing that really interests me at ancient sites are the missing pieces. Originally these pieces were an artist’s creation, but with the missing parts, they have become nature’s creation.”
Kamath deliberately introduces fragmentation in his own works to mimic the work of nature in the ancient sculptures he has seen. What results is, “a hand here, a foot there, the curve of a cheek or a portion of a bird”, and the overall piece ends up being an amalgamation of distorted figures, unusual patterns, prints, and decorations that seem haphazard but meld together perfectly. It is a puzzle which he leaves to his audience to decipher, while also highlighting the numerous influences that together make India.
A fine example of this is the showstopper piece at Shakekthu Shalpaka called Vikatonarva. Clocking in at nearly 11.5 feet, this gigantic sculpture was made in six parts and then assembled, as is the case with most of Kamath’s terracotta works. The grand figure wears an imposing headdress comprising dozens of smaller heads arranged in the manner of grapes on vines. His costume and limbs flit between various established sculptural styles. One can see the influence of Greek, Italian, Chinese and Indian schools from different time periods, with hints of others peeking through. The figure stands in motion atop two strange creatures— animals in form, but not adhering to the body of any recognisable animal.
Even as he invites the viewer to create a story of this figure, Kamath narrates the story that came to his mind when he created it. “I pictured a king who had conquered a country, and when he visited the site of the war after many years, he heard whispers from the trees. On closer inspection, he observed numerous dislodged heads of people. They were the vanquished who had died in the war and were now recounting their stories. The king decides to pluck this branch and wear it on his head to listen to them all the time. I wanted to question if this image was real or was it just a magical manifestation of his guilt? As for the creatures on his feet—I wanted to emphasise a kind of uncertainty. If these creatures decide to leave, he will fall.” He hopes that these myriad elements will invite viewers to interact with the sculpture.
Kamath never makes preliminary sketches, instead preferring to create something from scratch, which grows on its own. Having seen a large sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he felt inspired to create his own imposing beings that would be timeless and would belong to no particular era.
His medium-sized sculptures, though smaller in scale, follow similar themes and are equally impressive. Of these, an elongated and narrow one called Extended Tale is an allusion to the fact that history is constantly extending in linear motion. The indeterminate figurine shown standing on a platform here has no defined shape or form, though it seems covered in a variety of garments. It is also missing a head with the space deliberately left vacant so that its history can continue to build upon itself.
Another interesting work titled Yugalachooda is an amorphous form that seems to morph from a human male to a human female to an animistic creature. Viewed from different angles, this three-dimensional work seems to have numerous stories to share. A point to note is though their forms are apparent, they have no faces or distinguishing marks. “In traditional Indian mythology, the king and queen or the god and goddess are always shown standing or sitting next to each other, and the figures are of a particular size,” says Kamath. His figure, however, defies this notion and is seen as one, with the female mounting the male torso from one side, even as the animal bears their collective weight underneath.
“My works are inspired by Indian motifs such as Nandi carrying Shiva or Hanuman carrying Rama on their shoulders. Similarly, this animal is carrying our god and goddess amalgamation. Here, animals and humans merge,” he says.
Made on similar lines is the piece titled Preeth Vahana where a headless figure sits atop a strong cross-legged bull and carries a time-ravaged goat on its shoulders. It is unclear where the lifting of the burden begins and where it ends.
“I observe natural seepage in walls and seek to recreate that in my work. Another thing that really interests me at ancient sites are the missing pieces. Originally these pieces were an artist’s creation, but with the missing parts, they have become nature’s creation,” says Manjunath Kamath
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The idea of ‘carrying the burden’ is an oft-explored theme in this exhibition. It can especially be seen in the series of eight small busts titled Bojh—the Hindi word for burden. Here, male torsos are individually crafted in cement, and they carry the burden of intricate terracotta sculptures, which mimic thought bubbles. The inversion of the materiality where the delicate and light terracotta prove to be too unwieldy for the sturdy and strong cement is Kamath’s playful way of highlighting opposites. It’s also perhaps an insightful commentary on how human worries and thoughts are often the biggest burdens we carry.
In To Be Continued, Kamath painstakingly recreates an anthill-like structure by perforating the terracotta with a pin thousands of times. The artist explains this as an ode to the fact that everyone must one day go back to nature. He says, “Nature is the tool to end everything. Even our own gods, such as Lord Jagannath of Puri, die every 25 years. Whatever comes to earth must end at some point.”
Of Kamath’s paintings, a large piece called Ajathakalpa is truly striking—not least because it’s made on a wash of gold leaf. The rich backdrop is offset by strategically placed signs of ruination—which Kamath achieves through layers of paint—and a series of prominent letters. These letters, however, do not belong to any alphabet you may be familiar with. Kamath created these symbols and figures as a language of his own after studying dozens of other languages to veto any similarity. “I wanted to go beyond creating a simple image. In certain religious faiths like Islam and Sikhism where holy texts are revered, the script itself becomes an image. We treat it as human. I wanted to create my own text but keep it meaningless,” he shares.
The remainder of the larger paintings are massive triptychs and diptychs ensconced in ornately shaped frames. They look like salvaged artworks discovered from an ancient archaeological site, yet they have been made afresh with the artist’s keen eye recreating details of ruination painstakingly. Styles, periods, and even mediums collide to create the effect that he desires.
On similar lines are his smaller untitled painted drawings on paper. These intricately detailed works are reminiscent of decorative tiles from homes of centuries past. They were envisioned and completed last by the artist, as he enjoys the meditative state their creation puts him in. “It’s like taking a break because they are so relaxing to make. When I have had too much of the physically intensive act of creating the larger works, I turn to the painted drawings,” he says.
(Shakekthu Shalpaka by B Manjunath Kamath, curated by Gallery Espace, is on display at Bikaner House, Delhi, till February 16)