Delhi: Dhanraj Bhagat retrospective is a rare chance to admire his love for sculpting
Dhanraj Bhagat - The 100th birth anniversary exhibition & celebration is on at the NGMAart and culture Updated: Jan 28, 2018 09:52 IST
Sculpting, as greats such as Picasso have said, is more about intelligence than poetic expression. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to grasp. So when the director general of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Advaita Gadanayak and his team of co-curators set themselves the task of executing a retrospective of the late Dhanraj Bhagat, they knew it wasn’t going to be a straightforward task. For starters, Bhagat experimented furiously with both material and form. What remains consistent in his works is a distinctive inquest into Indian spirituality. Thus the title ‘Journey from the Physical to the Spiritual’ of the retrospective that celebrates the birth centenary of Dhanraj Bhagat.
The retrospective wasn’t always on NGMA’s to-do list. “When we had a group show called Itihaas about a year ago, we took out some of Bhagat’s work that the NGMA possesses. When I saw it, I found him unlike any other sculptor we have seen. We knew then we wanted to do a complete retrospective. But it was easier said than done,” says Gadanayak.
Bhagat’s work is so scattered that Gadanayak and his team had to travel to places like Chandigarh and Bengal, and were still unable to find or bring some of the work back. They even found some of his work in the Railway Board’s warehouse. “I don’t think artists like Bhagat were ever bothered about what would become of their art. They wanted the public to have it, not just galleries, which is different from the artist of today. There are no pure artists like Bhagat anymore,” Gadanayak says.
Dhanraj Bhagat was born in 1917 in Lahore, Pakistan. After completing an initial diploma in sculpting from the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, his career took off as late as 1947 when he joined the faculty at the College of Art, Delhi, where he taught sculpture until his retirement in 1977. It is perhaps a coincidence that Bhagat’s personal and artistic journey mirrors that of another Indian great, Satish Gujral.
But the aesthetic couldn’t be more dissimilar. “Gujral and Bhagat were alike in their journeys. They were both affected by the Partition. But there is a stark difference in the way both went about sculpting. Gujral, of course, went abroad and learned and improvised to a more modern temper, but Bhagat stayed rooted, sort of to the Indian tableau, if you like. He came closer to its spiritual quests,” Gadanayak says.
Bhagat’s aesthetic, as the DG suggests, is acutely Indian. Spirit of Work, a plaster of paris work, for example, essays the fibre of motherhood and its many sacrifices in the Indian context. Shiva Dance, a famous sculpture from 1956, cleverly only uses Shiva’s form turning his dance into something that can be read as both ecstasy and anger.
Throughout the exhibition, there are indicators of Bhagat’s preoccupation with the general idea of the Indian family, and its many interlocking tropes. There are works in metal, wood, cement and plaster, quite literally the width of the spectrum in sculpting. How different is it then to curate an artist who morphs and changes not only gears but his vehicle all together?
“It took us two months. Paintings are a little simpler. They also only give you illusionary ideas. Sculpture is more physical, and can be felt. We wanted the viewer to feel, more than anything else. It gives a kind of agency to the whole experience,” Gadanayak says.
As far as the curation is concerned, much has been improvised in the show. The Shiva Dance piece, for example, stands on coal and gives the impression of a fire underneath. A couple of plaster works in paris have been lit from bottom up to give the impression of a fertile ground. Bhagat’s Maquettes, which are essentially small-scale versions of all the sculptures on display, have been immaculately presented like antiques.
But the piece the resistance in curatorial improvisation is the recreation of Bhagat’s studio. A small room in the corner of the art gallery has Bhagat’s own tools, his desk, old photographs and most importantly, his last unfinished work. “When we went to his house in South Extension, his studio was still largely as he had left it. His last sculpture was on the desk and shards from it were still spread on it. I thought we couldn’t obviously display an unfinished work, but nothing would be better than recreating the studio where he worked on his last sculpture,” Gadanayak says.
Even the recreated version of Bhagat’s studio has a chip of the block of wood, lying on the table. It amounts to a kind of veneration, almost homage to an artist who, if this retrospective is evidence, deserves more inquiry. “He and others of his generation worked like saints I think. They were monks in art. Probably that’s why his name was also Bhagat (devotee),” Gadanayak adds.
WHAT: Dhanraj Bhagat - The 100th birth anniversary exhibition & celebration.
WHEN: 11 am to 6.30 pm, till February 28.
WHERE: National Gallery of Modern Art.
TICKET: Rs 20
NEAREST METRO STATION: Khan Market.