‘Sculptor of Hope’ is a moniker that sits well on KS Radhakrishnan. His sculptural practice spanning five decades is synonymous with buoyant, joyful figures that elicit hope and positivity, even as they touch on heavy, often existential themes. His engaging works capture the dichotomy of human dilemma living in harmony with the simple pleasures of life. And his chosen medium of bronze eschews the solidity and heaviness it’s traditionally associated with to proffer a unique lightness.
One can observe this mastery at an ongoing retrospective of Radhakrishnan’s works titled On the Open Road, in the Capital. It has been organised by Gallerie Nvyā, curated by art historian R Siva Kumar and includes the artist’s early sculptures dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, many works on his iconic human figures, Musui and Maiya, whom he refers to as his alter egos, as well as his most recent largescale work, The Crowd which consists of 50 large bronze figurines.
The retrospective is spread across two floors of the Centre for Contemporary Art at Bikaner House and a sizeable portion of the sculpture park adjoining it. On display are sculptures of varying sizes, photographs capturing the artist at work over the years, posters from gallery shows of the past, framed preparatory sketches and paintings, which he makes before beginning his projects, mixed-media art works combining the fragility of paper with the toughness of bronze, a well-curated coffee table book on his life and practice, and a short film depicting Radhakrishnan at work in his beloved Santiniketan in Bengal. It is a definitive display of his oeuvre as an artist.
Radhakrishnan became aware of his calling at a young age. Speaking of his childhood in Kottayam, Kerala, the artist recalls, “My father’s younger brother was a painter, so I was exposed to painting from a young age.” He grew up surrounded by vivid colours and charcoal drawings, in what he describes as a “non-academic, pro-aesthetic framework”. It seemed a natural step for young Radhakrishnan to pursue his passion for art by learning how to paint at Santiniketan. However, fate had a different plan.
“When I touched clay, it was a different experience altogether. Unsure of what to do, I found that making a sphere came easily. I then split it into two hemispheres and placed them with one facing the front and the other at an angle. It suggested a torso but not a conventional one, since I was playing with the planes. It was a lesson in how forms can be put together to not resemble life but evoke it—in this case a female torso, the Mother Torso. I felt happier creating objects in a real three-dimensional space, not a flat pictorial one. The knife took the place of the brush,” he writes in the exhibition note.
Guided by his mentors Sarbari Roy Choudhuri and Ramkinkar Baij, both of whom taught him at Santiniketan, he began to pursue his sculptural practice on clay and plaster-of-paris. Bronze was largely “a dream material”. Yet he did have some opportunities to work with it early on, which one can see in a bust of Baij, displayed at the entrance of the exhibition. “I got two profiles of him—one with a little smile, one serious. I juxtaposed these in my portrait and I think I got the man and the sculptor.”
The other development from his student days that impacted his practice was the life-sized sculpture he made of a Santhal boy called Musui, who rode a rickshaw on which the artist would often travel. Musui’s wiry, supple frame and his distinctive smile became the basis of one of Radhakrishnan’s figure studies at college. Since the sculpture was large, he broke off its head to take along with him to Delhi. Later this head was used to create the forms of Musui, and his female counterpart, Maiya. Instead of recreating the exact figure, however, he made them as idealised forms which could be moulded and shaped as desired.
“Their forms are ageless and timeless. I have retained Musui as he was in his youth to preserve that memory. I depict their bodies as light and flexible approximations of the actual human figure to show what I would have liked to have or what I wanted to be. The idea was to show both the playfulness of the mind and the flexibility of the body,” says the artist.
Musui and Maiya form the basis of several of his works—some in their original life-sized avatars and others as several tiny finger-length figurines moulded together. The larger figures are prominent in his Freehold series from the mid-2000s, which show these light and airy figures in gymnastic poses perched on thick pillars made of smaller human figures. With serene smiles, these characters seem to be dancing to a beat only they can hear.
Simultaneously, he began working on the series called Human Boxes, inspired by his move to the congested area of Chhatarpur in Delhi, which was a hub for migrants. Peering from his window, Radhakrishnan was inspired by the human anguish he saw, which he channelled into tiny humans shaped like boxes. He explains, “I had come from Kerala to Santiniketan and then to Delhi looking for my own space in the world. I saw the land around my studio filling up with houses of migrants and weaker sections of society—houses coming up like little boxes, which was all they could afford. Slowly these ‘human boxes’ were filled by the grand sufferings and celebrations of these ‘little people’ trying to build an identity and a life of their own.”
In some works, he brings his large and small figures together. The Ramp (Musui as Ramakrishna) made for an exhibition in 2004, is the first example of Radhakrishnan playing with multiple human figures. Here, a large ramp depicts dozens of smaller figures climbing up toward a large messianic one as a metaphor for the elevated status in life that every human seeks to achieve.
