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The Appeal of Clay

There is something almost painterly about Vipul Kumar’s approach, echoed in his perfectly sculptural objects that run the gamut from lyrically beautiful to arrestingly thought provoking
Text: Team Art Soul Life

For Vipul Kumar, one of India’s most revered artists working in both stone and ceramics, sculpting is the language in which he can communicate his observations of the world. His work is the epitome of the subtle, the understated and the powerful all at once. Though the material itself is important, equally crucial is Kumar’s openness to being led by his own intuition: he allows himself to be guided by what he sees, dreams and feels. “I do not work for any mission. Art is an article of faith for me, it is my life,” he explains. Kumar says injustice in society makes him sad. “I work to protest this injustice. Social circumstances inspire an artist like me. I firmly believe that the insatiable human greed is the reason behind the distortion of nature. These things move me,” he says. “As it is a bit difficult to express these feelings in stones, which is a suitable medium to express the subconscious, I adopted ceramic as clay offered more possibilities allowing me to communicate the totality of my observations. Stone gradually takes a form and transports you to the state of trance. I refine my consciousness through my art.” Kumar says his work is essentially about deconstructing traditional ceramic practices, so he creates really rough, unconventional forms because he’s looking at contemporary reality. “If nature itself is disappearing, what is left of man?” he asks. In his practice, Kumar works spontaneously, allowing form to develop freely, the man-made and the natural intertwining and merging one into the other. Through his work, the artist expresses his concern for environmental damage, but believes in the power of nature to heal. As he says, “It is patient, adaptable, resilient and forgiving.” Blending technical brilliance with artistry, each of his creations is a lyrical expression in art and the result of a highly process driven and personally reflective process. Born in Bihar’s Sitamarhi, which has a centuries-old history of ceramics, 50-yearold Kumar says there was no atmosphere of art in his family. “No one encouraged me to pursue my passion. I can say, with some assurance, that I was born with an artistic propensity. It came naturally to me,” says Kumar, whose passion for pottery stems from his childhood love for drawing. “I was good at drawing and got a lot of praise from my teachers. Since primary school I could sketch from a given object. But at that level, I never thought I would grow up to be an artist.” Though a career decision was difficult for him to make, growing up, he soon realised sculpture was his calling in life. “I was greatly inspired by the idols of Durga,” recalls Kumar, who was living in Varanasi at that time. “Durga Puja used to be a big affair in Varanasi. Apart from the Bengalis, other communities also celebrated the festival with great passion and religious fervour. The place used to be bustling with potters sculpting Durga idols and buyers and I was fascinated by the artisans.” Kumar soon found himself drawn to the art and fully devoted himself to sculpturing. “So you could say my career in the field of art started fromVaranasi, which possesses a strong spiritual and cultural ambience,” he says. Ask him about hindrances in his artistic pursuits and he says economic constraints are the biggest impediment for most artists. “Financial problems made life a living hell. I can’t recollect a moment when I was free from money worries,” he says. “Life was a struggle and continues to be so. Thankfully, I landed a big work order, which eventually helped me set up my studio. Now, at least I had a place to work from.” Kumar says he never cared how the artist in him will survive. “I opted for art and I work. It is simple. I never separated art from my life. Art is integral to my existence,” he says, adding, “I never compromise with my art for any economic benefits.” Kumar, one of the most brilliant ceramic artists in the country today, says he was actually attracted by the mystic charm of the sandstone. “Various art forms in sandstone have originated from Varanasi’s cultural contexts only,” he says. So the artist, who by training is a stone sculptor and has sculpted in black marble as well as pink and white, too, says it was only after getting some dexterity in stone carving that he switched to ceramics. “I adopted a hand-built and pinching process to make the works, which are later fired in gas or wood kilns demanding work at a very high temperature (1250-13500C) to create artifacts,” he says. Kumar says the carving process is to be based on the nature of the stone so that the artefact can be a meaningful medium process and the subject are interrelated. “Any change in any one of the three can bring change in the meaning of the artefact itself, and this needs to be understood,” he says, adding, “The medium and process is chosen on the basis of the spirit of the subject. Sometimes we break our own template, but there too some sort of discipline exists.” Kumar, who received his MFA degree in Sculpture from Banaras Hindu University and trained under famous sculptor Balbir Singh Katt, who was known for his adept use of marble and wood materials on a large scale, says he began with geometrical, rigid forms that found a new visual vocabulary in the ceramic medium. He exploits all those ceramics uniquely offers as in form, colour and texture, exploring the full gamut of glaze possibilities. No wonder his ceramic works have enabled the medium to leap out of its traditional craft and function-based identity to express new perspectives. Maintaining the rigidity of his stone sculptures, he has used the delicacy and richness of clay and porcelain materials to enhance his artistic practice—an experimentation that has preoccupied him for the past ten years. The new medium also doubles up as a platform to voice his concerns about the effects of climate change. It’s a concern that has shaped his life too, having left Delhi to set up a ceramic studio in Bhaislana (which is also the site of black marble mines) near Jaipur, so “he could breathe better”. An artist who is totally in tune with himself and with nature. Kumar says he relies on chemistry, alchemy and an element of hazard and risk, both in porcelain as well as clay. “In my work with porcelain, I am very aware of its sensitive structure, it is very brittle. Clay is solid in a way that an abstract painted form is not. You cannot work with stoneware and porcelain without knowing the challenges of clay,” he informs, adding, “My work is a commentary of human activity on earth and I try to capture the ever-happening change in the environment. I give form to my thought process with the help of glaze and I’m also able to introduce sophistication in my ceramic work. You can actually witness the attributes and compactness of stone easily. I use a melange of minerals, like silica, dolomite, iron, cobalt, wollastonite and zinc amongst others. To get colour I used feldspar, quartz etc.”

Among his notable series is Purush Prakriti, which is uniquely metaphorical in his cry for the preservation of the balance of man and nature with its volcanic eruptions and flowing contoured rocky formations. The conceptual underpinnings of his works display his preoccupation, inspiration and inquiries into relationships between man and nature. The concept of decay and disintegration continued in his series titled ‘Nature’s Signature’ where termites are encrusted on the walls of modern progress while a symbolic human figure looks out as witness to eternal time while experiencing the present. Kumar, who had earlier worked with a mural panel titled Navagraha —the nine (nava) major celestial bodies (Grahas) of Hindu astronomy – using NASA satellite images as an inspiration, says he’s busy working on a series in black stone comprising the Navagraha panel. “It is still under process, but it’s different both in content and form,” he informs.

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