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K.S. Radhakrishnan’s poetic expression in bronze

A retrospective of K.S. Radhakrishnan’s practice offers a glimpse of his five-decade-long journey

K.S. Radhakrishnan, 'The Crowd', 72 inches tall (each figure), 50 figures, (2021)

By Abhilasha Ojha

LAST PUBLISHED 08.12.2023  |  04:00 PM IST

While browsing through the exhibition ‘On The Open Road’ at Delhi’s Bikaner House, you feel profoundly impacted by the sculptures on display. There is a meditative quality to them—a fluidity—that acts like an antidote to the harshness of the world outside. These works are part of the first-ever retrospective of artist Kanjirappally Sriman Radhakrishnan, or K.S. Radhakrishnan as he is popularly known. Presented by Delhi-based Gallerie Nvyā, the show doesn’t just trace the five-decade long artistic practice of Radhakrishnan, 68, but also connects the dots between the sculptor and the various people who inspired this journey—for instance, his muse, a Santhal boy Musui, teachers Sarbari Roy Choudhury, Ramkinkar Baij, Somnath Hore, all of whom taught him the intricacies of art in Santiniketan, West Bengal, and friends such as art scholar, curator and historian R. Siva Kumar.

The exhibition features some of Radhakrishnan’s earliest sketches, paintings, woodcuts and sculptures. “I was an introvert. In retrospect, I feel that’s the reason why my initial sculptures have closed hands," he says. The retrospective allows the artist to look back at his work and view it through different lenses. According to Siva Kumar, who has curated ‘On The Open Road’, it is significant as it looks at a “rare tribe" of sculptors who continue to work in bronze. The two have known each other since the mid-1970s. “We arrived together at Santiniketan to study art. It was at the railway platform that we realised that we both hailed from Kerala," says Radhakrishnan. “That’s how our friendship started and continues even today." The level of camaraderie that the two share adds another layer to the exhibition, with Siva Kumar able to offer a keen insight into the artist’s mind.

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How does one locate Radhakrishnan’s work in the context of Indian modern art? While all the works on display hold clues to this question, it is his latest work, The Crowd (2023), that stands out for its grand scale, visual vocabulary, and overall aesthetic. A set of 50 figures, made of bronze and weighing roughly 10,000kg collectively, was completed over a period of six years by the artist mostly in his studio in Santiniketan. It is currently installed in the lawns of Bikaner House, with the artist urging visitors to walk between the spaces in the sculpture to experience it better. Radhakrishnan feels that even though the works are heavy, they have a lightness about them. “There is balance and movement, which makes the works evocative," he adds.

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K.S. Radhakrishnan feels that even though the works are heavy, they have a lightness about them. All photos: courtesy Gallerie Nvya

Siva Kumar notes in the wall text placed near the installation: “A crowd is seen as destructive or revolutionary depending upon from which side of the ideological divide we look at them… The people in (The Crowd) have a different ancestry. They have their origins in the quotidian patterns of our daily life…in the people who cross each other at a street corner, on a railway platform or in a market square…"

A majority of sculptures in Radhakrishnan’s artistic oeuvre have the figures on ramps. This could be one long ramp on which the figures are placed (as seen in The Ramp series) or, as in the case of The Crowd, each figure is placed atop an individual ramp or a foundation-like structure in the lawns of Bikaner House. This ramp element adds charisma to these figures, almost giving them a rhythm. As Siva Kumar notes in the exhaustive book that accompanies the retrospective: “Radhakrishnan’s sculptures have to be seen against the exploration of the pedestals, that are not flat plates or blocks but podiums or stage. The pedestal then, more than an immediate necessity, is a sign of actions anticipated."

Radhakrishnan has a more philosophical take on this. He feels that we have all been given a ramp, and we just need to put our foot in the right place. “If we all do things incorrectly, we can cause a stampede," he adds.

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It’s a telling statement from a sculptor who values art as life and continues to be a student of it. His routine has remained unchanged since his student days in Santiniketan. “I am an early riser, and by 10 am, I am in my studio in Chhattarpur (Delhi) where I work during the day because I prefer natural light," says the artist, who divides his time between Delhi and Santiniketan. To him, bringing art to people is of prime importance. It is this passion that drives Radhakrishnan towards creating life-sized works of art for people to consume in parks, in cultural centres, and in other public areas all over the world, including France, London, Denmark, and Chicago.

K.S. Radhakrishnan, 'Song of the Idli Maker', (2018)

According to Siva Kumar, the monumental works of Radhakrishnan are a reflection of his learnings from his teachers, Baij and Choudhury. While Baij’s monumental works, such as The Santhal Family (often hailed as India’s first modernist public sculpture made with cement and laterite mortar) and Lamp Stand (considered India’s first abstract sculpture), still dot Santiniketan’s campus, Choudhury’s sculptures were physically smaller and intimate in their approach. Radhakrishnan, clearly, found the best of both worlds.

His smaller works are imbued with a sense of nostalgia—of growing up in Kerala, with little human figures rising to the skies while balancing on a vessel or other objects of daily use in tiny villages. Boats too becomes a running motif in many of his works, an ode to both West Bengal and Kerala. “I view my sculptural figures as real people. When I start the process of welding, putting one figure on top of the other, everything comes together intuitively. And as the figures start getting placed on top of the other, that’s when the connection happens," says Radhakrishnan. According to him, works of art have to emerge from the artist’s own struggles and personal context. “Art has power. It offers hope," he says.

The exhibition is on at Bikaner House, Delhi, till 14 December, 11am-7 pm.

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based art and culture writer.