EDITORIAL / Obituary: Death of Many Blue Gods: S Nandagopal / Johny ML
For S Nandagopal, that was too early to go. He was seventy years old. There is a huge banyan tree in the campus of Cholamandal at Injambakkam, Tamil Nadu. Under the tree no other tree flourishes. What we see flourish there are sculptures done by the resident artists of Cholamandal and those by some visiting artists. KCS Paniker who paved the way for establishing Cholamandal, an artists’ cooperative was like a banyan tree. Not too many artists really grow as huge as him. But Paniker was a visionary therefore he sent quite a few of his disciples elsewhere to flourish as artists. As the son of KCS Paniker, S Nandagopal stayed back in Cholamandal.
When you have a genius father ( or a genius for a father) and that father is impartial to all those artists who studied under him it is very difficult to outgrow the name and fame of that personality. Nandagopal’s refusal to study art initially should be seen in this light. First he graduated in Physics and Art called him much later. Perhaps he did not want to be under his father’s shadow as an artist. The calling of art was too strong to resist. So he went and took a diploma in Fine arts. Nandagopal did not add anything to his name or persona that reminded others of his illustrious father. He even chose ceramics, enamel and copper as his medium though he was good at painting.
Father or no father, how long could you resist the influence of such a charismatic personality? Nandagopal fell for his father’s charm on two counts; one he adopted the stylised painterly language of Paniker into his own scheme of art making and gave it adequate twists and turns to make it his own in the sculptural medium. And Nandagopal did succeed in it. Two, Nandagopal took the helmsman’s role at Cholamandal’s administration and created a museum for his father’s works as well as for the works of the Cholamandal artists. It is rumoured that many other artists from the same fold detested his authoritative nature and the undemocratic administrative style. Perhaps, that’s the one reason why Nandagopal could hold the reputation of Cholamandal from falling into disgrace, despite all the bickering and in fights developed among the resident artists in Cholamandalam.
In 1980s and early 1990s when Indian art market was still not showing any sign of health or steady progress, the connoisseurs ought out Nandagopal’s works because they were aesthetically pleasing and structurally enduring. Nandagopal started off as a painter but he soon specialised in eat metal sculptures using enamelled copper as his favourite medium. During the hay and heady days of modernist innovations in sculpture, artists like Dhanapal and Janakiram were already moving towards the beat metal sculptures. Following the theoretical anchoring done by Paniker on the idea of indigenousness these artists explored the folk and tribal art forms and brought out interesting sculptures which interestingly misaligned themselves with the modernist abstractions in sculpture pioneered by Naum Gabo, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Janakiram and Dhanapal moved toward more iconic figurative works giving them identifiable iconographic features. Nandagopal took the to the next level. While the works of his seniors presented the dark and gloomy gods who resided in the remote minds, the works of Nandagopal embodied a certain amount of pleasantness. He added colours using the enamel technique that made the sculptures more precious than the other beat or weld metal sculptures.
Nandagopal dug deep into Indian mythology, philosophy and some sort of eco-humanist thoughts of post-modernity. In mythology he explored the leelas of Lord Krishna and without giving them the traditional hagiographic effects created his won Krishna in his various manifestations. In Nandagopal’s works we see a Krishna with his consorts, mount and at times doing various mythical feats. Many of his public sculptures are also the enlarged versions of these Krishna thees.
As an artist Nandagopal was inclined to the Indian philosophy that viewed life and time as a river as well as a tree. This aspect is one perhaps adopted by most of the artists who studied under KCS Paniker. From J Sultan Ali to Redappa Naidu to SG Vasudev, one could see various manifestations of trees and rivers. Nandagopal captured the essence of this philosophy in his works by often bringing the composite image of trees and rivers.
Taken together these sculptures of Nandagopal contain the philosophy of eco-humanism. His works do not highlight the centrality of human beings, On the contrary, all his themes point towards the co-existence of various life forces on the face of the earth. This co-existence happens as far as Nandagopal is concerned through the cooperation which too was his father’s idea, though the dynamics of it deviated from the track, designed by Paniker. But in spirit, Nandagopal tried to hold it together in his works.
I had a fairly good association with Nandagopal, as an artist as well as a human being. I had visited him a few years back and had enjoyed his hospitality during my stay at Cholamandal with family. After that on two occasions Nandagopal participated in the shows curated by me. His work for the Golden Jubilee show of the Birla Academy was an exquisite piece which received tremendous appreciation from the art loving people in Kolkata. Maybe ‘Golden Bough’ the golden jubilee show of Birla Academy, curated by me is one of his last shows.
A fortnight ago, I received a call from Nandagopal asking me whether I had received the book that he had sent for me. This was one book that I have been waiting for. In December, last year, Nandagopal had called em to say that he was going to come out with a book on Cholamandal and KCS Paniker and to my surprise, he told me that he would like to know my opinion about the book. I asked for a copy. he laughed and said that the book will be out only by the end of January. Nandagopal did acknowledge his father’s role in his life and nobody knew that was his swan song. He also did keep his work by sending the book to me. I could not keep my word in return as I have been travelling for a while. His untimely departure adds to my responsibility toward my word to him: I do need to read it and write about it. Though many people do not know that my MA thesis was ‘1960-70: Art trends in the South’, Nandagopal did know it and he had noticed me in 1993 itself when I met him first as a student in Baroda.
His last solo was at Art Alive gallery in Delhi, Nandagopal insisted that I should see the show. Unfortunately, I was travelling then too. But there are certain unfulfilled / unkept words that make the pilgrimage deep in memories and reverence. When an artist dies, an art historian’s responsibility increases though the death of an artist would turn the auctioneer’s face glow with a cheshire cat’s smile.
(Images courtesy: Internet and Sushma Sabnis)