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Year-End Special: Girjesh Kumar Singh, the rubble rouser

The Vadodara-based artist Girjesh Kumar Singh turns construction rubble into sculptures of great pathos

Heads from series ‘Laga chunari mein daag’. Photo credit: Rukshaan Art
Heads from series ‘Laga chunari mein daag’. Photo credit: Rukshaan Art

The desolation of a demolition site doesn’t faze Girjesh Kumar Singh. Where many would think twice about looking even once, the Vadodara-based artist enters each time in the spirit of discovery, with the keen eyes of a treasure hunter. Strewn rubble is his stomping ground.

It’s amid scattered debris that Singh finds the raw material for his sculptures. He rummages through the debris, picking and tossing away, until he sees a block that shows promise. He brings it to the studio. With chisels and sundry carving tools, he chips away at the brick until he’s fashioned it into a face of electrifying intensity.

His mesmeric portraits stand for all of humanity. “I try to make every type of face in the world," Singh says over the phone from Vadodara. They’re not specific people but the everyman and the everywoman—some resemble a Native American woman, another, a European woman, a Muslim man, a sadhu with an elaborate topknot, and a man with a Stalinesque visage. Their expressions vary immensely: Some are joyful or serene, others somnolent or stern (almost chiding), a few wear a self-important smirk, while others grimace or seem overcome by ennui.

But more intriguing are the ones that are non-committal, their faces acting as vessels into which we pour our own emotions. Rendered in a way that makes them paradoxically accommodative of everything from melancholia to elation, they eerily mirror one’s inner state. One moment they appear sinister and the next, radiate a faint smile.

The strong cement-brick bond holds many metaphors for Singh—of construction and demolition in our own lives. We enter new phases and places in life, but old memories stay with us. The cement that binds the bricks, similarly, never quite leaves it, even after a building is razed.

Themes of identity and migration inform his work. “You migrate from somewhere, but never leave a place fully—the emotions and attachments become part of your identity." Singh’s own life is marked by migration, having pinballed around towns since childhood.

Singh at a demolition site. Photo credit: Rukshaan Art

Born in 1981 in Semra, Uttar Pradesh, he got his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts in Allahabad; a second bachelor’s in fine arts in Varanasi; and rounded this off with a master’s at the prestigious art department of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, a city where he’s now settled.

Specializing in sculpture meant that working in stone, clay, wood or metal became second nature. Before turning to construction material in 2010, he worked with stone. “The medium itself can speak if the artist allows," he says. He almost never uses paint on his work, letting the tactile qualities of the medium speak for itself, with its natural colours, different shades, tones and texture. “That’s how I got attracted to the medium of construction waste, as I felt it spoke to me," he says.

Medium, though, wasn’t the only thing that spoke to him. Kabir, the 15th century Indian poet and mystic, did too. A lover of his poetry, Singh was struck by a couplet he felt perfectly encapsulates the relationship between brick and cement. Laga chunari mein daag (the veil is now stained) is a variation of a couplet that speaks of the mind (as a “veil") that gets sullied by life experiences—afflicting memories and prejudices. It cemented his belief in this unusual medium and led him to title his heads series Laga Chunari Mein Daag.

Last year, he made around 120 heads. “For a single head, it can take me anywhere between two days and a week," he says. Sometimes, halfway through carving, large cracks appear in the material. He then has to start afresh.

The brick itself poses many challenges. There are surface inconsistencies, to begin with. The air pockets and cavities within play their own role in thwarting any attempt at meticulous planning. There is suspension of fine dust, inhaling which can scar lung tissue and lead to silicosis (it’s battled by wearing a mask and keeping the area wet). Singh takes it all in his stride. The “deformities" in a brick become embellishments of a face.

“The brick has its own character," he says. “Even if I set out to make a specific portrait, a hole will emerge near the eye which will make it somebody else." The element of surprise is what draws him to the medium. “It plays with you and that’s the charm of the process." The final expression is, ultimately, decided by what’s inside the brick.

Lest we give him any undue credit, he says, “I only make half the work, the medium completes the other half." He reflects on this a moment and adds, “Sometimes when I look at them (the heads) in the end, I feel I haven’t made them at all."

In 2009, he found a champion of his work in Rukshaan Krishna. The founder of Mumbai gallery Rukshaan Art, Krishna is known to support emerging Vadodara artists; her Vadodara studio has been open to artists like Singh for a decade now. Speaking about his work on the phone from Mumbai, Krishna says, “I’ve seen people standing in front of his work, moved to tears."

He’s had two solo shows at the India Art Fair and shown twice internationally (Turkey and Singapore). In April, the London gallery Rosenfeld Porcini will host his largest international solo show in its 3,000 sq. ft. central London space.

In the end, I ask if a photographer can visit the studio to photograph him at work. Too polite to rebuff this offhandedly, he says, “The work is all that matters and seeing my photograph anywhere is of no charm to me at all." Krishna, his gallerist, later sends a few images of him assessing the rubble, his face barely visible. In a strange irony, the maker of faces remains, for now, almost faceless.

Singh’s personality is not given to exhibitionism or naming “favourites", “idols" or “influences":“Every artist who takes his work seriously teaches me something." He is unfailingly polite and sounds content. In the studio, he works alone on the sculptures, without assistants. Kabir’s poetry is his nourishment. “I don’t really need entertainment," he says. “The work is entertainment and I feel anxious when I’m not working."

Every now and then, he goes around the city looking for blocks at demolition sites that will accept his design—or, at least, half of it. Sometimes, a wandering guard will eye him suspiciously or curious onlookers will ask why he’s picking up all this rubble. He’s explained it all before, at different places to different people. Their eyes widen in surprise each time. With practised delight, he begins, “I am an artist."

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