The artist’s fascination for these figures continued over the years. A noteworthy piece from 2013 shows Maiya dancing over a large Musui head, exploring the theme of male and female juxtaposed together. Ascent Descent made in 2021, shows four intermingled figures, two of which are ascending and two descending in a shape reminiscent of DNA threads. Radhakrishnan believes this structure has an element of spirituality because of the continuous nature of its movement.
In my smaller works, people themselves started becoming the ephemera of my sculptural memories. These ‘little’ people are my medium to sculpt these intangibles. In doing this, I honour both their life stories and mine,” says KS Radhakrishnan, artist
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Renowned fashion photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta often captured Radhakrishnan at work, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. His photos are given pride of place on the ground floor at Bikaner House. A few of Radhakrishnan’s iconic larger works already placed in collections or prominent public locations, are also included in the retrospective through photographs.
These include photos of a massive multi-figure ramp made in 2008 called Liminal Figures Liminal Space; Musui on the Portal in Panjim, Goa, which depicts a large bronze door-like structure based on the portals of homes in Kerala upon which a dancing Musui stands guard; The Pull placed in a university campus in Cotignac, France, where one of his earlier female bronze sculptures is seen pulling a large red stick with all her might; and his personal favourite Kalapravaham (Time Tide), which shows a massive two-piece granite, stone and bronze sculpture located in the Mananchira Ground in Kozhikode, Kerala.
Another work he holds dear is Maiya Is both Bow and Arrow, in the courtyard of the home of Rabindranath Tagore, which was commissioned to commemorate the poet’s 150th birth anniversary. Here, Maiya hangs suspended mid-air as the arrow between her bow-arms. According to Radhakrishnan, this Maiya is her own agent and carves her own destiny because she is educated.
That he holds the idea of education in high esteem is evident in other works as well. Most notably, one sees it in Maiya Is a Postgraduate which depicts her as the Mohenjo-Daro Dancing Girl complete with hand-on-hip posture and numerous bangles. The only difference from the original is its much larger size and the fact that she holds leaves in both hands, as a symbol of having graduated from Santiniketan. One can clearly see her pride in having achieved this milestone.
Radhakrishnan has continued his education over time as well. He attended a papermaking workshop in 2022 in Santiniketan, where he learnt to use cotton fibre and straw fibre from paddy fields to make different kinds of pulp. This new-found knowledge became the basis of the series known as A New Fluidity, where he expertly mixes paper with his signature bronze figures. “I enjoy this fluidity. It touches on many of my recurring themes: memories; my rainy childhood in Kerala; my engagement with boats as concrete metaphor, especially in the context of migration. That is the work which emerges from my fingers as I communicate with the paper, using the same small, ephemeral human figures I have worked with for many years,” he says.
Another series of recent works also delves into nostalgia as he recreates iconic memorabilia from his childhood. “My mother passed away a few years ago, so I lost the physical connection with Kerala. Yet it still exists in my memories, and I try and hold on to it more in recent years in order to preserve it.”
Hence, ordinary objects are recreated in a series called Little People, Epic Stories. Old lamps with protruding bulbs, heavy steam irons, idli steamers, bells, electric table fans, and steel vessels are fashioned in bronze with numerous little bronze people tumbling out of them. They become the ephemeral light of the bulb, steam of the iron and idli maker, sound of the bell, air of the fan, and milk spilt from the vessel. “In my smaller works, people themselves started becoming the ephemera of my sculptural memories. These ‘little’ people are my medium to sculpt these intangibles. In doing this, I honour both their life stories and mine,” says Radhakrishnan.
There is a lot to take in, and one would be hard pressed to pick a favourite work from the retrospective. Yet the most arresting piece on display is undoubtedly The Crowd. Each of the 50 Musuis and Maiyas are captured in a state of happy movement on individual ramps all their own. They seem to be masters of their own destinies, living their lives unaffected by those around them. Spread out in an equidistant manner, these figures invite the viewer to interact and walk through their ample spaces.
“Crowds can signify mobs or angry groups looking to cause destruction. I’m scared of the idea of a crowd and usually try and avoid it, so I wanted to create a friendly crowd that was inviting. I want people to feel like a part of them,” says the artist, with a smile.
It was in fact The Crowd in its initial stage that led to the birth of this retrospective. When gallerist Tripat K Kalra of Gallerie Nvyā saw the first few figures in the process of being cast at Santiniketan, she was immediately taken with their beautiful forms. “I was awestruck and knew that we will do this. It has taken two years of planning to put together, and the artist has been involved in every decision including the placement of each piece. For an artist of his stature, he is so underplayed and humble. I’m glad that we were able to bring his compelling body of work forward,” she says.
(On the Open Road:K S Radhakrishnan’s Sculptural Journey by Gallerie Nvyā, is on display at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Bikaner House, Delhi till December 14)