Beyond the divided self

Print edition : September 26, 1998

Atul Sinha's "sculptures for use" experiment has reoccupied the space between art and design, overcoming the division between the two that commercialised mass production had created.

ALMOST everyone has wondered, at some time or the other, why most contemporary art is so incomprehensible. If one dares to complain about this state of affairs, pat comes the reply: "That is what art critics are for." And one keeps quiet after that, feeling vaguely uncomfortable that a thought like this would lead to increasing unemployment, or at least an act of lese majeste against persons to whom society has abandoned its right to think for all of its members.

Sculpted Head (1983); collection: Madhu Patodia.-

Do we ever wonder how much we have lost in the process and how the failure to challenge the situation has invaded every sphere of activity? By refusing to think for ourselves, we are forced to adorn our walls and living spaces with "works of art" of which all we understand may be the signature. We find ourselves wearing clothes that have no relation to us, clothes that some mass production unit has decided to dump on the market at a particular time. Or worse, we have been seduced by figures on the ramp and a heady cocktail to deck ourselves in something we would not be seen dead in if it had not been the line that season. Almost everything we interact with today is a hand-me-down from the West or Japan, whether it is cars, furniture, shoes, cutlery or crockery. Nothing is original or in any way a reflection of our own being.

This is quite a serious state of affairs, if we look at the Cartesian aphorism: "Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am." We, in fact, are not even allowed to exist in the world of the mass-produced objects we are forced to consume. We have been reduced to coat-hangers or even dustbins, if junk foods are anything to go by.

Ceramic sculpture, Rat on Ganesha vahana (1989); collection: Suneet Chopra.-


We have ourselves to blame. For the vast majority of us abandoned our right to be the day we allowed the fruits of our conscious activity to be divorced from us for a wage or salary that pays our immediate bills. We have succumbed even to passing off the responsibility of our conscious activity to the handful of employers who have arrogated to themselves the right to think for producers and consumers alike. Today every society has a narrow stratum of specialists: intellectuals, artists, writers, critics, whose thought is expected to make do for the rest. As for the things we use, the outdated objects of people who are better off than us suffice. This division only breeds in us irresponsibility and a lack of concern for our rights.

Do we ever reflect how dangerous this is? Have we ever thought how this attitude of ours is no different from that of the Nazi butcher Adolf Eichmann who tried to escape responsibility for the murder of thousands of Jews, saying that he was only carrying out orders? Or of the U.S. pilot who dropped an atom bomb over Hiroshima and exclaimed at its aesthetic beauty when he saw it explode? It is no different from those who threatened to pollute the whole of India with the radioactive sand from Pokhran in their glee at the country having exploded one of the most poisonous weapons in existence. We cannot shrug off the responsibility of being human by saying it is the way of the world. If it is, indeed, then such a world must be changed, both by collective and individual action.

Light bouncing off terracotta sculptures (1991); collection: National Gallery of Modern Art.-

The types of action too differ considerably. From the Russian Revolution of 1917, which for the first time proposed a policy of peace for all countries, we come to actions for nuclear disarmament, against the U.S. war in Vietnam and even the movement against environment degradation. But at the individual level we have almost as many possibilities as there are individuals.

One of these, a concern with art that is not remote from the common man but that which familiarises itself with the viewer by his or her coming closer to the object by using it, has occupied the artist Atul Sinha for nearly a decade now. His "sculptures for use" are sculptures aesthetically, and their capacity for use is incidental. Otherwise they would be design. His experiment has reoccupied the space between art and design for aesthetic creation, ending the division between the two that commercialised mass production had created. His work allows art to spill over into the territory of design. By encouraging the viewer into a participatory relationship involving use, he guides the viewer not only to come closer to contemporary art but also to question third-rate and derivative design being fobbed off on us as "the latest fashion". His sculpture helps us think about things that we were forced to leave to self-styled specialists before.

Wooden sculpture (1996); collection: IGIA Authority, Delhi Gallery.-

In order to do that effectively, the work has to be technically good. For this Sinha has had good training. He was a student, at Sanawar, of the Lucknow-based sculptor Sudha Aurora. Then, inspired by a visit of the artist M.F. Husain to his school, he went on to study sculpture at M.S. University, Baroda, under Raghava Kaneria, K.S. Chatpar and Mahendra Pandya. This gave him a familiarity with the genre and mastery over it; so he could confidently experiment with a wide range of techniques and not limit himself to merely nurturing a style, as less gifted or less confident artists are forced to do.

I have watched the process of his development from the beginning. He began with an interest in both art and design. He used to sculpt stone and make jewellery out of seeds, leaves, feathers and found objects. At his first one-person show, at the Village Gallery in Delhi in 1990, he had made sculptures like carafes in terracotta, which remind one of Pre-Columbian Central American pottery. One of the more original pieces from this show was an image of Ganesha with the rat on top and the god as the vahana (vehicle). Indeed, this ceramic sculpture of the rat-god of kaliyuga is a radically different presentation of the popular elephant-god with an ironic comment on how the rat of the rat-race had taken over from him in our times. However, at this point in time, while the process of blending sculpture and design, the aesthetic and the utilitarian had begun, design tended to dominate his creations.

This was followed by another show at the same gallery in 1991, this time using the traditional potter's ploy of having light emanate from crevices and holes in the sculptures. These shafts of light highlighted areas of texture and form, while the sculptures themselves served as very subtle sources of lighting.

Carved hardwood, which can be used as a seat or a table (1998).-

This exhibition was followed by one at the Gallery Romain Rolland, comprising mirrors with glass etching on them. This was followed up in 1996 by works in carved hardwood, which could be sat upon or used as tables, a series whose most complete expression, blending aesthetics and design perfectly, is now showing at the newly opened gallery of the Radisson Hotel in Delhi to be followed up with a show at the Vis-a-Vis gallery at Khirki village.

Atul Sinha has succeeded, in a long journey of nearly a decade, in getting his quest recognised by a wide range of gallery owners such as the Village, Ganesha and Delhi galleries, the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Centre of International Modern Art (CIMA) in Calcutta, Mme-School in the Hague and Dr. Peters in Dusseldorf. The Indira Gandhi International Airport has bought some of his wooden "sculptures for use", while his portrait of Che Guevara incorporated in the mirror and glass-etching series is with Che's daughter, Aleida, in Havana, at a museum dedicated to him.

This recognition of how an individual can reintegrate himself by taking back the right to have objects of aesthetic quality for use and for the creator to communicate his aesthetic sensibility directly to the user, is an important democratic advance in the direction of restoring a balance that was upset by mass production based on hired labour. For this type of art to develop, however, the productive basis of society must change. Until then we must learn from serious efforts like those of Atul Sinha what the art of the 21st century is likely to approximate to. We in India can relate to this more easily as our craft tradition of making aesthetically sound objects of use is still alive. Atul Sinha, however, has gifted it with technical excellence, originality, variety and a radical consciousness, which clearly distinguishes his work from that of the craftsman of the past, reminding us that changes of the future may reflect elements of the past but are distinct from them.

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