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Sculptural fusion

PUSHPA CHARI

Traditional stone carver Raja Sekaran on his journey from Chennai to Windsor Castle, the U.K.



Carving a niche for himself: Raja Sekaran (right) with his work in London.

IF you look up as you walk towards St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, described by Samuel Pepys as "the most romantic castle in the world", a rather intriguing bit of sculpture might make you wonder.

For, sitting snugly in the corbels of St. George's Chapel is a tall grotesque form — a half-elephant, half-lion yaali, its curve trunk and fluid lines representing a tribute to Indian sculptural sensibilities. The childlike and whimsically humorous expression on the yaali's face is reminiscent of the playful monkey and cats in the Mahabalipuram friezes.

But what is a Hindu mythological sculpture doing in this magnificent High Gothic edifice. And how does a yaali fit into the ancient English monument, which began life as a Norma fortress built by William the Conqueror in 1080, moved on to become a medieval castle in the 14th century, flamboyantly baroque in the Restoration period and donned its magnificent High Gothic mantle in the 17th and 18th centuries. Windsor Castle has been as much a mirror and witness to England's history as participant and player in its panorama of glory and power.

History was made in Windsor Castle once again on July 28, 2006, with the unveiling of the Indian yaali on the corbels of St. George's Chapel. Its creator Raja Sekaran is a traditional stone carver and sculptor from Tamil Nadu. The St. George's Chapel Restoration Committee chose his sculpture to replace a disintegrating medieval grotesque.

Hamish Horesley of the London Art School said that the yaali was "a hugely significant" addition to the Windsor Castle architecture. "Also Raja's sculpture has something magical about it. When the crane pulled away to reveal the work, the watching crowd broke into spontaneous applause."

How did this unknown craftsperson from Tamil Nadu carve a niche for himself on the "world architectural stage"? Excerpts from an interview with Raja Sekaran:

This is a historic first. How did you feel when your yaali was unveiled?

I felt content and happy. MY work has always been more heritage-oriented than commercial. I was thrilled that it was being appreciated in a land as heritage-conscious as our own. Also I was happy that traditional Indian sculpture was installed on the "world architectural stage".

Tell us about your journey from Chennai to London.

I come from a family of traditional stone carvers and sthapathis. So from a young age I was exposed to drawing forms, chipping and cutting stone. After my B.Sc. in Sculpture from The Mahabalipuram School of Architecture and Sculpture, I began a small stone craft unit and studio in Bangalore.

In February 2004, I attended the Crafts Council of India's Stone Tech Workshop in which traditional craftspeople working with stone were trained in the use of mechanical and pneumatic tools. Based on my work there, I was chosen to undergo training at City and Guilds of London Art School.

How was your experience at the London Art School?

Both the craftsmanship and stone are different. Our tradition is based on a grammar rooted in aesthetics and creativity. In the West, realism is important and the approach is different. They make the models first and sculpt based on the model. I normally translate my concepts straight on the stone.

My time at the London Art School was different but happy. The questioning attitude of the students and teachers and their approach was an eye-opener. My training has given me self-confidence.

How did you get involved with the Windsor Restoration Project?

At the London School, I was asked to make a Michelangelo cherub in six weeks; I made in three weeks. I also sculpted a Buddha head, which was greatly appreciated.

After I returned to India, the school got the Windsor project. Principal Tony Craig, and Senior Tutor Hamish Horseley selected me to be part of the team that was to work on the project. So I went back to London and made two models - a Kamadhenu and a yaali.

How did you arrive at the concept?

I studied the Windsor gargoyles and other carvings in the Castle. I felt the yaali came closest to what would fit.

Was it fusion sculpture?

Only in a limited sense. The yaali was purely Indian in spirit and style though I added a little innocence and mischief in its face. The fusion was in fitting in a medieval setting.

Has the experience made a difference to your journey as a craftsperson?

It has opened a new world to me. Students from the London Art School have come to me in Bangalore for training in traditional stone craft. I have been exposed to fashioning contemporary stone craft products.

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