Monday, 9 April 2012

Art: Balan Nambiar ~ The cactus in its clime

(Note: This interview was done in November 1995)

THERE COMES A time in the life of each man when he must stand up and be counted. When he must pit his convictions against his priorities and check their current fusion. When he must stand shoulder to shoulder with his peers and assess their once and forever dreams. When he must break out of the mould of comfort and take a shy at destiny.

To Balan Nambiar ~ sculptor, enamel artist, painter, photographer and researcher into ritual performing arts of the Indian west coast ~ that time is now.

Or else, why would Bangalore’s best-known contemporary sculptor stride beyond the distinctive, often monumental, works that are his hallmark, to comment on the national state of mind today? Why would he explore the realms of science in a sculpted statement at one of the city’s premier scientific institutions? And, through an installation in New Delhi, why would he juxtapose the past and the present in a turbulent continuum that begs an answer?

Because, to Balan, 1995 has so far been a year of re-assessment, of seeking his roots anew, of re-aligning what he is and what he wants to be. In defining the artist as an individual, as much as a social being.

For in his life, rooted deeply in the Kannapuram soil that he tilled till the age of 18 in Kerala, myth and make-believe coalesce in the magical act of creation. Whether in a career strewn with more than 120 sculptures in metal, cement and stone that are over six feel tall, or paintings rich with geometric and Tantric symbols. Or in the iridescent enamels in which colours play in a crucible of ideas through wondrous vitreous hues fused onto copper plates. Or in more than 9,000 slides and 150 hours of recorded music of 28 folk performing art forms, over 70 per cent never documented before.

 Balan’s creative spark was fanned when, as a shy young lad, he secretly opted for art lessons in lieu of the shorthand course his uncle as guardian had approved of. Later, he briefly taught art at a village high school. Soon, a stint as a draughtsman in the Indian Railways took him to Madras (now Chennai), where K C S Paniker, then principal of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, took a keen interest in his paintings, which had bagged prizes at exhibitions. It was Paniker who gave him the courage to give up his secure job for the muse. Braving fate, Balan entered the second year at the college directly at 27. And art became the leitmotif of his life, thus recognised by the Lalit Kala Akademi’s National Award in 1981.

Drawing a mask
 Candid and charismatic in conversation, Balan harks back constantly to his rites of passage and the atavistic lode that enriches him, resulting in a senior fellowship of the Ministry of Education, followed by a Nehru fellowship from 1983 to 1985 to research ritual performing arts. Of the experience, he wrote in a recent issue of the India International Centre quarterly, “I have been wandering all over South Kanara and Kerala during the last 20 years ~ the 1960s and 1970s ~ attending all-night festivals of yakshagana, bhuta, teyyam, tira, mutiyettu, kaliyuttu, kathakali, kutiyattam and other performances without a notebook or camera in my hand… At that time, many of my creative works, both paintings and sculpture, were often influenced by the motifs of the ritual arts. Once in 1976, I was narrating my experiences to a gathering of writers, which included eminent Malayalam writer and thinker M Govindan and Prof. G Sankara Pillai, when I was persuaded to record my experiences…” The result? Two articles in a book on Teyyam by the Kerala Sangitha Nataka Academy.

Since then, he has shared his research through periodicals like Marg, Geo, Namaskar, Sudha, Deccan Herald, Dharma Yug and Gente Viaggi, among others, besides chapters in books in German, Italian and English. He often disseminates folk colours through slide-based lectures.

Balan, who came to Bangalore from Madras in 1971, nurtured aesthetics through an art club he conducted for seven years. His first one-man show of paintings was at Trivandrum in 1966, while his first solo show of garden sculptures was at the Hotel Ashoka in Bangalore in 1975 ~ the latter proved to be a landmark in his career

Ritual symbol 5: Enamel on copper

As for enamelling, it was a skill he mastered at the Padova studio of his father-in-law, Paolo de Poli, considered the 20th century’s greatest Italian enamel artist. Of enamelling Balan, ever the cerebral debater, says, “Perhaps I have rarely exhibited my oil and acrylic paintings since the mid-1980s because, in enamels, I found an alternate means of expression through colours. Enamelling is a combination of a glass-manufacturer’s technology, the precision of a clock-maker, an artisan’s skill and an artist’s creativity. When you apply colour to a metal plate and put it in a kiln at a certain temperature, you can hear your own heart beat. Until it is brought out in a near molten stage, there is a terrible anxiety…”

Eclipse: enamel on copper

Both the terrors and the triumphs of the artistic life are familiar to him. Whether as a practitioner, a traveller through the art museums of Europe or, as a member of the purchasing committee of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi.

