How artist Ravinder Reddy’s sculptures depict women and their sexuality. See pics
The first thing you notice about G Ravinder Reddy’s sculptures are the eyes. Throughout his work across the decades, an unwavering stare can be seen in his figures — wide-eyed, bold and sensual. The second is a sense of familiarity. These aren’t mythical creatures. They’re the women who sell fish and vegetables. Students going to college. A woman on her way to work.
When Reddy, 61, was a student in the early 1980s, he found that many of his contemporaries were influenced by European sculptors. It was a school of thought he didn’t wish to follow. “Why should we do something that we’re not familiar with and import from European masters?” he asked in an interview.
“Why should I not do something that anybody can understand?”
One of India’s most eminent modern artists today, Reddy is currently holding a retrospective of his life’s work in his first Indian solo show in almost a decade. Heads and Bodies: Icons and Idols is being held as The Gallery’s debut show at RMZ Ecoworld, Bangalore. The exhibit traces more than two dozen landmark pieces from his early years to present day, including a monumental bust called ‘Devi’ that’s now a part of the tech park’s permanent collection. Though Reddy has taken part in group shows in recent years, he previously was unable to find a space in India large enough to exhibit his entire range of work. Now with this show, Indians can finally journey through Reddy’s artistic career from his student days to his later, celebrated pieces.
Reddy was born in Suryapet village in Andhra Pradesh and his academic life took him to MS University in Baroda, London’s Goldsmith College of Arts and the Royal College of Art. He later taught at Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, from 1990 till about nine years ago, and is still based in the city. His sculptures have been exhibited across the world, from New York to Tokyo, and he has received several awards, including the National Academy Award in Sculpture from the Lalit Kala Akademi and the Sanskriti Award in Arts.
“Nobody has seen such a body of work [of Ravinder Reddy] for the last 10 years,” says Premilla Baid, who runs Gallery Sumukha in Bangalore and was a consultant on the show at RMZ Ecoworld. “It’s basically the evolution of an artist where you can see the gradual shift of his work.”
Baid describes Reddy’s work as having “an Indian flavour” but with a global appeal, which has enabled his national and international success. While his work has evolved over time, experts say he remains deeply honest in his use of iconography that represents the everyday, whether through his full-bodied statues, his terracotta works or his iconic busts.
It’s not difficult to see why: Reddy’s monumental head sculptures, particularly their features — kohl-lined bulging eyes, the strong inclined nose, the red protruding lips — are instantly captivating. Though they lack full bodies, they exude a kind of unabashed sexuality, according to V Ramesh, a fine arts professor at Andhra University.
“There’s something about the head that’s mesmerising,” he says. “There’s no coy sexuality, no coy femininity there.”
The Journey of an Artist
Describing his days as a young artist, Reddy says, “I would portray whatever used to strike me directly.” Take his piece, Girl with Umbrella, a 1981 fibreglass sculpture. It depicts a woman in motion as she places one foot in front of the other. Her eyes are masked by sunglasses and a folded umbrella dangles from her hand. That image, inspired by the people of Mumbai, was significant to him. “I was struck because I went from a village to a city,” he says.
That portrayal of city life can be seen in three early statues that stand side by side in the gallery, titled Relief I, II and III. They are brightly-coloured modern college women wearing jeans and dresses and sandals with a bag slung over one’s shoulder. One figure is a thinly-veiled nude, yet, as with Reddy’s other work exhibited at the show, she stands tall, proud and unflinching.
Rajeev Lochan, the former director of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, notes that, “He has been very conscious about doing exactly what he wants to do. This speaks to the inner personality of the artist.”
There’s a casual sexuality to the stance of those three reliefs, says art and culture writer Vaishna Roy, but while Reddy’s journey revolves around attempts to capture what he observes every day, “it’s not a casual sexuality that he’s likely to have seen on the street.” Instead, Reddy imbues these statues with a kind of power by presenting them in that way, she says.
With time and age, Reddy says his way of thinking and perspective matured. He began to eliminate images from his mind that he deemed transient or fleeting. Instead, he focused on those that stayed in his thoughts.
But if one theme persists in his work, it is the strength of his female figures. Sculptures that depict a woman tying her hair or another squatting and bathing show women in their natural state, with folds of flesh, a wide girth and often exaggerated features. “It’s a woman who is not ashamed of herself,” he says. “She’s proud of her body.” Reddy notes that rather than an exact likeness of an individual, he often uses some physical elements of real people, which inspire his work.
“The love with which he portrays them makes it all beautiful,” Roy comments.
In later years, Reddy’s more recent work possibly turned into his most recognisable. Stroll into The Bay at RMZ Ecoworld and you’ll come face to face with the 15-feet gold-skinned Devi, one of his monumental busts. With the sculpture, he emulates the south Indian woman as he sees her — her jet-black hair covered with jasmine buds and crimson red flowers, her nose and ears adorned with jewellery. Baid says they wanted an iconic work of Reddy’s to display permanently in the tech park, and in recent times, that has meant the artist’s head sculptures.
