Eminent sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri passed away on August 28. A witty raconteur, the ebullient yet acerbic Chaudhuri was an experimenter with mediums and techniques. He was known for his lyrical lines and rhythmic forms. A student of Santiniketan, he trained as an artist at Kala Bhavan and was one of the prominent pupils of Ramkimkar Baij. Passionate about carving, he inspired a whole generation of students — Nagji Patel, Raghav Kaneria, Ramesh Pateria, et al — at Baroda, where he taught.
But he acquired an even greater stature as a catalyst for art practices in Independent India. In his official capacity at the Lalit Kala Akademi, he fought for government support to create facilities for artists. Says artist A. Ramachandran, “He holds a unique position in that he single-handedly campaigned to have the government create art complexes, including studio spaces, workshops for ceramics, graphics and casting facilities.” The Garhi Studios of Akademi was his singular contribution. This was followed by regional centres of Akademi at Chennai, Kolkata, Bhubaneswar and Lucknow.
Chaudhuri had a larger vision for the artist community. He used his friendship with the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to advance their cause.
When he went abroad to study in the Forties, casting techniques in India were a closely-guarded secret among foundrymen. The sculptors were at their mercy. Chaudhuri, says artist Paritosh Sen, acquainted himself with the know-how by visiting the workshop of bronze caster Valsuoni in Paris. Valsuoni cast the sculptures of Picasso, Matisse and other famous contemporary Parisien sculptors. After his return to India, Chaudhuri made the technology accessible to others.
Sen and Ramachandran also point to Chaudhuri’s lifelong involvement with tribal and folk arts, crafts and with artisans. He conceptualised the Rural India Complex within the Crafts Museum, which finally matured into the Museum of Man in Bhopal. He researched living traditions and encouraged their documentation. His wife, distinguished studio potter Ira Chaudhuri, recounts how he introduced a sculpting tool called ‘claw’ among the marble carvers of Makrana. Chaudhuri had picked up this implement and its use while training in Britain. The artisans were initially sceptical, but today, all carvers in Makrana use the claw. These legacies have a more lasting impact on art traditions than how much a work fetches at an auction.