“I feel that the cactus, a recurring motif in my work, strongly reflects my personality,” 58-year-old Balan  says with intensity. “Its life is almost my autobiography. It is a plant that thrives or asserts its right to exist in an uncongenial atmosphere. Throughout my life, I’ve faced this kind of an atmosphere.”

In a recorded conversation sparked by his work this year, Balan traverses the inner spaces of his life as a sculptor, delves into the science of art, and evaluates the national art scene. Excerpts from the interview:

Why does sculpture play a special role in your creative life?

(Smiling) Sculpture has always been something distinctly personal because one creates with one’s own ten fingers. It is very personal for a sculptor to conceive an idea and give it shape with his fingers.

Even as a child, before I could write alphabets, I’d make clay toys and exchange them with my playmates for gooseberries or ripe mangoes. At school, I was good at drawing and mathematics. During my first year at college, I had to work in sculpture class for a week each month. It was so easy, so natural to me, to sculpt. I chose subjects related to my childhood experiences.

The very first clay sculpture I made was converted into concrete. It soon reached a point when none of my sculptures were illustrative in the common sense. They didn’t deal with a story or narrative.

How did your life as a sculptor progress from these first steps?

Every medium has its limitations and possibilities. It is easy to make a cantilever form in metal, not so easy in clay. For granite sculpture, one needs an extremely solid base. Understanding how to handle these different media is important for any creative person. For a sculptor, his mastery in manipulating material is important.

You see, there are two types of sculptures. In relief sculptures, the frontal view is from one side. But a three-dimensional work should be installed in such a way that spectators can see it from all around. I think a good sculpture should lead the eye by its line, contours and compositional values.

I’ve worked on both site-specific and subject-specific commissioned sculptures.  Whether working on works suited to a landscaped space or architectural ambience, or dealing with a subject a sponsor wants, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the final say in each case.

I first began with clay, which is an excellent medium. But these works are difficult to exhibit unless turned into terracotta or converted into a mould, from which it can be cast in cement or, as is usually done, in plaster of Paris.  At college, I converted five or six large clay works into concrete. A sculpture I did during my second year is now in the Madras Government Museum complex. While a student, I had an opportunity to experiment at the metallurgy department of the local Indian Institute of Technology for five months, welding sculptures from scrap metal with help from their technicians.

I’m familiar with traditional bronze casting as practiced in Swamimalai, as well as at the foundries of  Italy.  My free-standing bronzes, not more than a metre high, are all three-dimensional. Sixteen of them were done at the Foundry Bonvicini in Italy, where Dali, Miro, Manzu and Matta cast their work.  One goes through an amazing experience while bronze-casting. First, the wax sculpture is drained out by heating, creating a cavity to be filled with molten metal. Until the bronze is poured in, there’s a vacuum within me that’s like a pang.

At the outset in Bangalore, a watch factory asked me to do a sculpture with time as the symbol. I did a steel piece 9 feet high, which had 60 per cent scrap metal and 40 per cent metal plates and rods bought from the open market, which I cut to required sizes after getting some portions shaped by the lathe. From 1973 to 1975, it was a fantastic experience. I did nearly 30 sculptures between 1.8 to 6 metres high. That’s when I had my exhibition of 24 garden sculptures, the smallest of which was taller than six feet ~ that’s my height. I sold twelve of those works during the exhibition.  Five of those sculptures were eventually acquired by the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. 

While travelling in Europe in 1977, a German plant offered me a commission to try glass-fibre reinforced cement (GRC) ~ which was then at an experimental stage ~ for a sculpture. It is seven times stronger than traditional cement. It was so easy and quick for me that, from a single sculpture, they extended the facilities so I could do six. One of my GRC works was a 2.5 metre high Valampiri Shankha, which is a rare conch with a clockwise spiral (normal conches spiral anti-clockwise).

In that cold January in Germany, I was totally immersed in my sculpture. Almost in a trance, I chanted the Devimahatmya stotra while I worked on a 3.5 metre sculpture of the mother goddess as depicted in Teyyam! These works are at various locations in Germany.

I’ve so far done over 100 sculptures in metal, cement and stone that are taller than me. My two largest works in steel are 6 metres tall.  

Mirror Idol of Mother Goddess

Are there any symbolic keys that open the doors to your work?

I come from a farmer’s family in Kerala. The growth of a rice plant, the sowing of paddy, the sprouting of seeds, the first blades of grass, have always fascinated me. I’ve used the growth of a rice plant as a symbol often because, in a farmer’s life, the planting of rice is a ritualistic activity. That experience is very close to me.

Besides, like the cactus, I’ve asserted my rights in the art field, within the present socio-political situation, in my dealings with bureaucracy or other organisations. The cactus motif often recurs in my creative life.

I also use the symbols of cosmic forms. Solar spectrums. The flames. The sun and the lotus. Then, hyperbolic-parabolic forms, symbols from geometrical principles, often based on Vedic altars. I’ve always been fond of iconographical and architectonic motifs. I am not a mathematician, but I am fond of mathematics; I am not a musician or a performer, but I am fond of music and the performing arts. These subjects inspire me.

Poetry in Architecture

Could you share more about your three major works in 1995?

I believe a modern sculpture should be a balanced composition, and should convey its meaning without explanation, even without a title.

This year, I’ve done two solid, free-standing sculptures and one installation.  First, I was asked to do a work at a given space at the new Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNC) in Bangalore. They didn’t give me a subject, but hinted at a link to science, which I regard highly. I used mathematical principles to incorporate elements like diagrams, energy, the bindu, all analysed from the point of view of a Tantric. Besides, I used the concept of leverage. Remember, Galileo said it was possible to lift even the earth with a lever and a fulcrum?

I had just a month for the sculpture, so I depended on machines at a granite factory, where the owner kindly offered the material partly as a gift to JNC. Each of the pieces in five colours of polished granite had to be of transportable size ~ some were 800 kg. in weight, one sphere was two feet in diameter, polished to a glass finish. I had to conceptualize the composition clearly in my mind, as I couldn’t group it in advance but had to assemble it on the spot. Some pieces were embedded in the wall, while the remainder are free-standing. It was satisfying that it worked in the end.

Soon after, I attended an international artists’ workshop on ‘Art and Nature’ at the Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi. I asked the director if I could work on a subject that had been haunting me for long. (With conviction) For The monument to the Assassinated, I chose an incident from our puranas where Vali (Bali) of Kishkinda became the first forest king to be assassinated in our cultural history. Perhaps the treaty between his half-brother Sugriva and Dasarathi was the first politically motivated one of ancient times.
There are hundreds of shrines in northern Kerala dedicated to Vali, who is deified and worshipped as a Teyyam. Besides, the question Vali asked of the assassin, hiding behind seven sal trees, has still not been properly answered: “In the name of what dharma have you tried to justify killing me?”

I’m quite familiar with this episode from the Adhyatma Ramayana, the Ram Charit Manas, the Valmiki Ramayana and the Kamba Ramayana. I used the tree motif ~ not common at all ~ to arrive at an appropriate composition. I just recreated the myth in a modern sculptural form to comment on our present socio-political scene.

I chose to work in Kota stone, a natural material of the limestone family. I personally went to the quarry of the Associated Stone Industries at Kota to manually help the workers to excavate the stone slabs. I finally used slabs 2.5 metres high for the trees, held by an armature of steel on a base of granite jelly. The completed work is 5.6 metres long and 1.8 metres wide, made up of 21 pieces of Kota stone, with footprints representing the assassin and a smashed boulder the assassinated.

Others at the workshop were busy at the Buddha Jayanti Park in Delhi, where I chose to do an installation, The Resurrection of Janaki. It is about how Sita was related to Mother Earth.  She was found in a furrow by King Janaka, while ploughing. Though brought up as a princess, she faced humiliation and hardship throughout, until she returned to the womb of the earth she was born of.

I wasn’t allowed to plough the field to resurrect Janaki as Janaka, so I had to forego the ‘happening’ of creating art. Instead, I made a groove 18 feet long, two to three feet deep, using an isolated tree as part of my composition, with a boulder-edged, oval-shaped boundary as a symbol of the womb. By it were seven stone slabs on which small pebbles were placed to represent the saptamatrikas ~ Brahmi, Vaishnavi, Maheshwari, Indrani, Koumari, Vairahi and Chamundi ~ to witness the possible resurrection of Janaki.

I was trying to raise another question through sculpture. How would women today respond to such a situation? What role would Janaki play if she were resurrected amidst the present generation? How would they react to Janaki’s husband? Would they vote for him?

'Taking Off', in mild steel, 3.5 metres high, 1975

What does it mean to you as an individual to be a sculptor?

(Passionately) I’m jealous of writers. You never sell your original work. You have no big investment on raw material, no storage or transport problem. You don’t need a large working space. Sculptors really have a problem with all these. But what is most disturbing is that when I sell a work, it is like parting with a portion of me.

During an artist’s camp at the SAARC conference in Bangalore in 1986, I made a simple architectonic form in pieces of granite, Memorial to a Monument. The works, co-sponsored by the South Zone Cultural Centre, were left at the local Chitrakala Parishad, where they were done. God knows where that work is now. It’s probably been discarded or destroyed. (With anguish) A pity! I feel as a parent would when their child is kidnapped or lost.

