Celebrating a life of toil

Print edition : May 23, 1998

The image of a rickshaw-puller carting passengers in cities is representative of the relations that define an exploitative capitalist society. To sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan, however, the rickshaw-puller reflects the true spirit of a human being.

THE rickshaw and the rickshaw-puller form a powerful visual image that haunts colonial history. The newly dispossessed peasant, driven by famine to the city, being strong in body but unskilled, finds work carting people and their baggage across the city. In his sweaty - and smelly - vest and pants, he presents a sad sight. His body is strong but emaciated. He is an ideal example of the thriftless poor to the money-grubber wandering like a rat in the sewers of colonial ports, who sneers at him without realising what a pitiful creature he is himself.

K.S. Radhakrishnan's sculpture of the rickshaw-puller Musui, at Sheikh Sarai complex in Delhi.-

The Chinese writer Lu Hsun, however, saw just the opposite in the rickshaw-puller, in his story, "An Incident", first published in 1920, which forms part of the collection A Call to Arms. It refers to an incident that happened in the winter of 1917. The protagonist of the story is an official in a fur-lined coat who hires a rickshaw. Approaching the destination, he and the rickshaw-puller see a woman collapse on the road. The passenger says, "It's all right. Go on," consoling himself that this way he will save the rickshaw-puller trouble with the police. The rickshaw-puller ignores him, helps the woman up and goes with her into the police station! A policeman comes up to the passenger and tells him to get another rickshaw. Only then does the passenger realise the striking humanity of those on whose backs the burden of progress is dumped.

The author describes that moment: "Suddenly I had a strange feeling. His dusty, retreating figure seemed larger at that instant. Indeed, the further he walked the larger he loomed, until I had to look up to him. At the same time he seemed gradually to be exerting a pressure on me, which threatened to overpower the small self under my fur-lined gown."

Radhakrishnan, and (behind him) the terracotta relief which shows Musui, seen emerging from slime, gifting the rickshaw with a bell, its very life.-

The image has a broader significance: the passenger, the rickshaw-puller and the rickshaw make a rare visual presentation of the relations that define capitalist society where the exploiter, the exploited and the machine can be seen together as one amalgam of forms. It is an image that is seen rarely in an exploitative society, which does everything to mask the process that characterises it.

That is perhaps why it appeals to the radical artist. In fact, a number of young artists took up this subject in the late 1980s and 1990s. Jaipur-based Ekeshwar Hatwal did an excellent series of rickshaw-pullers, which he exhibited in Jaipur and in Delhi. Apoorva Desai from Ahmedabad included the rickshaw-puller in his series on Calcutta. Wasim Kapoor, the well-known Calcutta painter, has painted a distorted rickshaw, while Tyeb Mehta of the Bombay Group of artists has done paintings of a trussed-up bull on a rickshaw, rickshaw-pullers waiting for passengers, or just figures on rickshaws. Every artist sees this visual complex from his own perspective.

KERALA-BORN sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan has created a larger-than-life sculpture of a rickshaw-puller which towers above one at the offices of Travel House, in Delhi's Sheikh Sarai complex. Looking at it, one is immediately reminded of Lu Hsun's generous figure. This association is not merely visual or subjective. The artist is also exhibiting ten maquettes, a couple of terracotta reliefs and a number of photographs of rickshaw-pullers.

"Musui's Song of the Road".-

Radhakrishnan's sculptures always go beyond the ordinary. His bust of Jose Marti in Calcutta is shaped like a torch, his dancing figures in Nice seem to defy the laws of nature like the Nataraja image. This time too, the rickshaw-puller dances with his rickshaw as though it were weightless. He gesticulates like a classical singer with his rickshaw behind him as though it were a part of his dress. He overcomes with remarkable aplomb the burden that society has heaped upon him.

The sculptures are named after Musui, an 18-year-old Santhal boy whom the sculptor met in a tribal village close to Santiniketan. The figure reflects the true spirit of the human being: self-possessed, taking everything in his stride, in tune with nature and proud of the labour that earned him his living.

"Musui's Harmony". Singing and dancing even as he toils each day, the rickshaw-puller in Radhakrishnan's sculptures overcomes his burden with remarkable aplomb.-

Radhakrishnan explains: "Musui was not a rickshaw-puller, but he was a perfect human being, with the self-possession one sees in figures of classical sculpture. He had natural elegance and an expression of innocence and honesty that lighted him up from the inside."

"Why did I make him a rickshaw-puller? The artist looks for the reality beyond the visual. He could just as well be the model for the dancing girl of Mohenjodaro. What matters to the artist is that a particular model, a particular figure, even a reference, finds a biographical meeting point in the artist at a given moment in time. And that is its reality."

Musui, then, is that spark of humanity in space that gives it consciousness. And it can be seen in the terracotta relief where the rickshaw-puller is seen emerging out of primaeval slime with the rickshaw cross-legged, so to speak, beside him. The rickshaw-puller gifts the rickshaw with a bell, its life. And one is reminded of the remarkable insight of Karl Marx that all forms of capital are prone to natural decay; but it is only labour that keeps them alive by working on them and instilling them with their own vitality, even to the extent of replacing them many times over with the profits of labour.

One can understand Musui now in the framework of a future of humanity that sees it as "a categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a humiliated, enslaved, despised and rejected being." It is no accident that just as the nameless rickshaw-puller of Lu Hsun lords it over the skyline of Chinese literature, so Radhakrishnan's rickshaw-puller lords it over the skyline of Delhi. These two great civilisations have one major contribution to offer mankind in the 21st century. They offer it the largest fund of humanity in the world, an army of human beings steeped in the existential history of man, practising myriad productive activities and bursting with creativity. And these sculptures of Radhakrishnan are a powerful reminder of it at a time when so-called globalisation threatens the very lives of one of the most hardest working groups of people.

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