Vipul Kumars work is propelled by his enormous understanding of and control over the different materials he uses to express ideas that he has held consistently over time.
A NEW generation of young painters and sculptors is maturing. A number of trends are visible among them. Some are developments of Indias own journey in modern art from the early years of the last century; others may be called fusion art; and yet others merely gimmicky borrowings of Euro-American styles with little originality of their own. I am not very impressed by those who borrow elements of consumer culture and regurgitate Western consumerist fads and gimmicks as works of art. Whether it is influences of the West or the East, they must be assimilated by an artist to be recognised as his or her art.
Critics have remarked on the influence of Paul Czanne in the early works of Ramkinkar Baij, but no one appears to have noticed how colour-blocking (plotting the ground, or zameen bandhna in the language of traditional Indian miniaturists) was basic to Indian miniature art, something Baij was more than familiar with. Often, such an external influence makes the less than perceptive viewer go back beyond the object to preconceived and conventional notions about it that are both less than just and patently imperfect because such analyses miss the wood for the trees. This is most obvious in the labelling of works as postmodern. The works of strictly modernist artists, such as the French contemporary sculptor Peter Briggs, who have evolved a meticulous balance between structure and process are often looked at superficially from the angle of process alone. This causes one to miss out on their statement on the relation of space and matter in their works and gives one an extremely limited perspective of what are basically multidimensional statements.
Vipul Kumars sculptures embody the many influences imbibed over time that are not so visible but are important. It is precisely from this angle of multidimensionality that I have decided to approach an assessment of his work.
Vipul was born in February 1970 in Sitamarhi, close to the border of Bihar with Nepal. He studied at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), from where he got his BFA in 1993 and an MFA in 1995 under the profound modernist and humanist influence of the eminent and globally known sculptor Balbir Singh Katt, who was in turn schooled in sculpture at Santiniketan under the legendary modernist Ramkinkar Baij. Baijs uncompromising humanism was born out of the mass upsurge of the Non-cooperation Movement of the 1920s. On being noticed by Ramananda Chattopadhyay in the field, Baij was recommended to Rabindranath Tagore as a likely pupil for Santiniketan. So, the son of a barber and a village masseuse rose to become the master sculptor of the newly independent Indian state, and his powerful figures of a modern-day yaksha and yakshi grace the portals of the Reserve Bank of India in New Delhi.
Indeed, these massive figures impressed Katt so much that in 1984 he himself sculpted a similar massive figure, Yakshi: Homage to Ram Kinkar, in his own style in black Bainslana marble. Everything about Katt was remarkable. He was an unassuming sculptor of massive works. His whereabouts (and presumed death) remain a mystery to this day as he disappeared one day in 2001 from BHU, never to be seen again. It is alleged that he disappeared as a result of his refusal to give his signature to legitimise defalcation from a student welfare fund. It is appalling that such an important sculptor and the head of the Fine Arts Department at BHU should have disappeared without a trace and that no one appears to be bothered about how it happened or who was involved. Vipul, one of his more gifted pupils, shares with him a commitment to humanity. One hopes that at least the aesthetic memory of Katt is revived when Vipuls works are appreciated.
With Vipul having such a powerful lineage, one needs a multidimensional perspective to understand the depth of his expression. The essential quality of his work is its persistent concern with human and natural forms in three-dimensional space. Whatever the visual elements he uses, be they of human beings, trees, snakes and even ruined habitations, they are primarily interrelated forms rather than objects. But the resemblance ends there. He goes beyond the figurative work of Baij, along the lines of his teacher Katt, and evolves forms that rise like volcanic eruptions or flow like contours on the soil, as in Serpentine Mountain, or excavate passages inside cavernous spaces. These works may appear to have the traces of natural forms but they travel beyond the immediate impact of perceived natural phenomena into particular relations of form flowing into each other, with textures, colours and the medium punctuating them.
This is evident from the titles of his works, such as Global Warming-II, Jantar Mantar and Yaksh Prashn, which clearly point to a conceptual framework in the realm of non-figurative evocative art. But these concepts, too, have their own coherence and direction, as is obvious from works such as Blood D Cancer, Warming Warning and Remains. A number of the works are untitled, thus pointing to the non-figurative intent of his expression.
In his recent work, Jigyasu, there is a blocked-out figure reminiscent of Tantric diagrams of the human body with the centres of energy marked out on it. This is a pointer to the fact that even non-figurative art in the Indian context is dependent on the human presence as its creator. His Jantar Mantar works reflect both the circular aspect of time as conceived by man and its spiral non-repetitive aspect. His Blood D Cancer evokes in one the sense of the inner malaise that is driving capitalist society to its collapse from the inside with various forms of greed, ranging from accumulation, maximisation of profit and consumerism to societal corruption.
Even nature is not spared. It is depleted and destroyed in a work, with two blocks of stone out of which one sees oil oozing and congealing like a wreath on top of them. But the forms have little to do with the initial impulses that trigger them. For example, the form for Serpentine Mountain struck him when he looked at the shapes that leucoderma had etched out on his fingers. It then became a three-part sculpture that gives one an overview of ongoing processes of nature with the breaks in them that occur from time to time.
Another work, Capitopus, was inspired by a Safdar Hashmi street play in which imperialism was depicted as an octopus, which Vipul concretised as an innocent white form trapped in the jaws of a stoneware casing whose two ends reflect the manner in which sculpture traps space and expands itself beyond its material limits, just like globalisation of finance capital traps economies with its blandishments and then devours them.
His recent work in ceramics, porcelain and stoneware reflects a sort of ordeal by fire at 1,250 C to 1,350 C that reflects the various forms of meltdown and decay around one. This last series, which has evolved out of his earlier work in ceramics since 2003, was developed to its present state after he attended the National Ceramic Camps in Bhopal in 2010 and more recently in Chennai. In these workswhich have been exhibited not only at Rabindra Bhawan and the India Habitat Centre in Delhi, but also at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara, and the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur over the last two yearsone can see both vertical and horizontal treatments of space, with matter and emptiness balancing each other in different proportions in different works, which were notable in his exhibitions that took place between 2003 and 2007. This time, however, his surfaces show a greater range: from shining porcelain as in An Accident, cracks and crevasses as in Global Warming II and grains as in Remains I. This adds a new dimension to his treatment of three-dimensional forms in space. The authenticity of his human concerns, however, continues unabated and is visible in his architectural works in which human proportions are raised to the level of amalgamations of conical, cylindrical and circular forms that are evocative of humans or torsos standing or lying down. But their psychological expression comes out in his use of different materials, ranging from hard granite to soft clay and ceramics, colours and diacritical marks and textures that give them the character of a conversation or discussion.
Despite these various levels of content, his sculptures are essentially the presentation of three-dimensional forms and the space they appropriate to make their aesthetic impact. The modernist base of the aesthetic assessment of his works stands firm while postmodern approaches can only elucidate those elements relating to perception and process. Essentially, one has here an authentic descendant of the line of development that was witnessed in Baij and Katt. Vipul carries it forward with originality and confidence. In 2008, he won the National Award of the Lalit Kala Akademi. His work is propelled by his enormous understanding of and control over the different materials he uses to express ideas that he has held consistently over time. This will ensure the relevance of his work for years to come.