Why Manjunath Kamath Has Returned to His Old and True Love

Grist Media
Artist and sculptor Manjunath Kamath. Photo courtesy Gallery Espace.

As a child growing up in the cosmopolitan port city of Mangalore, Manjunath Kamath would often sneak off to the historic temples, churches and Jain basadis nearby, such as the 10th century Kadri Manjunatheswara temple after which he had been named. While his friends studied, Kamath would spend afternoons admiring frescoes and carvings of gods and goddesses, copying them in his notebook. At other times, he could be found learning from the terracotta idol makers in his village. “I hardly knew about art colleges,” Kamath says. “Now, I see those temples and churches as my first museums.”

This fascination with Indian aesthetics is evident in Kamath’s Vasant Kunj studio in Delhi, where he carries a bit of his childhood. Every corner is adorned with keepsakes collected over the years: brass figurines, pots and lamps; colorful terracotta figurines from West Bengali; Warli paintings from Maharashtra and pattachitra from Odisha; and an unusual vertical folk statue of Nandi from Mangalore. Kamath calls himself a storyteller, and these are a few of the visual cues that comprise his vocabulary. Storytelling has been an inseparable part of his life, whether in the form of mythological lore narrated by his grandmother, or attending Yakshagana (Kannada folk theater) performances with his father, or more recently, in Kamath himself creating visual stories for his young daughter. Another room is occupied by half-broken and evolving terracotta pieces, one of the first mediums in which Kamath discovered his calling as an artist.

The 43-year-old artist returns to his roots in his new exhibition Postponed Poems, a collection of terracotta sculptures and miniature paintings that affirm his significance in bridging the gap between both the classical and the contemporary, and art and craft. “Basically, I am a terracotta sculptor,” Kamath says, “but this is the first time I am showing this work because I wanted to make a new contribution to it.” The seeds for the exhibition were sown over five years ago, but it was only after 25 broken sculptures that Kamath felt he was ready to present his terracotta art to the world. It was this delay that gave the exhibition its title. Inspired by classical religious imagery from the temples and stories of his childhood, each of the 12 sculptures is an ode to his earliest teachers, the terracotta craftsmen in Mangalore. Each year, Kamath would watch these sculptors creating idols for Durga Puja and Ganesh Chaturthi, learning their techniques long before he went on to do his BFA in sculpture at the Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (CAVA) in Mysore. “They are my first     teachers. I meet them whenever I go back to my hometown,” he says. “They are fantastic masters, creating life-sized statues without any cracks.”

Kamath belongs to the generation of contemporary artists that includes Subodh Gupta and Jagannath Panda, who came to Delhi during the early and mid-1990s from various parts of the country. In the years before the art boom, they struggled and lived together in the east Delhi neighborhood of Laxmi Nagar, each charting their own artistic journey. Kamath made his living painting T-shirts for People Tree, a shop that is a landmark in Delhi, and eventually landed a job as an illustrator with The Economic Times. Working here for six years, he mastered computer illustrations and animation, eventually being selected for a residency at Cardiff University and later the Charles Wallace scholarship. While Kamath’s career graph hasn’t changed as dramatically as Gupta’s, the depth and range of his creativity has been remarkable. “I’ve been working with Kamath for the past 10 years. He is a multi-disciplinary artist,” Renu Modi, the directory of the exhibition’s venue Gallery Espace, says. “I have seen him develop his own visual language, which is full of wit, satire and absurdity.”

Even after the subsequent boom in the Indian art market, Kamath has managed to stay true to his instincts. For instance, his use of terracotta, a medium considered to be fragile by most art collectors, is an unconventional choice. Earlier in 2010, Kamath took on an unusual project called Conscious-Subconscious, doodling and painting images on the walls of Gallery Espace that he knew that would eventually be whitewashed. “I work innocently, with spontaneity,” he says. “After a few days in this exhibition, I felt like I was the pen myself.” In 2011, he won the Raza Samman, an award for young artists, instituted in the name of veteran Indian painter Sayed Haider Raza. The same year, he was also in the longlist for the Skoda Prize for Indian Contemporary Art 2011. “His thought process is completely different from his contemporaries,” Modi adds. “He is always questioning himself but with great humor. What I love about Kamath is that whenever his work becomes repetitive, he stops.”

Kamath does seem to reinvent his art with each exhibition. His repertoire spans whimsical digital prints inspired by Nathdwara collages and Raja Ravi Varma paintings, free-flowing murals, watercolor animations, quirky claymations and fiber-glass sculptures. “I don’t want to bind myself by using only one medium. Although I studied sculpture in college, I would work in different departments,” he recalls. “Why should I put myself in a bracket? For me, art is all about breaking boundaries.” In 2014, Kamath was one of the artists selected for the mammoth “Jaya He” art project at the Mumbai International Airport. His installation “Collective Nouns” combined paintings and hand-made animations (each painstakingly created with 200 to 500 illustrations) and was inspired by myths, folklore and everyday life.

