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Turning Order in Disorder

Basudeb Biswas says his deep involvement with the material – from the selection of the different uneven forms from the metal scrap yard to their assemblage together in harmony – has been a quite holistic process

He grew up in the Andamans. As much as his life in the jungles was about imbibing the essence of nature, a great part of his childhood was moulded by the struggles of survival in the remote place. Says Basudeb Biswas, one of our best-known sculptors: “I am talking about a time when newspapers were not common

and only one among fifty houses would own a radio set. I did not have a formal knowledge of art. All I remember is that my school teachers would appreciate my rangolis and artworks. And back home, I thoroughly enjoyed watching my elder brother making perfectly beautiful furniture. I also have faint

memories of my father crafting exquisite in Bangladesh. This became my foundation.” His journey into art also derived inspiration from nature – observing the shells, the mischievous crawling crabs, the trees, the beautiful wooden logs at the seaside – just lying around, and all the beautiful forms that the sea would offer. “I was easily captivated by the sublimity of these raw forms of nature and that is the highest degree of art that I witnessed back in the Andamans,” Biswas says. “Beyond this, even though I was appreciating these three-dimensional forms, growing up, I didn’t quite know the meaning of sculpture.” It was only in 1978, with the guidance of the two artists from Port Blair, Niresh Poddar and Swapnish Chaudhary, that he made it to the Kala Bhavana, the reputed academy for arts in Shantiniketan. “Sculpture is something that I only started exploring in my early days there,” he says. The rest, as they say, is history. Here, in a freewheeling interview, the Jalandhar-based artist bares his heart to Team Art Soul Life.

Were you always inclined towards sculpture? What aspects of working in 3D appeals to you?

The Andamans were quite under-developed back in those times and hence, I lacked knowledge of what a sculpture meant. It is something that I only started exploring in my early days at Kala Bhavana, Shantiniketan. I did have an affinity for clay modelling and the various forms in nature, as a child. I loved seeing my mother making clay toys with her gentle hands, baking them to redness in a chulha. One of my teachers was a clay-pratima (clay idol) artist and I would often help him with the claywork. Also, when I was in the 7th grade at school, I used to help my family with agriculture in the fields and spent a good deal of time with the soil/ clay. Looking back at all these instances, I can say that I did develop a tactile association with clay from my very childhood.

Upon moving to Shantiniketan for the pursuit of a formal education in art, I found myself close with nature yet again, even though the context was very different from that of the jungles. This association with nature led me to develop certain sculptural sensibilities. I can also never forget the contribution of my art faculties, who are such famous artists, like Prof Ajit Chakraborty, Sarbari Roy Choudhury and Sushen Ghosh, who encouraged me to enter the field of sculpture. I was inspired by the softness of flowers, the rhythm of trees, the colours of birds and animals and the elegance of the human female form -in a very heavenly light. 3D in sculpture offers a sense of roundity and mystery. It makes one move around it to experience it. Every angle of the sculpture brings out a different expression. It is this experience of rotundity and the tactility that is felt through the various materials terracotta, clay, stone, metal, wax and so on- is what makes me enjoy 3D, especially because I still work with my own hands. The same sensation of touch cannot be experienced in a 2D medium.

How did your parents react when you showed your inclination towards art? Were they supportive of your decision?

Back in 1978, when I took a decision to move out of the Andamans to pursue higher education in art, my parents, who were quite old then, had no knowledge about art and art colleges. But they were fully supportive of any decision that I made and wished for my success. I was probably the second person to leave my town to pursue a life out of the jungles.

What has been the biggest hurdle in your art journey and how did you overcome it?

It has to be money, at different points in life. But every time I faced financial constraints, the hurdles themselves turned into opportunities. During my third-fourth years in college, because of limited money, I started working with waste material as it was cost-effective. I did experimental works out of scrap wood, wire mesh and plastic and brought out my desired expressions through them. This phase of experimentation set free my works to become more simplified. They were highly appreciated by eminents artists and faculties Somnath Hore and Balbir Singh Katt. Again, around the year 2008, with the onset of an economic setback in the market, I revived mywork with an economic, adaptive material exploration and started working extensively with mix-media, especially wood and nail. So, the financial hurdles paved the way for a whole new innovation every time.

