On 9th January 2017, when the ‘Golden Bough’, the 50th Annual show of Birla Academy, Kolkata, curated by me opened, I was keeping my fingers crossed. Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, there have been incidents of moral and aesthetical policing in different parts of India where female nudity in any work of art is heavily targeted. In 2015 February I had faced the tune of right wing moral policemen who had barged into a gallery in Pune where a show curated by me was on and their target was a painting by Manil-Rohit in which they had allegedly seen obscenity. They took me and the work of art to the Police station and the organisers agreed to immediately pack the work and send it out of the city limits of Pune! I was let off after some amount of shaming (the moral Police refused to talk to me for long because I was not responding to them in Marathi!).
(work of Ravider Reddy on display at RMZ Foundation, Bengaluru)
In Birla Academy, I was sceptical because I had presented a huge Ravider Reddy sculpture, a tall, imposing, upfront and bold female nude in copper sheen, which I thought would bring a mixed response. “It’s Kolkata, don’t worry,” the Birla team had reassured me. For them Birla Academy of Arts and Culture building is an impenetrable fortress with a strong contingent of security men guarding it round the clock but for me the surging right wing feelings in West Bengal has been a part of the daily news. Finally my fears were rested as people lapped up the sculpture with a lot of mirth than glee than the expected frowning and shyness. Perhaps, Reddy’s sculpture turned to be the best ‘selfie point’ in the show. There is something in Reddy’s sculptures that puts a person’s (lustful) gaze into a process of sublimation. The aesthetic finesse, the asserting counter gaze of the sculpture, the self asserting posture of the model and the unapologetic display of ‘her’ age and the resultant body folds together helps the viewer to detach the ‘srungar rasa’ from the direct imbibing of the (sculptural) body as an experience. To put it in other words, what gets commodified in a female body through fragmentation regains its identity as well as detached iconicity in the works of Ravider Reddy.
(Work by Ravinder Reddy)
In Delhi, on a short visit, Reddy arranges a meeting with me only to give me a copy of his latest catalogue, which I thought was a great gesture that hardly senior artists as well as junior artists do these days. The show to which this catalogue is a part is currently on at the RMZ Foundation in Bengaluru and if anybody in the city could see a comprehensive Reddy show till 31st October 2017. I do not know what I do here is a catalogue review or a review of the show itself which I have never seen. Whatever be the case I am very happy to go through the works of Reddy in this catalogue because with the help of a finely written essay by the veteran artist, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, this catalogue itself is a guided tour not only to the show but to the very oeuvre of Reddy so far. Sheikh with his deep art historical understanding takes the reader/viewer in a chronological order against the backdrop of the larger sculptural history of India and elsewhere (but without imposing on the hardcore academic sculptural history) and explains how Reddy has confirmed, rebelled, traversed, digressed and finally found his own path in arriving at his own visual idiom. Hardly catalogue essays acknowledge the contemporaries and gurus unless they are really famous than the artist himself. Here, Sheikh is lenient enough to acknowledge Krishna Chatpar (who did not become as famous as his students) as the starting point of a generation of sculptors that include Dhruv Mistry, Reddy himself, late Ashokan Poduval and N.N.Rimzon.
(Work by Ravinder Reddy)
Much before feminist discourse started and when Bharti Kher was in around 12 years old, Reddy had already articulated which she would bring out in her own sculptures three decades later. Reddy, moved away from the organic forms that he experimented with in his early sculptures and with the finding of the flexibility of the new medium fibre glass he went on to do a series of works whose subject that he picked up from near around. It was an Upanishad of sculptures. Reddy looked at what the sculptors of the modern period was not really caring for (Kanai Kunhiraman, perhaps is an exception in this matter); the local women. Reddy’s gazed at them like a man but the result of that gaze was not an yielding body but a series of bold female bodies gifted with a counter gaze. Look at the works titled ‘Lady with Umbrella’ or the early relief works. They look like the works of an Indian Pop artist which Reddy should have been qualified as at that point of time but our art history parlance was so sacred that uttering the word ‘Pop’ was condescending for the time being. Duane Hanson was the only artist who had attempted such a language and the Reddy had very less chances of seeing those works first hand, and Ron Mueck was not even entered the college. But Reddy happened to be an Indian and was condemned to be treated as one of the fringe modernists who attempted on a language that had certain continuities and certain ruptures with the great Indian sculptural tradition.
(works by Ravinder Reddy)
However, as Sheikh points out, the typical body that Reddy created in his sculptures was accepted in art history as Bhupen Khakkar was successful in creating a typical Gujarati middle aged body type in his paintings. While the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors association artists were still ‘experimenting’ with the expressionist sculptural language and finding their fibre glass surfaces garishly painted, Reddy was moving in an entirely different direction, which I believe, should have been called the nativity point of Indian Pop Art, in Indian terms. Though Reddy was not given that glory he definitely received some accolades from the post-modernists (I assume) that he has been an artist who brought the subaltern subjects into the mainstream and gave them sort of iconicity. Reddy in that case stands on a triple platform which perhaps wouldn’t make second and third places; Feministic Art, Pop Art and Post-Modern Art. But being male is a problem for an artist who could even involuntarily create ‘feminist’ art. As Roman Jacobson would put it “elephants to teach zoology”, we have had a problem that only women could produce Feminist art. Hence we had to wait till yet another decade for Navjot Altaf to take up the formalities of the same language and come up with ‘feminist’ sculptures.
