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It was quite an interesting experience looking down at Chennai from the air while landing. It looked like a well laid out city, almost like a Western city, neat and well planned, " remarks Gautam Bhatia, architect, writer and artist, who is in the city, Chennai, after a gap of almost four decades. Then he adds, "But when you get closer, you realise that it's no different, after all, from all other cities in India, a provincial city with no outstanding character. "
It's such a typical Bhatia statement, the sense of melancholic assessment that once again, on closer inspection, a City, or urban habitation, has failed to live up to his expectation, that one is almost amazed at the exuberance of his bronze sculptures that are being shown at the Apparao Galleries.
Taut, tensile bodies strut and leap impaled on rows of metal rods;or curve and hang from finely balanced metal ligaments that arc cross the gallery space with an invitation to be touched. When Bhatia gently runs a finger along the hanging figure it bounces ever so lightly on its sprung metallic skewer. They spring and leap despite their rods and pinions with a sense of freedom that is unexpected. Even the two or three heavy bronze sculpted heads seem to have a neuralgic intensity with their intimations of the modern malady of being impaired in a bi-polar way. The skull is either split into two fractions, sprouts metallic spikes or having a crisis with its bulging eyeballs. When I go and stroke the spiked nailed head of the second one, Bhatia playfully suggests that it would make a good base for a chic society hostess serving cocktail delicacies. "You know, cheese and pineapple, cherries and prawns sticking out of its head, " he says. As for the man with the impaired eyeballs, he takes out a pair of broken dark glasses and places them gently on the bridge of his nose. "Careful, " I want to tell him, "In Tamil Nadu, only iconic figures like actors and politicians wear dark glasses. " It's this interplay between the familiar and the everyday and the sudden fissures that open up in Bhatia's perspective that cause a sense of shifting unease about his intentions. In one of the rooms, a series of white-capped fibre-glass netas, all bulging bodies encased in their sacred white, sack-like garbs dangle freely from strings suspended from a frame that allows them to hover over a framed sheet of mirrored glass on the floor. Though their bodies are all the same, the tiny white-capped heads shift and peer (shiftily perhaps), as we watch them, for they have been given individual heads. They are both as fragile as eggshells and as vaguely threatening as a roomful of talking heads all preoccupied with themselves.
He's called his show Earth Shadows and in his note he explains how all the works in the exhibition are interlinked. There are his sculpted works, his architecturally inspired drawings of landscapes in fine black lines of differently graded ink-pens on hand-made paper, and paintings in the manner of traditional Rajasthani miniatures using matte watercolours. Together, they fill three gallery rooms. "For the past few years, I have been using my drawing to highlight two interlinked ideas, " his note says. "Those of space and light. In a literal landscape, space is defined in drawings as two distinct possibilities - space as boundless and infinite, and space as enclosure, created by walls, floors and windows. Light and shadow are used to define space, as are objects and buildings. The drawings are done in a graded thickness of ink pens, a technique that relies on building upon the image, shade by shade. The dark and light areas are defined in such a way as to give an added dimension to the building, object or space. "
About the sculpture, he adds: "The sculpture is similarly an exploration of people in space. " As he goes on to describe the movements of his homunculi: "A static record of a dynamic changing form. The pieces are consequently in constant motion. A leap. A Jump. A fall. A somersault. A flight. As with the drawings, gravity returns everything - people and buildings - back to the earth. "
For an architect who has to deal with dense materials - bricks, mortar and steel - it must be a liberating experience to work with perishable materials like clay and ink and paper. Bhatia explains how much pleasure he derives from working with the clay that goes into making some of his forms. He explains that he has found a type of American clay that feels like plasticine. "It has a slightly gritty texture which is why I find it so easy to play with, " he says as we look at a small bronze figure bent double in a prayerful pose, knees folded under the body, head burrowed into the ground of a long rectangular sheet of metal. Even in this encapsulated form of surrender to the moment there is a compelling strength to the composition.
Bhatia instantly deflects any such intimations of sentimentality. He explains how while modeling the head of the clay figure, he had found that he could not get the face to suit his intentions, so he did the next best thing. He pressed the little man's head down into the ground and found that he had a completely new image.
In his essay on the American architect Louis Kahn's iconic building at Ahmedabad, the IIM complex where Bhatia spent two years of his varied journey, he quotes from Kahn's thoughts on how he perceived himself in the world. "Material, I believe is spent light. The mountains, the earth, the streams, the air and we ourselves, are spent light. This is the center of our desires. The desire to be, to express, is the real motivation for living. I believe there is no other. "
In searching for the shadows in his work, Bhatia like his mentor is perhaps reaching out to the light.
'Earth Shadows' is on at the Apparao Galleries, Chennai, till April 7
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