This versatility resonates in the most poignant piece in Postponed Poems, a sculpture called “Thousand of Me’s”. A figure, shaped like a bent tree, stands on a pedestal. Its body consists of the heads of animals, horses, beasts, human faces, an elephant’s trunk, a bird’s beak, and waving hands. Developed over six months, this idea for the many-headed figure was borne while Kamath was reading Rumi’s poems. “His poem starts with the line ‘In thousand of me’s, which me are you?’ From that, I started to create one image from these thousands of small images,” he says. Visually, he recalls the image of Vishwaroopa, an iconographical form of Krishna with countless limbs and faces. “Kamath's works are unique in that their references and imagery are usually rooted in his hometown in Karnataka, yet the depiction is global and contemporary,” Geetha Mehra, director of Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery, who has exhibited Kamath’s work, points out. “Once again he harks back to the basics... Besides, terracotta is so tactile and malleable. It also has a sensuous feel to it.”

Coming nearly a decade after Kamath’s first exhibition at Delhi in 2006, Postponed Poems is a creative homecoming of sorts. “My major influence – whether technical, ideological or in imagery – has been from my early years. Sometimes it gets covered but then you remove the dirt and keep on going back,” he says. This connection to his home and early years comes across in “Extension of Nostalgia”. A small figure balances a flood of memories against the wall, each symbolized by a broken piece of terracotta. “When I go back to Mangalore, I always see a terracotta sculpture of a lion or a dog in each and every house gate. There was one in my house too,” he says.  “Every time I go back, I see these gates being destroyed. For me that space is still nostalgia, and mentally I am still connected with that land.” Yet, Kamath hesitates to call the exhibition entirely autobiographical. “When I work on the art, it is mine, but now it belongs to the world. It is yours now.”

Kamath’s visual universe abounds with myth and fantasy, and is inhabited by hybrid creatures and animals. “Like his earlier work, Postponed Poems is peopled with humans, animals and mythical creatures,” artist Arpana Caur points out. “Rooted in tradition, these unlikely juxtapositions are the hallmarks of his art.” He prefers the term ‘magic realism’ to the ‘surrealism’ of Salvador Dali and Joan Miró. “If you read mythology, the beauty of magic realism always existed. Long back, they imagined and created these images of Narasimha and Kamadhenu from scratch. Surrealism gives a different meaning of being distorted. In magic realism, without any damage to the image, you create magic in it.”

Even as Postponed Poems is peppered with references to classical iconography, there is a sense of irony in the iconic. In the tongue-twisting sculpture “Urdwalingakaratalamalaka”, a hybrid figure stands on a pedestal: a snout has replaced his mouth and his torso is a jumble of colored terracotta pieces and breasts.  “When I was in art school, we visited an 18th century temple,” Kamath reminisces, “where I saw the Urdwalingashiva with erected penis in Badami. This image influenced me and I wanted to bring it to my own work.” Kamath draws upon art historical references such as the Ardha-narishwara or half-male, half-female Shiva-Parvati figure, but also critiques ideological manipulations in the writing and rewriting of history. Kamath also sniggers at the large market for ‘fake’ antiques in “Antique Maker’s Dog”, in which a two-headed dog barks ferociously inside a cage. “The surfaces of his sculptures are so unique,” Modi says. “In this show, I can say that it doesn’t only look Indian, it has an Asian sensibility and aesthetics.”

This critical approach extends to religious orthodoxy, whether it’s in the set of contorted miniature busts called “God-fearing Portraits” or the multi-limbed deity caught in a wrestling match among his many arms in “Study for an Innocent God”. “I studied in a convent school and every day I saw this large sign stating ‘Fear of god is beginning of knowledge’. This use of fear to control society always bothered me. It is the same reason why I created my own friendly and innocent god.”

Amidst the humor, there are quiet spaces of quiet contemplation. Vast colored fields of empty space often dominate Kamath’s spare paintings, influenced by miniatures and the abstract artist Prabhakar Barwe. “I see empty space as a positive space. It has a meaning in it. From my childhood, while looking at the sky I wonder that there is no end to it. But you can’t say it is an empty space.” We see only a partial view of the scene, with the leading characters scurrying around the edges of the frame rather than being in the center. The series “No Where” in Postponed Poems is comprised of diptych-like paintings with vast golden spaces inspired by Persian miniatures. “My idea is taking meaningful images and going towards non-meaning or nowhere. I am making a puzzle for a viewer, which they can join mentally. At the end of the day, I need to provoke questions so that you carry the art with you even after you leave the gallery.” Is that monkey running over a rooftop a reference to Hanuman, and that donkey climbing over a fallen man from a Mullah Nasruddin tale? We are left guessing.

Kamath doesn’t spare himself this questioning either. A series of miniature paintings encapsulates the process of making art: an artist lifts a pink elephant, a recurring visual symbol in his oeuvre, which can stand both for burden and delirium. In another painting inspired by a miniature of sages travelling the moon atop a mountain, the artist shakes the moon, and in a third, he swallows the color blue.

“There is the celebration of pure aesthetics which is so rare these days,” Mehra says. “Besides, there is a quirky sense of humor underlying all his imagery, which is all his own. There always seems to be a twist in the tale.”

Sonam is a journalist based in Delhi.