Friday, November 8, 2013

My Public Diary 9: Cleaning of a Work of Art, the SBI Way: Or How not to Clean it.

(A  Picture appeared in Indian Express in October 2013)

Public sculptures cannot escape birds. Even when they are under a canopy, birds vandalize them. I was horrified to see the wasps making their nests deep into the body of ‘Santal Family’, a definitive sculpture by the legendary artist, Ram Kinkar Baij, within the precincts of Santiniketan. Though the public/open air sculptures of Baij are now under canopies and protective sheds, preventing them from the attack of wasps and other insects are not being undertaken. While interviewing the noted art historian, R.Sivakumar, for a documentary done by K.S.Radhakrishnan for the Ram Kinkar Baij restrospective curated by him in 2012, he expressed his fears regarding the slow but steady deterioration of these sculptures due to the insect attacks. One face saving aspect we have in the case of Baij is that well meaning people had made the bronze casting of these sculptures possible almost two decades back. So even if the cement and rubble mediums eventually succumb to the vandalism of nature’s creatures, their copies in bronze would remain for the future generations to admire.

When it comes to the preservation of works of art that are not owned by a person, but by the ‘public’ or state we take a very callous attitude towards it. A year back, NDTV, one of the prime national television channels had done a long new item regarding the offhanded preservation of national cultural and art treasures at our prestigious National Museum. Even the illustrious ‘Dancing Girl’ from the Indus Valley civilization is displayed in an unworthy fashion there. Well known artist and scholar, A.Ramachandran, who spent almost three decades in studying the mural traditions in Indian with special reference to the Kerala murals, has pointed out the fact that many a mural has been lost forever thanks to our mindless preservation techniques. Art historically, culturally and historically important murals are either left to rot in non-descript temples or havelis in our country. At times, when they undertake a preservation job, people responsible for doing so, engage local artists to over paint them in enamel colours leaving no chance of retrieving them ever in their original forms. Sometimes preservation takes place through complete obfuscation of the existing cultural traces. Erasure, not only in the political context but in cultural context too, seems to be the favourite way of preservation of the present than the past in our country.

(A daily report on the cleaning controversy)

Recently in Kerala something very interesting happened in the name of preserving and conserving a public sculpture. Interestingly, the sculpture, which was redeemed from the vandalising of birds, was created by none other than K.S.Radhakrishnan, who has been investing his energies in preserving and conserving certain cultural memories from their untimely decay, for a long time. The summary of the incident is as follows: In the city centre of Kozhikode (formerly known as Calicut) in North Kerala, KSR had installed his monumental open air/public sculpture titled ‘Kaalapravaham’ (Time Tides) in July 2012. Since then it has become a new landmark of the city, bringing more people to the Mananchira Ground where the sculpture is installed, during the evenings to spend their time, admiring the flow of life in the street, the sculpture towering above their heads and take a few photographs posing in front of the sculpture. When it was installed, the State Bank of India’s Manachira Branch had taken the responsibility for maintaining the sculpture. The bank which is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary, in October this year decided to ‘clean up’ the sculpture; a very commendable move.

A photograph appeared in the Indian Express Newspaper on 15th October which showed three men daring to climb the twenty five feet tall sculpture to clean it up. It was a photograph by the staff photographer, K.Shijith and somehow the caption gave away the impression that while the Navaratra festivals were on, three men were involved in cleaning a ‘statue’. It was sympathetic in tone, not in fact to the sculpture or sculptor but to the three men. Also the implied meaning was that the city as a whole was getting ready to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Some of the well wishers of KSR, who had seen this picture, called him up to ask whether he knew about it. In fact KSR was happy to know that his sculpture was getting cleaned. But curiosity led him to ask a further question: HOW? He contacted the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademy Chairman, K.A.Francis and asked whether he knew something about it and he was absolutely unaware of such a thing. KSR called the branch manager of the SBI and he was very happy to receive the call from the sculptor. To a question, the manager answered the artist with something that no artist would ever want to listen. Out of enthusiasm the manager said that he has cleaned up the sculpture, first with water and soap then with a fresh coat of grey paint!

(The Hindu on the issue)

KSR was silent for a moment. Then he very politely but with his hallmark witticism asked the manager, what would be done if bird dropping falls on his head, will he take a bath or paint his head? The manager fumbled. He was apologetic and he even promised that he would get the paint removed. The very next day, the Lalit Kala Akademy chairman called for a press conference in Kottayam in which KSR too was present. While the chairman pressed for a compensation worth of Rs.One crore, the artist stated that for more than compensation what he valued was the idea of conservation. Conservation of any public property, whether it is art or anything, should not be undertaken without consulting the expert and seeking permission from the concerned authorities. Applying a coat of paint on a bronze sculpture or removing that coat from it might sound simple and easy to do. But the kind of damage that it causes to the work of art cannot be compensated. The happiest thing about the whole incident was that the public in Kozhikode came out in hordes and demanded the blood of the manager of the SBI. They claimed that it was ‘their’ sculpture and nobody has any right to ‘maintain’ it without right consultation with the experts. Now the cleaning process is on.

This incident brings a couple of things into our consideration. First of all, when the artist is alive, a maintenance agency should be seeking primary consultation with the artist himself. Then experts should be brought on to the site and skilled labour should be employed to clean up a work of art. If the artist is not alive or not available for consultation, it cannot be a reason for not consult at all. There should be responsible people around and they should be asked to give sufficient instructions. The second thing is about what is to be preserved and how it should be undertaken. When a bronze sculpture is installed in a public space, an occasional washing will do the miracle. The maintenance agency should be taking more interest in keeping the environment clean and lights on during the nights. Also public vandalism in the form of graffiti writing and pilfering of materials from the work of art should be prevented. That does not mean that the area where a work of art is located should be cordoned off. Instead of that the pride about the work of art should be inculcated in the minds of the people around it. That means, a work of art situated in the middle of the non-initiated public could become a starting point to sensitize a society about aesthetics, public hygiene and taking pride in national art and culture.

(Malayala Manorama on the issue)

Before finishing this entry, I would like to furnish the background of this sculpture, Kaalapravaham. It was commissioned by the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademy when it organized a national sculpture camp on granite in May-June 2012 in Kozhikode. KSR was the director of the camp. Though KSR is not so fond of granite as his medium, he decided to facilitate the camp as a director by creating a very healthy atmosphere for a lot of young artists to do their granite sculptures in ambitious scale. Huge boulders were procured from a quarry and KSR with the help of the Akademy authorities, personally supervised the transportation of these boulders. Young and established artists worked in granite for two months (some of them became so involved that they went on working in the site for another two months). The sculptures are installed (some of them still in the process of installation) along the Kozhikode sea beach, redefining the visual feel of the place and space. KSR sculpture incorporates both granite and bronze. His protagonist Musui, like a terra fly, watches the life of from a higher plane. He is the witness of time and he is time.

PS: KSR had spent Rs. Seven Lakhs from his pocket to install this sculpture, as the per capita grant from the Akademy was not sufficient for completing the sculpture. 

No comments: