February 19, 2020
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Michael, Not Quite Angelo

An Irish stonemason sees a boom in Diana busts, made in India

Michael, Not Quite Angelo

IMPRUDENT. Immodest. Inflammable. And Irish. These are the first impressions formed of a 38-year-old pink-vested man who goes by the name of Michael Brow. Pronounced ‘Broe’. With a penchant for comparing himself and his talents with that of master sculptor Michaelangelo. Brow, at the moment, is engaged in creating his very own masterpiece. Not a second Pieta, but a pink makrana marble life-size statue of Princess Diana, in a Benares workshop—Om Marble Works—with the lion’s share of the work being done by 34-year-old Benarasi sculptor Kanhaiyalal.

A few days ago, a report in a leading national daily screamed ‘Indian Sculptor Sculpts Diana for the Queen’. How sculptor Michael Brow had been commissioned by Buckingham Palace to immortalise Diana in stone. And that Brow, impressed by the expertise of Kanhaiyalal, had in turn subcontracted the commission to him. For the latter, it means the first rung to fame. To the discerning observer, something just doesn’t seem right. The pieces fall into place at the tiny workshop in the heart of the holy city.

At the very mention of the report, Brow flies into a rage. "I never said that. This kind of fabrication is so typically Indian," he explodes, his white integrity cut to the quick. A moment of calm, and the wild glint in his eyes returns: "Some day, I’m going to be famous. Like Michaelangelo. Have you heard of him? He was.... There was one Michael then, and soon, there’ll be the other. The Diana statue is a good beginning. She’s fresh in everyone’s minds and anything to do with her is bound to sell. She’s good marketing strategy."

Kanhaiyalal interrupts by brandishing his very own list of other orders placed by Brow—Elwis Presly, Bruclee, Jeam Dean, Merlin Munro (sic)! "They’ll sell, they’ll sell," proclaims Brow, "and Diana’s statue will get global recognition." So much for public outrage at the media turning Diana into a commercial venture.

Mad Irishman, talented sculptor, or simply an exploiter of Indian traditional skill and cheap labour out to make a fast buck on Diana nostalgia? Mad Irishman, perhaps. Talented sculptor, doubtful. "My art is going to make me a figure to reckon with. I’m a stonemason and belong to the fourth generation of a family of stonemasons. Do you know what stonemasonry is?" Quote the dictionary—"a person who’s skilled in preparing stone for buildings"—and he bristles: "It’s an art form which involves sculpture." But Omkarnath Sharma, Kanhaiyalal’s father, has his reservations. "Yeh to artist hai hi nahin. Thora bahut ghisne ka kaam karte hain. (He’s no artist. Does a bit of scraping now and then). When he leaves at the end of the day, we check to see what damage he’s done and repair it. He has no knowledge of stone work."

 But Brow is obsessed with his ‘business’. He first visited India 17 years ago, and was fascinated by the quality of craftsmanship. Now he’s prepared to live here for some time. "I’ve worked in Europe, Australia and Indonesia, on cathedrals and gardens. Nowhere have I seen the kind of technique for statue-making that is used here."

THE Indian technique involves fashioning of a clay model first and then of plaster. A sculpting compass adjusted to the measurements of the model is then fitted on to the actual stone and the statue is sculpted bit by bit minimising chances of mistakes. "Most artists in the West make a scale drawing on paper and then go straight for the stone. A single mistake can render the work useless. The compass technique is unique." So Brow, separated from his wife and children, packed his bags, settled on the banks of the Ganga and struck a deal a year ago with Kanhaiyalal and his father for the production of life-size statues.

But having admitted to his venture being a purely business move rather than the outcome of a passion for the sublime, Brow has no option but to answer the next question. Since it’s just business, what brought him to India? Highly stylised, Indian art has never really been known for perfect lifelike replicas. Europe seems the natural choice. "England is a very expensive place. It’s almost impossible to live comfortably and practice art at the same time. What better place than India, where I can live cheaply, eat cheaply and practice my art cheaply?" Translation: get cheap labour and equally cheap but specialised craftsmanship. He flares up: "All I want to do is take the quality of Indian workmanship to the international market. You just wait and see how orders will flow in from all over. I want to create something like a Madame Tussaud’s. Except, waxwork is not really skilled art. Mine is."

Perhaps he should be warned that he has competition. The British Society for the Preservation of History has commissioned renowned artisans Loccisano and Bronwell to capture the likeness of Princess Diana in a one-of-a-kind porcelain collectible. Omkarnath and Kanhaiyalal, who specialise in marble busts, statues, plaques, headstones and mythological figures, seem a trifle amused. Their models of the nation’s founding fathers and leaders have travelled to the farthest corners of the country. Their towering Buddha statues are exported to Nepal, Japan and Indonesia. Sculpting a Diana is a novelty. And a temptation too, since Brow has convinced them that they will be flooded with orders after this and Diana would go for at least $20,000, if not more. And then the profits will be halved. They have been working hard at it for the past seven months, perfecting the plaster model first, sacrificing lucrative Indian orders in the bargain. More than Rs 2 lakh has already been spent on procuring the raw material.

Says Kanhaiyalal: "We are trying something new. Gandhiji ka bazaar to bandh ho gaya hai. (There are no takers for Gandhiji any more.)" It’s painstaking work for them since they only have magazine photographs to work from, where each shot is different. And it’s a well-known fact that Diana went from glowing bride to bulimic wreck to confident role model. On suggesting that the torso seemed a little disproportionate and the feet a trifle small, Kanhaiyalal takes a tape measure and rattles off the specifics: Height 5ft 11", shoulder 17", bust 34", waist 35", hips 37", thighs 15" and feet a size 9". One moment, waist 35"? "We are still refining the model," he says. And he’s sure that he will be able to do justice to Elvis Presley and the rest.

The pink makrana marble has been chosen to replicate as closely as possible the tone of Diana’s complexion. The dress is a variation of the 1994 off-shoulder Christian Sambolian cocktail outfit. The jewellery, the famous pearl choker. "I’m confident of making at least a 70 per cent profit on the statue. My business will grow because there’s a demand for these kinds of figures. And it’s not only of those who are no more (Frank Sinatra having been added on during the course of the conversation.) When people grow famous, they like to see themselves everywhere. Madonna, she’ll come here one day and we’ll work on her." Brow’s refrain: "I always knew I would be famous."

 A quick look at possible future scenarios. If the company Om & Brow does take off, given the West’s celebrity hysteria, Kanhaiyalal and Omkarnath could get really busy chewing on their trademark benarasi paans and chis-elling out a new kitsch culture for the western market. While Brow will get his name, fame and bank balance. If not, Om Marble Works will continue with its assembly line production, poorer by bank balance, but richer in experience. Brow will possibly change his mind about the quality of Indian art and decide there’s nothing like African creativity! And a much-harassed Michaelangelo will stop turning in his grave and rest in peace.

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