(work by Ravinder Reddy)
A man of few words Reddy does not elaborate upon his works. His early works show a lot of affinity for his contemporaries, and also reflect a time when all of them had worked for fame and glory with the same positive competitive minds. So we could see the ‘sleeping figures’ of Reddy while we look at the ‘Yellow Pslams’ by N.N.Rimzon. We could see Druv Mistry presenting a man with a dog and the man resembling the static nature of Kuros, we see the same inertness in the Girl with a Bouquet in Reddy (Man with Plastic Bouquet is the offering of Bhupen Khakar). While Reddy makes women with stark eyes, there Rimzon makes ‘Man in the Chalk Circle’. It is so interesting to see these works happening and populating our art firmament as if they were the musical codes in a symphony. Reddy then matures up to explore the woman’s body as a body of no gaze and no eroticism. They are full of counter gaze and truth. I would call them the ‘truth bodies’ which have only scorn for the zero sized, lipo-sucked bodies. As Sheikh would put it, these bodies are nudes but only covered with the golden paint. In Hindu philosophy we say that truth is covered by a golden lid. But in the works of Reddy, truth is exposed in the golden skin.
(Ravinder Reddy's work at Bangkok)
Whether it is Laxma Gowd or Thotta Vaikuntham, most of the Andhra Pradesh artists have this perennial infatuation and awe for the dominating female bodies. In their female worship perhaps they put the Bengalis into shame but Bengalis are more overt in asserting their worship of the female goddesses. But if you look at the physiognomy of the actresses from the Telugu region you could see how these fecund, fertile, voluptuous, ferocious and iconic ladies have been put against soft looking male leads. For example I would site Sharada Akkineni, Savithri, K.R.Vijaya and so on. Renuka Chowdhury was one such lady in the politics that I could site. Such ladies with exuberant energies automatically are worshipped or looked at awe in the visual culture, which could be a historical as we could see such depiction of female goddesses in the temple premises and gopuras and vimanas. Reddy derives the hallmark features not from the goddesses but he realizes that the above mentioned female beauties are the refined version that one could see in the rural areas who generally do not ‘take care of their bodies’ but let it grow the way it wants. Right from the beginning Reddy seems to have understood this. I wouldn’t say that he has been sort of infatuated by the possibility of these women having toothed vaginas capable of reducing men to nothing. But that submission, as Shiva to Shakti, remains as a possibility in his early works; look at the sleeping figures and the couple that makes love. Man is a worshipper, not a dickhead who does his act.
(Ravinder Reddy with his work)
Reddy refines himself as he grows and reaches to a stage where he could boldly feature these women with their actual physical attributes. Even the sophistication that he used to show as part of idealizing their bodies takes a backseat. Reddy invests more into the making of their body as it is. Also he focuses on the Head of women. There is a sort of deification in the process. Each woman who could be Kanaka, Bangauamma and so on, but they all turn into goddesses, who interestingly are identified as ‘Reddy’s works’ in the secular religion of art. In due course of time Reddy has embellished his head and figures with decorated coiffures giving them at once a much desired regional flavour but at the same time a transcended sense of femininity. He brings them forth as people involved in simple gestures like squatting, like holding a garland, tying hair, checking the length of the hair and so on, each gesture transporting them to the ultimate zone of erotic potential. But a man would think hundred and one times to venture before approaching her. She is there to evoke the life spirit in you, but never to yield your fantasies for in her there is no fantasy but only the truth of being a powerful entity. She does not have anything to hide but only to expose and in that exposure and in that stark nudity she defies the gaze and reveals that she is the body of the golden truth of existence.
(work by Ravinder Reddy)
The biggest success of an artist happens when a viewer sees a work of art by him/her thinks of him/her rather than a series of possible other artists who have done or inspired this work of art. Reddy is lucky to be one of those artists who wouldn’t evoke any other artist in the mind of the viewer. In fact it is always a pleasure to look at the early of this artist and see how he has taken the process into interesting zones of making a relevant form through interesting themes. Once an artist reaches a point and what he needs to do is to make permutations and combinations of the same. But even in that playing with forms, each time the artist must be feeling the unpredictability of the outcome. Each expression in Reddy’s works perhaps looks like one constant gaze (of compassion and defiance at once), but I believe that to get that the artist has to thrive as if it is his first time. Each work has a model and depersonalizing her and then giving her a new identity which even the model herself would desire to be is the challenge of the artist and I am sure that Reddy handles that challenge very well.