When there’s only one original, it’s very disturbing to part with it. Besides, to do monumental sculpture, one needs patronage, the right opportunity and an appropriate location to install it in. That’s a real problem.
Monumental sculptures, once completed, become the property of society. They no longer remain the private property of the sculptor, unlike jewellery or small sculptures.

(His brow creases) In 1975, the Emergency was numbing. I wasn’t able to do anything creative, nor comment on the situation through my work. I remember discussing the experience with writers like Gopalakrishna Adiga and M Govindan. They reacted similarly. I felt the same after the disturbing events of December 1992. One of my major works is a response to that incident.

(Softly) My creative works definitely are more expressive than my vocabulary. So, I feel I should react to recent happenings in India and the world through my work.

I’d like to sell my work to an accessible place where, if I need to see it again, I should be able to.  And it should be with an institution that will protect it. My sculptures are not well looked after at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). Nor are the ones acquired by the Corporation of Bangalore. Even if a connoisseur at a decision-making level acquires it, his successors often treat it with indifference. It’s a pity there’s no law in India to protect works of art in public spaces.

Have there been any major influences on your sculpture? And your life?

There’s no shying away from the fact that in college I was much influenced by Kanayi Kunhiraman, who’s my contemporary in age, though my senior at college.  I’ve gone my own separate way since.  I’d consider him and Sarbari Roy Chowdhury the best among living Indian sculptors today.  Kunhiraman’s thinking is uninfluenced by any predecessor. He can do realistic, as well as highly symbolic, compositions ~ of any size or dimension. He’s totally dedicated and principled; he’d rather not do any work than compromise.

(Wistfully) The late M Govindan guided me through discussions we shared, often at my residence in the 1970s. He had an amazing capacity to identify talent in creative youngsters, including artists, filmmakers, writers and theatre people.

Though my acquaintance with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was limited, the occasions when I interacted with her were unforgettable. Her concern for artisans and folk performers was overwhelming.

Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, the great scholar, encouraged me in my creative efforts and research pursuits ever since I met her in the 1960s. She is an exceptional individual, who is familiar with almost every creative person and scholar in the world of humanities. 

Stainless steel sculpture for Timken, 6.2 metres high, 2004

Are there basic inter-relationships between your work?

Most of my paintings and enamels have a quality of sculpture. The surety of my drawing and the form of solidity are evident in both.  Some seem like a painting of a sculpture. I’ve tried to avoid this quality because a painting should be a painting, but there’s nothing wrong if it also shows a sculptural quality. After all, I’m a sculptor.

In my enamels, I’m very conscious about colour. I think of all the coloured media used in creative work, enamel is the most durable. Its colour is permanent.  (Pausing) But in an enamel sculpture, I’m able to combine both colour and form. Recently, I’ve done three-dimensional enamels and relief work, which is closer to sculpture than painting.

What do you think of the current state of Indian art today?

I think Indian art has its own strength, like the subject matter and technical proficiency. We’ve excellent teachers in some institutions. Our work is on par with other countries, though perhaps the percentage at a high standard is more limited than in Europe, where trend-setting works are often meant to shock. (Quizzically) Like the blowing up of a newly constructed bridge at the Kassel Documenta. Or exhibiting a mentally retarded girl at the Venice Biennale, which was eventually withdrawn.

But during the three meetings I attended as a member of the NGMA purchasing committee in 1995, I found 80 per cent of the work submitted was derivative. After all, only some works will stand the filtering of time. Of those making waves now, many may not last in art history beyond a generation.  Not more than five per cent of those who emerge from art institutions make a mark at a national level after, say, 20 years.

How would you like to shape the future?

I visualise doing a series of works combining materials such as granite and marble, stainless steel, brass and copper, probably incorporating enamel in one composition. This is possible only if I find a sponsor.

I’d like to explore the sculptural element in architecture. To me, the great temple architecture of India is a work of environmental sculpture.

(Reflectively) I’d like to do at least one work which will occupy over a hectare of land, and ultimately build up a huge sculptural complex. You could enter the sculpture at one point and come out of it at another. But  in the end,  it should be one unified composition, made of coloured granite and different metals. That is my dream.


  1. Wonderful interview! The pictures compliment the text beautifully. Please caption the sculpture in the park -- it's mindblowing.

    1. Thanks, Asha! Just did that. That image was from a show of open-air sculptures at Hotel Ashoka. The sculpture is now with a private foundation in Bangalore.