A sculptor of prominence
One of the most impressive exhibitions to open in recent times, a retrospective of the sculptor Dhanraj Bhagat at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, is in danger of slipping apathetically past art viewers in the capital for lack of sufficient buzz around it. It would be a pity if it remains unnoticed, for it is one of the most interesting exhibitions to have been curated at the venerable NGMA, is beautifully mounted and shines the light on one of the country’s most important sculptors, who worked across mediums and was instrumental in breaking away from the grip of sentimentality to create a new vocabulary of modernism.
In so many ways, Bhagat’s is not an unusual story. He was born in Lahore to a family with constrained circumstances and apprenticed under a commercial sculptor after dropping out of school, but was driven enough to save his money and put himself through the influential Mayo School of Art. Early drawings in the exhibition reveal his strength of line and the constant quest for studying the dynamics of the body, its rhythm and movement — both as an academically trained artist as well as through his lifelong dedication to examining India’s classical sculptures — which found expression in his own work.
Offered a job at his alma mater, he shifted to New Delhi soon after when the College of Art offered him a post, eventually promoting him to the head of its sculpture department, a position he held till his retirement in 1977. Considered a brilliant teacher, he was a driven artist who began and ended his day in his South Extension studio, working to create obsessively, and the accompanying archive of photographs shows him in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Certainly, Bhagat was commissioned to create repousse panels for the New Delhi Railway Station as well as the office of the Railway Board — the latter still exist, though the former have been removed as part of the renovations.
Bhagat’s experiments across mediums were diverse — iron and plaster of paris, wood and steel, reinforced concrete — though if I were to make a guess, I would hedge that modelling with wood was what he enjoyed most. This is evident from one of his most iconic series, titled Construction, representing his curiosity and interest in the building activity he observed in the city of his residence. Simultaneously, it explores his interest in the relationship of interior and exterior spaces.
Though the retrospective is a sweep across his four-decade career as a sculptor, the fluidity of his Musician series and that of the totemic Queen and Monarch, or, indeed, his Christ and Durga heads are exemplary. But pride of place is held by his interpretation of Dancing Shiva, or Nataraja, which is satisfying in both scale as well as the dynamics of movement he brings to bear on, arguably, one of India’s best-known sculptures. It is this ability to analyse and take ahead India’s roots that are Bhagat’s strength, and the retrospective is proof of it.
The exhibition is accompanied by a large selection of Bhagat’s drawings, indicating the rigour he brought to the making of each work. Equally impressive is the recreation of his studio, complete with his tools, the books he kept there, tracing his methodology of technique, down to the wood shavings, which evoke the sculptor’s presence in the room. Capsuling any artist’s lifetime of experiences and work is a challenge, as most curators well know, but in emphasising Bhagat’s journey and contribution, NGMA director general Adwaita Garanayak has proved his chops. It would be a pity if art-lovers missed this show (till February 28).