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As Bangkok burned, the head watched

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Ravinder Reddy’s monumental sculpture looking wide-eyed at the devastation was among the iconic images of Thailand under siege

Ravinder Reddy should have been thrilled to be in The New York Times, but when his 4-metre high gilded polyester-resin-fibreglass sculpture made it to the paper’s front page, it seemed to be for all the wrong reasons. Troops were out in Bangkok, miscreants were setting fire to the buildings, and CentreWorld Plaza, in front of which Reddy’s large sculpture has been installed barely a year ago as part of an Indo-Thai diplomatic initiative, could now be briefly glimpsed on television, and in news wire photographs, in a near-gutted state. But the sculpture itself, somewhat bizarrely but miraculously appeared undamaged at least at that time, though little is known of its fate since.

If Reddy had to be in the The New York Times, it should have been for his inclusion, among a pantheon of global greats, at the Virginia Museum of Arts’ newly-opened 21st Century Gallery. Krishnaveni I, typical of Reddy’s Andy Warhol-meets-Indian-bazaar aesthetics, combines his kitschy glamour with a sense, almost, of ribald vulgarity, even crudeness. There are the wide, exclamatory eyes, the lustily painted lips, lush flowers woven in the hair, the monumental size — all of it reminiscent at some primordial level of a fertility totem.

Reddy’s sculptures both repel and excite, and have represented Indian artists — and sculptors — alongside Subodh Gupta’s more intellectually absorbing installations assembled from Indian steel utensils. With the exception of K S Radhakrishnan, there are almost no other Indian sculptors who have made a mark in or outside the country when it comes to contemporary sculpture — keeping in mind that installation and conceptual artists cannot strictly be placed in the same genre, though there are even fewer of those (think Sunil Gawde). A few painters have worked in sculpture, but they are not sculptors per se. Therefore, though Gupta (who is a part of both lists), Radhakrishnan and Reddy are poles apart in their work, between them they address the fascination for Indian forms that has provoked continents outside Asia for well over a decade. Yet, Reddy’s appeal is the most primal.

Reddy, like the artists Thota Vaikuntam, Laxma Goud and Laxman Aelay, found his inspiration in his native surroundings of Andhra Pradesh. All these artists appear to devote a large part of their oeuvre capturing the nuances of fleshy, earthy and apparently lusty middle-aged women, but Reddy alone among them appears to marry his portrayal with a pavement-style sensibility and popularity. Having studied art at Baroda before following it up with a course in sculpture in London, he has been able to position his Indian responsiveness in a contemporary global format with huge success. In the eighties, he was already experimenting with rotund sculptures of urban women, but it was in the nineties that the Yakshi-like figures, on a scale so monumental that they make you gasp, began to emerge from his studio, taking galleries by storm. If his heads are mesmerising, imagine his nudes on a similar scale, and you have some idea of what distinguishes Reddy from his peers.

As director at the Kanoria Centre for Arts in Ahmedabad and later as a teacher of sculpture at the Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, he had to find the time to practice what he was preaching. But if the nineties established his base in the Indian market, in the last decade his presence on the contemporary scene has been overwhelming. His hypnotic sculptures require a large number of man-hours — six months and 30 assistants, for instance, were spent labouring over the Virginia Museum of Arts commission — so Reddy, though hugely sought-after by collectors in India, is probably completing his order books for overseas museums and galleries.

In just one year’s span, in 2007 and 2008, he was able to set and maintain his price level at auctions around the world — Rs 1.14 crore for Head of Vasundhara at Sotheby’s London, Rs 1.46 crore for Lakshmi Devi at Christie’s New York and Rs 1.49 crore for Radha at Saffronart’s online auction. Because of his absence, in a sense, from recent auctions, or even galleries — there is a certain ambiguity about his current value, though no one has reported a fall in his prices. If anything, a work such as the monumentally-scaled The Head, with its flower-decorated hair topknot, would probably have fetched much more for its size alone, and if it has survived the conflagration in Bangkok, as seemed apparent, it could become a symbol of the godliness of the work, something all Indian artists believe is an inherent part of their creative process.

The only pity, then, is that The New York Times failed to establish the identity of the artist, attributing it to an unnamed Asian sculptor. Hopefully, Ravinder Reddy’s next appearance in that iconic paper will do him credit — and for all the right reasons.

These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.  

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First Published: Wed, May 26 2010. 00:07 IST