Tell us about your working process and which materials and techniques do you use?

Over time I have had the joy of working with a variety of materials and techniques involved and the working process keeps changing with the material exploration that follows. I keep changing my media from time to time – from the uneven scrap wood forms that I was exploring in Shantiniketan to the textural explorations in terracotta that I have continued ever since the late 80s. In the year 1985, after completing my Master’s degree from Shantiniketan, I moved to Jalandhar, graced with the opportunity of joining as a lecturer in the Sculpture department of the Apeejay College of Fine Arts in the city. It is there that I also started teaching techniques of terracotta baking to the students. Along with the terracotta came an interesting phase of experiments with stone chips cast in cement. The combination was used as a substitute for large stone carved sculptures, something that matched the state of solidity of the latter. At the same time, I have also used stone as a medium across various national sculpture camps and residencies.

Terracotta was followed by my series of works in bronze, majorly initiated in the early 2000s. The ‘femina’ series of bronze sculptures dates back to the year 2003- elongated female figures, depicting the heavenly grace of the female existence, reaching towards the sky. These works have been cast using the ‘lostwax process’, inspiration of the technique derived from the rich traditional process of the ‘Dhokra casting’ which is still practiced by a few artisan clusters based in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and also Jharkhand. The Dhokra art is known for its fineness in detail and texture. Adapting to some of the techniques from the process helps me in casting intricate patterns in my sculptures. I have developed my own interpretation of the process, combining it with modern skills. Next was mix-media, mostly scrap materials, as early as the year 2008. I started composing out of scrap wood. The assemblage of wood led to the use of nails as an additional element. This gave birth to a simultaneous ‘Mystery’ series that was an interpretation of the solid wood forms morphosed to pure bronze. While experimenting on a shift of texture and scale for a newly desired expression, I moved from the combination of ‘wood and nail’ to ‘wood and brass’, often burning and patina-finishing the wood along with the brass. The series helped me to develop my final, latest consecutive series- Ajantrik (2018) and Harano Sur (2020); sans wood, comprising only scrap brass, welded to merge and patina-finished to retain rawness. My involvement with the material- from the selection of the different uneven forms from the metal scrap yard to their assemblage together in harmony, bringing in my desired expressions, has been a process quite holistic in its experience. Through the journey, the exuberance of material exploration has transcended along. Apart from my sculptures, my refill drawings have been a unique experimental venture that has been an integral part of my works. A technique of drawing that I started experimenting in the early 1980s at Kala Bhavana almost 40 years now, continues with multiple refills held together to create a force of lines, a medium of expression. At the beginning, I started with trying to grip about 15-20 ball-pen refills between my fingers and had a limited collection of colours. Through the years of evolution, I managed to convert the bunch of separated refills into a cohesive brush-like-tool and have explored more options for the colours. This has made the process more spontaneous than ever.

Who and what have been your greatest influences?

One of the greatest influences in my life has come from eminent artist Satish Gujaral. His wood and mix-media series is something that I have always looked up to. Then there has been Somnath Hore, a renowned artist and one of my teachers at Kala Bhavana, Shantiniketan, who was always there to encourage my creations. That too became a source of motivation for me. Over the last few years, alongside working on my scrap brass series, I have been immensely moved by the works of the famous Indian art film director, Ritwik Ghatak. His bold yet emotional depiction of an inanimate car as a character, brought out in the most imaginative way, in his 1958 film Ajantrik, had later become a great source of inspiration for my Scrap Brass series called ‘Ajantrik’ (2018).

You have been recognised for innovative use of material in your artwork. What is it about these materials that resonates so strongly with you tactilely and visually?

