After living abroad for three decades, Kiran Dixit Thapar, a British sculptor of Indian origin, has gone back to her roots —Santiniketan, where she fine tuned her ability to chisel out masterpieces in clay, cement casting and wood. Naturally, it was Rabindranath Tagore’s principles and the harmonious environment he nurtured at the institute which inspired her to create a series of sculptures in an exhibition titled “Les Femmes Fatales”, at the Visual Art Gallery.

At a time when Kala Bhavana, an institute of fine arts that is part of the Santiniketan campus, is celebrating its 100 years, Thapar is paying homage to it by taking up the cause of the equality of all genders and by crafting sculptures inspired by the flora and fauna of the area in Bengal.

Kiran Dixit Thapar

“Kala Bhavana was started by Tagore in 1919. It was a very small place; hardly 10 students. Nandalal Bose was its first principal. He died in 1966 while I was a student there. I had great teachers. It was a golden age in arts. If a woman like me can go back to pursuing my arts which I learned as a teenager then it is a tribute to Santiniketan as well as to me. I left my teaching job in London to work hard there. For a 73-year-old female sculptor working with clay and steel means a lot,” says Thapar, who speaks English with a sprinkling of Bengali.

Like Gurudev, the cause of gender equality is close to her heart. “Equality for women was the underlying philosophy of Tagore.” You see, in her work the many avatars of working women, from a tribal worker to a model. “I am interested in form and my aim is to simplify form, especially the female form.” The sculptures celebrate women who have carved their own paths despite the odds stacked heavily against them.

The Santiniketan imprint on sculptures

A female Santhal worker with a sickle in her hands looks like Jhani ki Rani. Mild steel was used in making this sculpture and then it was sprayed with varnish. “Santhal women are more powerful than even middle-class women living in cities. They can choose their partners. Marriages are solemnised with dance, music and drinks. The bride then goes to her in-laws. If she is mistreated then she can pack up and go back home. Then the panchayat will be called to know why her in-laws are not treating their daughter-in-law in a dignified manner,” informs Thapar, who has observed the Santhal community at close quarters.

A sleeping woman in the nude is based on a real-life study of a model in London. Life size goats, medium sized dogs and horses apart from 15 meticulously crafted trees of bananas, dates are on display. A primate chiselled from wood, evokes laughter as well as compassion.

The Santiniketan imprint on sculptures

At some level though, she finds that changes are slow. “While I was buying a house at Santiniketan, the owner charged an astronomical sum. When I asked the reason, he replied Dadamoni (husband) is not with me. So who will negotiate?,” she says. She finally bought a studio at Santiniketan, where she lives and works. “The moment a woman asserts herself she is labelled aggressive. Women have not been empowered even in the West. When they have good bodies they are admired,” she says. As they age though, she feels respect diminishes. The success of a university is reflected by the works of students.

“So in a way, I represent Santiniketan. I have fond memories of the place. I still like the birds, bees, the Santhals and the slow pace of life.”

Thapar, whose initial training was in clay, is practical when it comes to work. She says “If I have to make a six-foot sculpture in bronze then it would cost me something within the range of ₹5 to ₹6 lakh. But steel is cheaper. I don’t want to work in expensive media which restrains me.”

At India Habitat Centre till October 25

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