A simple yet thought-provoking sculpture brings the essence of India to Sculpture by the Sea. SHIVANGI AMBANI-GANDHI reports
A cycle loaded with dozens of fresh, green coconuts would be a ubiquitous enough sight on any Indian beach. But on the soft white sands of Perth’s Cottesloe Beach and Sydney’s Bondi Beach, it’s more than just a curiosity – it’s a work of art! What makes the sight even more curious is that each coconut, crafted from bronze, is stamped with what would be ubiquitous in Perth or Sydney, the Coca Cola sign. No wonder then that Indian sculptor Rajesh Kumar Sharma’s Indian Coca Cola (2008) has been such a popular work with audiences at both iterations of the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition in Cottesloe (March 2011) and more recently in Sydney, in November.
Sculpture by the Sea, perhaps one of Australia’s most popular recurring exhibitions, is characterised by thoughtful, yet playful works that respond to their beautiful settings on picture perfect beaches, as well as contemporary themes and debates. And Sharma’s work does all of this, in an idiosyncratically Indian way. He takes iconic, yet commonplace Indian objects and simply stamps them with one of the most recognizable signs of globalisation and capitalism. While Sculpture by the Sea audiences may toy with the work, attempting to sit on the cycle or pose with the coconuts, the message is simple and clear – Sharma’s recognition of the nariyal paani (water of tender coconut) as India’s refreshing thanda (cool) drink. He seems to invite those new to the goodness of nariyal (tender coconut) to try it out for themselves as a better alternative to fizzy drinks, while reminding fellow Indians overseas to relook at their rich roots. Sharma does, albeit in his own small way, for the humble coconut what the Indian contemporary art biggie Subodh Gupta has done for India’s steel vessels.
Sharma says he looks to art as a means of communication, and the “direct appeal and simplicity” of his works is what enables him to transcend global boundaries and communicate to a varied audience.
His artist’s statement at the Sydney exhibition reads, “Indian CocaCola tells tales of modern India and the way its history is shifting into present realities. The works enact the turbulent strain of development and lopsided progress”.
Diana Campbell, Director and Chief Curator of the Creative India Foundation, which funded Sharma’s participation in Sculpture by the Sea, says, “Sculpture by the Sea’s curatorial committee and I responded to Rajesh’s works for how he elegantly and subtly commands bronze, and articulates his Indian experience in a way that global audiences can relate to and understand”.
“Indians are an important part of Australia’s social framework, and their artistic talent should be highlighted and celebrated,” she adds.
An inspired collection
This large outdoor Indian Coca Cola piece, priced at $ 29,000 has sold to a private Australian collector. An accompanying smaller indoor work of the same name, priced at $6,000, depicting a bird sitting over a bunch of coconuts is also part of the show.
Both pieces are part of a larger series titled Indian Cola and Other Stories, which showcased in New Delhi in February earlier this year. This is Sharma’s third solo show, and at this exhibition he says he took inspiration from “some little but important things like Hindustani dhaba (Indian restaurant), 20-20 cricket, Aaja-aaja (come-come), Clean Dilli (Clean Delhi), yoga, post celebration, harmony etc.”
Each piece is a witty gem and recognisably Indian. Of course, the coconuts abound, but his world is inhabited by a whole bunch of other quirky Indian objects. In Twenty-Twenty (2009), five young boys sit proudly atop a water buffalo, clutching their bat and stumps, presumably on their way to a fun day of playing cricket. In NH-2, dozens of crows flock around lazily on charpoys laid out for the day’s rest.
Sharma, the youngest of seven children of a railway employee, has worked with a range of sculpting material from cow dung to scrap metal and wood. He has shown his works at various Lalit Kala Akademi exhibitions in India, as well as been part of the Asian Art Biennial Dhaka in 2003 and the India Art Summit art fair in Delhi in 2009.
Promoting Indian art
Sharma is also among a bunch of Indian artists handpicked by the Creative India Foundation (CIF) founded in 2010, to promote awareness of Indian art and culture and enhance its appreciation globally. Support for Sharma is part of CIF’s first initiative of focussing on enhancing the presence of Indian sculptors globally. “Although India has one of the oldest sculptural traditions, there is a lack of public sculpture here for a variety of reasons,” says Diana Campbell. “Creative India’s funder (who wishes to remain anonymous) has been passionate about sculpture for years. He was inspired by the Cass Foundation at Goodwood in the UK, and wishes to create his own sculpture park outside of Hyderabad. Given various challenges such as a lack of public institutions and government support of public art, India lacks outdoor monumental sculpture, so we have been funding talented artists to explore this medium through international residencies and production grants.”
Public art and particularly sculpture, is enjoyed by a global audience, yet the support for this art form in India still remains meagre. “For example, sculpture in Trafalgar Square (with a space for rotating new commissions) is a part of Londoners’ everyday experience. There is the audience for it, curators supporting the works’ creations, and collectors with interest in commissioning similar works for themselves,” says Campbell.
There have been some initiatives for promoting sculpture in India now, she admits. “The Outset Exhibition at the India Art Summit last year was a fantastic public art exhibition, and the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad museum has facilitated some beautiful commissions of sculpture. With more interest comes more opportunities, so I think it is a lot about education and exposure to public works and the benefit they can do for society,” concludes Campbell.