I would like to talk about two of my innovative material explorations. First, terracotta. There is a palpable art that lies in the whole process of the terracotta baking, from the conception, into the clay modelling, to seeing them evolve with the warmth of the flames. I often achieve a peculiar redness of the terracotta that is intrinsic to Punjab’s soil. The varying tints and shades of the red, attained by the pieces, come from different degrees of baking and the surface treatment, rendering them with unique identities. I till date, sometimes get mesmerized by the kind of inconceivable colours that they attain. I also keep experimenting with different textures on clay, deriving unique expressions from the experimental surface treatment alone. Second, scrap brass. There is a certain thrill in encountering some of the very unprecedented forms just lying around in the metal scrap yards. It is also the whole process of visualizing the outlandish forms coming together, creating a whole new language-is what makes me highly resonate with scrap brass as a material. Sculpture. The word alone brings to mind art that’s weighty—made of marble, bronze, or welded steel— and often monochromatic and static. However, your innovative handling of form where you appear to usurp gravity, makes dense and heavy materials seem weightless.

How do you do that?

This is a very good observation that you’ve made. I have indeed been asked this question by people a couple of times. So, I am mostly endeavouring to achieve a rhythmic form that takes the onlookers’ eyes upwards, creating a heavenly movement. Most of my works are elongated, have a minimal lower base, often lifted from the ground to portray a sense of weightlessness and are usually heavier upwards. Even if you look at all of my bronze female forms, they are toe-raised to convey a sense of lightness. Also their fragile forms, the tender gestures, the delicacy of the flowing hair, all add to the effect. At one of my exhibitions back in 2007, famous lyricist Gulzar saab too appreciated the fragility of my sculptural works.

My latest scrap brass works again break away from the monotony of solidity through a placement of forms along with gaps that allows for air to pass through, and gives it a character of ‘breathable’. These perforations lend a sense of visual weightlessness.

A lot of sculptors are defying old paradigms using unconventional materials, combining color and motion. Are you also consciously trying to change sculpture’s scope?

won’t say that I am using unconventional materials but I seek ways to treat the conventional materials in an unconventional nature. I am definitely upholding the contemporary spirit of art through my unique approach to scrap assemblage. Yes, I am surely trying to consciously change sculpture’s scope in my own way, by defying the conventional approach to seeing certain elements. My experiments with antique patina bring a certain degree of weight to my works. I strive to create a new language altogether with the welding of the scrap parts, often completely changing the story of the objects that are a part of it. Sometimes, brass peacock feathers become the hair or a cooking pot becomes the head, all merged to look cohesive yet distinct.

How would you describe your artistic mission?

My ultimate mission is to work on a monumental scale someday, to create Public Art- outdoor installations or sculptures, that become a platform for an open dialogue with the public, creating its own narration. The idea encompasses the creation of works of enormity that have an influence, an impact to live.

Tell us about your latest collection, Harano Sur – The Lost Melody…

My latest collection ‘Harano Sur’ (the lost melody), in scrap brass, was conceived and executed during the

lockdown last year (in 2020). Amidst all the chaos and the uncertainty that the Covid pandemic brought with it, there was a loss of harmony in most people’s lives. It created a disorder- a lost melody. Harano Sur sees the various scrap elements or objects as disintegrated parts of people’s dismayed lives. They are then brought together in harmony to express an order in the disorder. Simultaneously, ‘Harano Sur’ (the lost melody) presents a story of rebirth. What had once lost its identity, resurfaces to life in harmony. The daily objects that we use become a part of our lives. An object of possession, it gains an identity of its own.

We have certain memories attached to it. But what happens when it becomes old and is given away to scrap collectors. They end up in a scrap yard, mixed with tonnes of other such dilapidated, broken objects. It tends to lose its identity. It gets lost in the multitude. For a metal scrap part, the object’s identity further gets dissolved as the metal object is melted down in a furnace to a mere mass of metal. When an artist visualizes the scrap object as a part of his or her creation, it gives it a second chance to come alive again, often along with several other objects brought together in a balance. The lost identity is translated into something meaningful, lending the object a new identity, a repurpose to exist. It gains a longer life. And it reveals a whole new expression.

The collection sees various emotions across the range of the sculptures in it.

For example, the sculpture ‘Fear Mask’ is a representation of the prevailing atmosphere of fear. ‘Covid’ was unheard of, two years ago. Now, everyonebe it a child or an elderly person- is notoriously familiar

with it. Bringing uncertainty, unemployment, tension, death- the fear it spreads is as pervasive as the masks we now wear. In contrast to the ‘Fear Mask’, my work ‘Inseparable’ brings forth the idea of balance and togetherness in times of distress.

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