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MANI NAGAPPA - THE SCULPTOR

A faded name board on Anna Salai, adjacent to the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University's Poultry Research Station, announces the studio of Mani Nagappa, the famous sculptor whose works adorn many institutions and places in the city.  Even as one enters the studio one is greeted by the sight of a row of statues of famous leaders like Ambedkar and Nehru.  The genial septuagenarian who sparkles with humour and wit, takes time off his work to speak about his father, his entry into sculpting and about sculpting in today's context, in this exclusive interview with Chennaibest.com.

Where did you get your inspiration to become a sculptor?

Mani Nagappa with a statue of  Dr AmbedkarOf course, my father was my inspiration.  In my case from generation to generation for over seven generations we have been in this fine art of sculpting.  For me sculpture rates high above all other arts like music, dance, drama, literature and so on.  I do not know whether it a blessing in disguise to be in this profession.  But all I know is that I'm proud of it.  The works that others do will be forgotten, but mine will live on forever.  Such a unique talent in sculpting has been given to me by my forefathers. 

Could you tell us more about your father Rao Bahadur MS Nagappa?

My father Rao Bahadur MS Nagappa, had inherited this talent from his ancestors.  He was mostly encouraged by the British and was a celebrated sculptor in the 1940's.  He sculpted Maharajas, Governors and Lords of England. He was very good at bringing out the characters and likeness of the people he sculptured.  Except for Munroe's Statute, the rest of the statutes like Lord Chelmsford, Lord Irvine etc, which are found all over the city and other statutes have been made by my father. King George V himself, had decorated my father when he did his statue, which is now at the War Memorial.  Lord Govindas who had commissioned the statue presented it to the King on the occasion of his Silver Jubilee.  The photograph of the finished statute of Kind George was sent to England and my father got a personal hand-written reply from the King himself.  The letter read " I have been posing to get my likeness from a local artist with my personal sitting which has not been very successful, whereas you have brought an immense likeness with just my photograph and that too within such a short time.  So, we decorate you with the title 'Rao Bahadur'.

The king also appointed our studio and a coat of arms was given to our studio to show this, the government would consult us on anything to do with sculpture, as the king had appointed our studio.  My father made many statues in marble and bronze.  He was the only sculptor to work with marble during his time and was very good at bringing the features out. 

What made you to take up sculpting as you were more interested in automobiles?

Mani Nagappa at workI worked 14 years with my father.  It was he who taught me the basics.  My father died at the age of 52, at that time I was 18.  My other brothers were not as good at sculpting as I was.  I seemed to be blessed with the talent.  But I was more interested in engineering and I liked sports cars in particular.  In fact, I assembled a car of my own.  But since the others were not so good and I seemed to have this special gift, I was forced to take up my father's profession. 

Is there any interesting incident that you can recall when you first began sculpting?

One day an order for the statue of Dr Lakshmi Swami Mudaliar, Vice Chancellor of University of Madras was made.  This was after my father's death and we had made the studio into a company.  My brothers tried to make a statue of him, but they couldn't get it approved.  The order was almost on the verge of being cancelled.  At that time I was in the film industry, choreographing and directing with the famous actor Ranjan. 

My mother forced me to take up the task of doing the statue, saying that the company was sinking.  Then I volunteered myself saying that I would get the statue approved on the one condition that I would be paid Rs 2000/-.  I had a personal sitting of Dr. Lakshmi Swami Mudaliar.  Then a group of committee members, which included the then Mayor of Madras came and saw the statue and approved it.  That was how I started.  This encouraged me to make money.  The moment I got the money I went and bought a Jaguar and was gallivanting around town with my friends.  That was in 1944. 

What are the materials that you usually use?

I make statues mostly using bronze, ferro concrete and marble.  Marble can be used only for certain poses.  To do a statue in a standing pose in marble is very difficult, as it would not support the weight of the head and the shoulders.  I select the material according to the pose and also the budget.  Bronze is chosen again depending on the pose, while ferro concrete is chosen for a cheaper budget.  The result will be the same.

As far as sculpting is concerned, how do you see it today's context?

Mani Nagappa at workSculpture is very important for recording historical facts, but for us sculptors there is no history.  For me sculpture is above all the five arts, since it is three-dimensional.  As one can tell the age and time during which a particular sculpture is was made.  In those days, the only media to preserve memories was sculpture, right from the 'stone age' to the 'metal age'.  Stone carvings made centuries ago help us find out about the art and lifestyle in those ages. And if you were to dig and find a bronze statue, you can find out the era and style in which it was made.  So many things can be found out with sculptures. But if you to find carved poetry or language it would be very difficult decipher what it means. 

Today, most of the young artists look at art as something to earn money with - 'less effort more money'.  In sculpture, the credit goes to the man who is the source of inspiration.  When I say inspiration, it is not only in the artistic sense but also in the financial or motivational sense.  Michael Angelo would not be anywhere if it were not for the Pope, who had commissioned him to do his various works.  So patrons are very important for artists like us.   For centuries, this profession was patronised by kings who supported artists like us, in the same way, the Government of today should support artists like us, failing which we would fade into oblivion. 

In another sense today, sculpting has become cheap.  If there is any sculpting to be done, the government is calling for tenders.  In sculpting, you should first understand who is who?  This is not like building a bridge.  These are statues that decorate the city.  Today these are tourist attractions and tomorrow they will be historical reminders of today's world to the future generation and will be proof of our culture.  If you go to the Vatican City in Rome and you see the works of Michael Angelo and other old masters, whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim, you would simply admire them.  Today those works are a major tourist attraction and generate enormous amount of income for that tiny country. 

In Tamil Nadu, except for Mahabalipuram and some places like the Madurai Meenakshi Temple, there is nothing much to talk about.  Even in the new millennium, we should give importance to Indian workmanship and culture.  The originality of thinking that goes with the our culture is most important.

Take the case of the 'Valluvar' statue that has been erected.  They consulted with me and said that they wanted a statue of Valluvar, a person who deserved to be honoured.  I told them that I saw Valluvar as a 'cartoon poet'.  With just two lines, his couplets held such a lot of meaning that books could be written on just one of them.  In the same way, the greatest tribute would be to honour him with that characteristic.  When they told that they wanted a huge statue, I said that we should not try to copy foreigners who go by size but should do something different.  We have our own originality. 

Speaking about this I recall an incident, which shows the uniqueness of us Indians and the originality of thinking. My father had just erected a statue of the Maharaja of Travancore in 1936, in marble.  My father received a present shortly after that from Travancore.  It contained a small scent bottle and a magnifying lens along with a letter in Malayalam.  We gave this letter to our cook who could read Malayalam, and it was mentioned in the letter that the tip of the glass rod that was part of the scent bottle was to be seen through the magnifying glass.  And when we did that, what do you think we saw - my father's name was inscribed on it and even had a few lines of poetry on it, all in Malayalam.

That, is originality of thinking.  That is what sculptors should give prime importance to.

- Joseph Pradeep Raj R
Photographs : V Ganesan


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