Sarbari Roy Choudhury | Reclining Woman | Bronze | 5 x 11 x 4.5 in | Edition 4/9 | 1982

Sculpture as body in the mirror of desire

by Sarbari Roy Choudhury

Asia Week
20th Aug – 23rd Sep

Sarbari Roy Choudhury’s strength lies not in shaking up our conception of art or sculpture but in carrying its known possibilities to a level of perfection and subtlety so rare that it assumes an aura of uniqueness. This makes him stand out not only among his contemporaries but also in the history of modern Indian sculpture.

As a sculptor Sarbari’s sole subject was the human body, and essentially a modeller, he turns clay into sensuous flesh with great sensitivity. He approached the body in two different ways. As a portraitist he saw it primarily as the human head and on a scale close to life. He saw the head as a compressed core, and as a portraitist his effort was to transform it into a malleable surface, animated by discrete emotions. Being an ingrained connoisseur of music, several of them were of musicians and whether the head stayed meditative and rock-like as in the portrait of Ali Akbar, or was worked into a musical tremor as in the case of Bade Gulam Ali Khan, or moved into a restless ocean of emotions as in the portrait of Siddheshwari Devi was determined by the character of their musical expression. In other  portraits too,  of friends and acquaintances whose heads attracted his attention, he bestowed a mood that they evoked in him. The attempt to give a stable expression to the fleeting pervaded all his portraits to some degree.

– R. Siva Kumar

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In his other sculptures he attempted the opposite. In them he focused on the human body, almost exclusively female, which he experienced as a vast field fertilised by centuries of primeval desire of both men and women, but always projected onto the female body by the male sculptor. Made vast and fecund by desire they lost the definiteness of form, their framing contours, and became, to him, an organ-less mass of flesh, so to speak. They engulfed him like sea or dunes animated by the elements, into which he was constantly pulled down. In an act of rescue and self-recovery as a sculptor, again and again, he compressed its amorphous vastness into a hard core, an object that can be contained within one’s palms, sometimes even between fingers, and caressed. In them he gave shape and brought the unruly body within his grasp, quite literally. While doing this the head was either loped off or reduced to a stump and denied its separateness and locus. Similarly, at times the body was reduced to a psychologically charged synecdoche, to an erogenous zone.

As he tamed the female body and made it manageable by miniaturising it, the turbulent waves, the fetishistic charge that overawed him were smoothened and given a harmonious wholeness by the sculptural forms he invented and the emotions were sublimated. There are elements in his working process—like the compression and transformation of the amorphous clay into sensual bodies, and the illusory monumentality he inscribes into his miniature sculptural forms—, which suggest that this was a fictional play enacted in his mind, not a reflection of real manipulations performed on the external world. And those who knew him well will immediately recognize this. In person he was affable, courteous, deferential, even a bit ceremonious, anything but seductive. However, having achieved such a feat of sublimation he was occasionally tempted to take off the lid see how the genie would blow up, and from time to time he enlarged one of his sculptures—but usually not beyond a foot and a half or two. Only two sculptures (Reclining Woman and the first version of Gate of Heaven) were enlarged beyond this size. These were cast in cement and the others remained in plaster.

I believe, he realised that amorphous flesh compressed into appealing sculptural forms with commendable structured clarity cannot be always enlarged without loosening some of its structural compactness, and changing its affective charge, and more importantly, without revealing some of the elements he wished to sublimate. However, they have been cast in bronze posthumously and are being exhibited for the first time. Their reception will depend to a great extend on what individual viewers bring with them, but they will give us a chance to compare what he tucked away with what he chose to show, and some general observations can be drawn from it. Seeing them together, for instance, will reveal to us his view of the world more clearly and also draw attention to the sleight of hand with which he modified it as a sculptor, and, thereby, give us a clearer understanding of the main burden of his sculptural oeuvre, namely, sculpture as body in the mirror of desire explored by the mind’s eye.

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