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Piraji Sagara and the wonders of burnt wood

In a rare show, 20th-century artist Piraji Sagara's 'wood collages' get a new lease of life

‘Untitled’ (paint on burnt wood) by Piraji Sagara. Photo courtesy Akara Art
‘Untitled’ (paint on burnt wood) by Piraji Sagara. Photo courtesy Akara Art

As artworks go, “paint on burnt wood" is not a medium that readily stirs the imagination. In lesser hands, the work could crumble under the weight of its own pretence. But executed with the finesse of Piraji Sagara, a hypnotic artwork of technical brilliance could be safely expected.

In the 1980s, when most Indian artists were shuttling between figuration and abstraction on canvas, the late artist was busy hammering nails on to a burnt wooden board, carving it, adding bits and bobs of metallic paraphernalia. The experiments resulted in his signature “wood collages". Despite being one of the highly original Indian artists of the 20th century, Sagara remains almost unknown to the public and obscure among art cognoscenti.

In an effort to rekindle interest in his work, the Mumbai gallery Akara Art has mounted 15 works for an exhibition titled Whittled Space, which runs till 22 December. Puneet Shah, the gallery’s founder, believes his works, “much ahead of their time", deserve wider appreciation. Sagara’s last solo show was in 1984 in Mumbai. He died in January 2014.

Born in 1931 in Ahmedabad, he trained at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art and became a skilled draughtsman. In 1963, the renowned architect B.V. Doshi invited him to teach at Ahmedabad’s School of Architecture (now part of CEPT University), which Doshi had founded. Sagara taught there till the day he died, continuing to make art all along.

“I don’t think he was bothered about fame," says Doshi over the phone. Doshi remembers him as a very silent person who was a great teacher. Later on, it was Sagara’s idea for an open art studio in Ahmedabad that inspired Urmila Kanoria to found the iconic Kanoria Centre for Arts in 1984.

Piraji Sagara. Photo courtesy Akara Art
Piraji Sagara. Photo courtesy Akara Art

Doshi believes his relative obscurity could be attributed to his total lack of interest in money matters. He made no serious attempts to exhibit or sell any of his works. A sale often depends on something more than the work’s own merit, like hobnobbing with influencers and a dash of savoir faire. Sagara cared little for all this. He would retreat to his studio and carry on with work, tinkering with “junk" materials. A simple man who lived frugally, Sagara prized solitude. “He was always absorbed in his own world," recalls Doshi. He believes this ruminative disposition explains the sheer originality of his works.

It is in Sagara’s wood collages that his imagination runs riot. With nails, paint, embroidery, glass beads, copper trinkets, he weaves an intricate sculptural tapestry that straddles the abstract and the figurative. In Untitled (pictured), he chisels spaces of myriad shapes and sizes on a burnt wooden board and colours many of them. The work is at once reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s “drip paintings". Up close, each carved space presents the sublime illusion of a self-contained world consisting of valleys, canyons or rifts. The arresting contours of the numberless crevices reward a long, searching gaze, as if it were a modern-day mandala.

This abstraction is complemented by Sagara’s Mondrian-like Kashmir Series in which simple, straight lines make up a row of houses with brightly-coloured windows. “Sagara was well aware of Indian and Western art and read a lot," says Doshi, explaining the multifarious influences in his work. Painter, sculptor, craftsman and experimental artist are all terms that have been used for Sagara. He himself was reluctant to be chained by terminology.

To end his reminiscences, Doshi strangely chooses a seemingly prosaic bit of information about Sagara’s life. “I want you to understand the most important thing about his life," he says. “He was extremely fond of long-distance walks, he walked for miles every day," he pauses. “In complete silence—contemplating and meditating."

Sagara’s reticence, it seems, found expression in the rich profusion of materials on his burnt wooden boards. From deep silence on long walks emerged a spirited expression, unfettered by tradition.

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