Making sculptures is a way of life for 'Shilpi' Rajan

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Photos: Sreevalsan Thiyyadi
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Close to a quaint old venue of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and yet far from the festivities of India's biggest contemporary art festival, P S Rajan has put on display certain sculptures across a lawn that is as placid as the artist himself. 'Kalkadhal' is yet again the name of the exhibition the 62-year-old artist has chosen for his selection that is earning its share of visitors at the Raj-era Cochin Club by the Arabian Sea.

Popular as 'Shilpi' Rajan, the diminutive sculptor is a tall presence in the circuits. A mix of controversies the artist from central Kerala unwittingly stirred up more than once has failed to distort his love for shaping up interesting visuals using wood, stone and sometimes rolling paper. Far from wanting to explain his works, the artist replies matter-of-factly — his beard locked into a knot at the bottom effectively symbolising reticence.

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Not surprising, thus, that none of Rajan's artworks bears a title. The ongoing 'Kalkadhal' at Fort Kochi in the sylvan surroundings of a cafe named Asian Kitchen has 49 sculptures, big and small. "Well, I leave it for the viewer to gain one's impression about any work," says the artist, who hails from Nedupuzha village near Thrissur. "Names, I believe, tend to the visitor to prejudge things."

Inside the campus of the club, the first sculpture comes to the right of the entrance to the exhibition that overlaps with the fourth edition of the 108-day biennale on till March 29. It has a stylised face and a more natural-looking human hand at the back. "The wood is of plumeria," the self-taught artist says, referring to the tropical tree called 'arali' in Malayalam and bearing yellow-in-the-middle white flowers with a distinct fragrance. "I had worked on it quite a while ago, maybe 15 years. I think I finished it in two months," he recollects, when enquired. "I had brought it from our ancestral tharavad property at Perumbilissery (also south of Thrissur). The tree was ageing and had been cut."

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The deciduous beechwood tree, also known as white teak (or kumizh in Malayalam), is another favourite of Rajan the sculptor. One of the works in kumizh has a hole at the base, which some viewers might mistake for deliberate drilling. "Oh no, it's natural. That was how I got the log," he points out, not too eager to correct anybody.

Another work on the same variety of soft wood has a convex shape. "It had its back all rotten. I chose to just chisel that bit out," says Rajan. The tacit message: let's not waste a potential material that can make an artwork.

A school dropout, left-handed Rajan’s career as a full-time sculptor began relative late. “I should have been in mid-30s then. Yeah, possibly 35," he reels back. "I was working as a compressor operator at Chimmony dam," he says about the time of construction of the reservoir across a tributary of the serene Karuvannur river at Echippara in Mukundapuram taluk. "The forest around the dam charmed me with its trees. So were its rocks. That was where I began to try giving shape to some of the wood and stones lying around."

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Not that those were Rajan’s first tryst with sculpting. "Well, as a little boy, I used to make some kind of figures from the clay in our neighbourhood paddy fields," he says. Incidentally, those were the same lands also played football as a schoolboy. "Soon, I got interested in certain kind of mechanics. We had automobile maintenance units in the neighbourhood. There I began to assist elders in repairing vehicles and changing their parts."

The Chimmony stint of the mid-1990s was short, but decisive. Sensing his own hidden talent ("I don't know of a family member who sculpts. Maybe some of my ancestors did.”) and encouraged by will-wisher friends, he chose to branch out to sculpting. "It's not as if I don’t paint,” Rajan says, on pointed quizzing. "I sometimes work on oil-on-canvas and water-colour on paper. But they are kind of few and far between."

The Cochin Club, on its part, finds biennale time opportune to host artists in its compound. "Last time (2016) we had T Kaladharan," says Gokul Udayakumar, who is manager (operations) of the Asian Kitchen on the St Francis Church Road opposite the historical Parade Ground. "This is time we anyway see a surge in tourists. Many of them would find the artworks interesting."

Not far from the Parade Ground is the house of well-known actor Vinay Forrt. A good friend of Rajan (who has worked in a couple of films), he drops by with his little son on a bicycle that dramatically brakes in front of the Club. It’s where Rajan has erected a sculpture modelled on the trunk of a tree, made of thick paper that covers the metal wires inside.

"Did that work finally sell?" the 35-year-old actor asks Rajan. "No," comes the reply, without a touch of complaint. It turns out that a sculpture by Rajan wasn't finally bought by a couple of Taiwanese tourists. "They found it too heavy to carry. And hence dropped the idea." Forrt sighs.

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That weighty? "Yes. That was done in granite. It should have measured close to 40 kg," says Rajan, who has exhibited works in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. Chimes in Gokul: "The deal was almost fixed. They had agreed for 600 dollars." The Cochin Club reaches out on the artworks through social media as well. "We put out announcements and pictures on Facebook and Instagram."

Even so, there is no craving urgency to find sellers. "I don't like cheap bargaining," Rajan says. Adds young Gokul: "We try to ensure that the prospective buyer has some sense about the worthiness of the artwork."

At the current 'Kalkadhal,' Rajan's favourite work is one that is of wood and goes vertically up for two metres — the whole stretch defined by varied-size elephants atop which is a woman. "Her tender presence perhaps shows how affectionate an animal the elephant is," says Rajan, for a change, seeking to convey the message of his work. "I know the art of joining wood sculptures; I have undergone a course called wood mosaic. But I seldom try it."

Last year, Rajan finished a granite work that had the face of a Kathakali mask. A male hero. "That was as a tribute to Mohanlal. On having watched the actor's (1999) movie Vanaprastham," he says. The superstar got to know of the work and has agreed to a suggestion to take it to his new house being built in Kochi, the sculptor adds.

Rajan, who also makes tiny sculptures (a few of them on picking the odd stone by the railway track adjacent to his house), has a prestigious exhibition coming up this summer. That will be at the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi's gallery in Alappuzha, he informs. "It's from April 3 to 9. I plan to exhibit roughly 40 works, a chunk of them new. I am working on a few."

In fact, 44 of Rajan's works are on permanent display at the renowned Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalay in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. To Rajan, though, making sculptures is a way of life than even display of talent. At his modest house in Nedupuzha, Rajan's life (with wife Radha) is punctuated by the repeated taps on the stones and wood — sounds that soon dissolve in the high-decibel trains running fast down the nearby lines.

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