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Opinion | A political body of work

  • Sculptor Ravi Chandra Katuri specializes in sculptures of politicians
  • The sculptor’s work often depends upon which political party is in power

Ravi Chandra Katuri’s brother Venkataramana at the Bengaluru outlet.
Ravi Chandra Katuri’s brother Venkataramana at the Bengaluru outlet. (Photo: Priya Ramani)

Ravi Chandra Katuri says every person has a distinctive body language and he attempts to capture that every time he sculpts a famous politician. “Vallabhbhai Patel’s body language is different from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s," he says. “Ambedkar was much stiffer, Patel was relatively relaxed."

Katuri loves to create sculptures of Mahatma Gandhi. “Gandhiji had a very interesting anatomy. He was thin, his legs were a little bent, his ears jutted out. Even if you look at him from behind, you can immediately tell who he is," says the 31-year old, who works with his father, the famous sculptor Katuri Venkateswara Rao, and their team of 30-40 workers. Their work day stretches from 8.30am-8pm daily, with a 2-hour lunch break.

Katuri, who works out of a studio in Tenali in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district, often dresses a model in the clothes a famous historical personality traditionally sported, careful to copy details right down to footwear and where the trousers sat (above the stomach in the case of Ambedkar). Only then does he begin to sculpt. He does this to capture that unique interplay of light and shadow that make his statues appear so lifelike.

Except in the case of former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. “There are so many photographs on the internet from every possible angle that there is no need for a model," he tells me over the phone. Katuri’s eye for detail shows in the distinctive crease of Kalam’s trousers; the statues of famous people are accurate right down to the fabric of their dhotis.

In fact, it is Kalam who first catches my eye when I visit Katuri’s store in Bengaluru. It almost seems like the 7ft Kalam in a powder-blue safari suit and a benign smile has been positioned at the entrance to welcome people into the yard.

I have often driven by the rough, textured, larger-than-life statues looming over the more traditional granite pillar outlets on Bengaluru’s Outer Ring Road in Hebbal, adjacent to the sprawling 300-acre Manyata Tech Park. In an India where politicians seem increasingly inclined to measure their power and influence by the size and personality of the statue they commission, this visit is long overdue.

The family’s sculptures, in bronze, fibre, panchaloha (a traditional alloy of five metals) and scrap, are also sold through outlets in Chennai, Hyderabad, Nellore and Vijayawada.

Katuri’s ancestors constructed temples for generations and his father is a self-taught sculptor. The son has a master’s in fine arts from the University of Calcutta but he learnt the art long before he acquired any formal degree. Apart from the bread-and-butter political and religious statues, he also creates interesting scrap sculptures from auto spare parts such as nuts, bolts, bearings and bicycle chains.

“The texture of silk and cotton look very different in a sculpture," he tells me over the phone. “And a dhoti looks better than trousers when the statue depicts someone striding."

Katuri’s brother Venkataramana, who handles the retail side of the business, shows me around.

Right now the Bengaluru store has 10 Ambedkar statues, including a 16ft one in fibre, a 10ft one of Ambedkar sitting on a chair, and a 9ft bronze.

Apart from Gandhi and Ambedkar, every part of India has different heroes but even this might be changing. “My life is my message." The quote carved on the base of a 7ft statue of Gandhi sitting in meditation sounds like a warning when Venkataramana tells me that in the 150th anniversary of his birth, the popularity of the Gandhi statue is decreasing.

In Karnataka, crossroads and parks are dotted with statues of city founder Kempe Gowda, military warrior Sangolli Rayanna, Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan or Kannada actor Rajkumar—and they are all present at this tin-shed store-cum-yard. Most statues are now made of fibre though there are exceptions such as the 16ft bronze of Ambedkar that was installed by the beach in Visakhapatnam. Many are simply painted gold because customers (mainly local politicians) prefer this finish.

I can’t help but notice that there are no statues of Prime Minister Narendra Modi though I do spot one of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, another prime minister from the ranks of the Bharatiya Janata Party. There is also a line of Gandhi family busts (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira, Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul) placed alongside a smaller one of former prime minister Manmohan Singh, probably a result of the Congress party’s success in Karnataka until recently.

A sculptor’s work often depends on which political party is in power, so while his father may have created more than 500 statues of former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.T. Rama Rao, Katuri recalls how, between 2009-11, two-three sculptors, including them, were contracted to create 1,000 Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy statues each after the two-time chief minister of Andhra Pradesh died in a helicopter crash.

Venkataramana narrates the story of the Congress MLA who bought 42 statues, each 2.5ft tall, to install in a park in his constituency. Many members of the Gandhi family were placed in his office. But after the MLA resigned from the Congress earlier this year, helping trigger the collapse of the state government, statue installation work has stalled in the park. “And when I went to his office a few days ago, I didn’t see any of the Gandhi family statues," says Venkataramana.

At the back of the yard, bundled in a corner, lies a mysterious 7.5ft statue. Of course I want to know who it is. “Oh, that’s J. Jayalalithaa," he says, revealing her smiling face to me. “When Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were fighting over Cauvery water and I heard they were attacking cars from Tamil Nadu, I covered her up."

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