“It is the head that perhaps encapsulates the quintessential Ravinder Reddy,” Ramesh says. Some feel that Reddy’s own personality is reflected in the heads — a quietness, coupled with a strength to live and work without bowing to society.
Finding Commercial Success
Reddy’s recognition as one of India’s top artists also turned him into one of its most expensive. His head sculptures grew in popularity around 2007 in the East, particularly China, according to the Arts Trust, a group that tracks and analyses market trends for modern and contemporary art. The average value of his work soared after 2006, with one fibreglass bust selling for $3,46,070, or Rs 1.48 crores in 2007. Though the 2008 crash had a devastating effect on the domestic and international art markets, auctions in recent years suggest that the value of Reddy’s work managed to recover. (The Arts Trust has not published a record of Reddy’s commercial success beyond 2014).
Between 2010 and 2011, Reddy sold at least two gold-skinned heads for more than Rs 1.1 crores, according to leading auction house Saffronart. Another head sculpture was sold in 2014 for $157,377, or Rs 96 lakh. And in 2015, a version of his Devi, standing at about nine feet, sold for a whopping $415,385, or Rs 2.7 crore rupees, data from Saffronart shows.
Baid, who is also a collector of Reddy’s work, notes several factors that go into the price and demand of an artist’s work. That includes having a solid record of exhibiting at international shows, museums and some of the best galleries in India like Sakshi and Vadehra, as Reddy does.
And consistency, both in quality and pricing, cannot be sacrificed. “If you’re consistent with your work and consistent with your market, the price will go up,” Baid says.
As Reddy recalls, his value was neither high nor steady in the early part of his career. He barely made a sale during his first 15 to 16 years and began supporting himself through teaching and other activities. Instead of allowing his work to be dictated by trends or buyers, he made a conscious decision to avoid worrying about sales. “Once that concern [with selling] comes, your creativity goes,” he said.
Now based in Visakhapatnam, where the art scene is almost non-existent, Reddy continues to separate himself from the pressure and expense of living in big cities.
“You follow your inner path, rather than what the world tells you to do,” Lochan says. “With Ravinder, that’s what I see.”
In his experience, Reddy found that art buyers in the 80s were fewer, but were often more knowledgeable. Later, particularly the early 2000s, art turned into a prime investment and buyers began to seek out an original Ravinder Reddy to add to their collection. Baid notes that Reddy is very rigid when it comes to the value of his pieces and does not waver on price, one of the reasons his work and appeal have stayed steady in an often-turbulent market.
A Bold Scale, A Bold Style
Seeing the arc of Reddy’s work from student to present day offers a glimpse into the artist’s change in sensibility, in terms of the material he uses and his perception of women.
Words like sexual, kitsch and pop art have been used in describing Reddy’s work over the years, but to his followers, the shift in style has been apparent. “Reddy’s work is getting more stylised and less realistic. The scale has increased and he’s making reliefs like he used to, earlier in the 1980s,” says Geetha Mehra, director of Sakshi Gallery, over email.
It’s a shift that he accomplishes without compromising the quality of his pieces or the honesty of his vision that so many recognise.
“Reddy’s work is iconic. It’s difficult to forget and has an instant recognition, giving it immense repeat value,” Mehra said.
As Reddy grew as an artist into the 90s, there was a shift in his perception and style. He describes a period when he would travel to see works by other sculptors, unsatisfied by what he was finding in books. It was during a trip to the Museum of Mankind in London that he was deeply impacted by terracotta sculptures. He also found inspiration in African art from Egypt and other countries, as well as Mexico.
If Reddy’s work appeared to move away from the traditional styles of his contemporaries, his rebellion continued in his choice of material. Stone, wood and bronze were common materials used for sculpting, but the artist grew tired of appreciation being given to the material, rather than the work itself.
So, he took a different route. Though he had had success working with terracotta, it had its own limitations. At this point in his career, Reddy had the urge to blow up his work in size and scale, and fragility of terracotta would not allow for that. Bronze would be too expensive and cumbersome to work with. His search for an alternate material finally led to fibreglass and eventually, the head sculptures.
To friends who have known the artist for decades, Reddy is a simple, unassuming man who is rooted in culture and tradition, yet is willing to bridge a gap that makes it relevant to modern times.
“Ravinder’s work is like this because nothing has swayed him,” Lochan says.
But Reddy is not quite prepared to predict where his work will lead to in the future. All he knows is that a stylistic evolution cannot be forced or rushed. If he finds that he is unsatisfied with a piece, “that leads to work to overcome those deficiencies. Those deficiencies will lead to a new style.”
“Style has to evolve out of your needs,” he says.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)
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