There is nothing unusual in meeting and spending time with writers or painters or actors. But none will consider it a fashionable outing to be with sculptors. This has to do with the awful class discrimination and hierarchy that exists between the arts and among the community of artists. Pen, easel, paints and brushes are distinctly higher in the order than, say, a lowly hammer, chisel, rasp or riffler. The smell of paint is better than the dust that flies into your eyes. Unlike the other arts in India, sculpture has not been very successful in breaking away from its caste affiliations. I mean, caste as a traditional profession.
The upward mobility has not happened because, among other things, sculpture has found it difficult to escape the damning classification of a 'craft' that it finds itself in, as opposed to that of an 'art'. This may be extremely unfair, but it is real. A significant charge that most sculptors face is that they are not creative and imaginative, but only create replicas or minor variations of old masters. Their singular source of inspiration seems to be religion or the two epics - the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which too, in recent times, have been stifled by narrow, bigoted interpretations.
Anyway, stratification within the arts is not the line I want to pursue this week, but only want to share my 'unfashionable' exercise of having met four accomplished master-sculptors and chiefly discuss the one big issue that appears to be nagging them. Courtesy Chiranjiv Singh, a cognoscente and India's former ambassador to UNESCO, I met Kanaka Murthy, Venkataramana Bhat, G L Bhat and Ashok Gudigar, all in their ateliers in the outskirts of Bangalore. Something common to all these sculptors is that they were all trained under Vadiraj, the legendary sculptor of Karnataka. In the world of stiff competition, misleading claims and livelihood constraints, the one thing that has been irking these four is the artificial battle set up by their Tamil Nadu counterparts, in recent years, between schist and granite.
The schist rock for centuries has been a preferred medium for sculptors in Karnataka while granite has been used by sculptors in Tamil Nadu. Schist is easier to handle, relatively softer and allows for delicate carvings, while granite is harder and one can't manage the immense beauty achieved in schist. If Kadamba and Hoysala-style temples in Belur, Halebid and Somanathapur are fine examples of schist sculptures, the Pallava and Chola-style in Tamil Nadu are largely defined by the use of granite. It is not that granite has never been used in Karnataka, for instance the Hampi ruins are in granite, the Badami temples are in sandstone, but Schist is an older tradition and has come to predominantly represent the Karnataka-style much more than any other stone. Similarly, the granite is largely associated with the Tamil-style. To be accurate, the Tamils use a carvable variety of granite and not the real hard stone we are familiar with. Schist may not be hard when it is excavated out of the mine, but sculptors claim that it hardens over the years, decades and centuries when exposed to air and water. That's precisely why the Hoysala temples stand strong and sparkle. There are more than 2000 temples in Karnataka made of schist. The net wisdom of this comparative analysis is that whether it is granite or schist, both stand the test of more than reasonable time.
Yet, this difference in the use of medium has slowly, but invariably, come to take a political overtone, given the engineered antagonism that exists between the Kannada and Tamil linguistic communities in recent history. To the long list of items and issues on which Karnataka and Tamil Nadu would go to war on, or have already been at each others throat -- like Cauvery, Hogenakkal, Veerappan, the classical language status, construction labourers, affiliation of border towns, railway jobs etc. -- one may now perhaps add the conflict between schist and granite. This is not as apparent or simmering as a few others in the inventory though, but lurks in the periphery and one hopes it remains there.
Why should the medium of sculptors potentially threaten peace between two linguistic communities? Simple: Because it is tangled with livelihood issues. My interlocutors alleged that Tamil sculptors denigrate and misrepresent schist before potential customers, so that they narrow down their choice to granite sculptures and place an order instantly. In the first place they call schist as 'mavagallu,' meaning dough-like stone, which would easily melt. So for instance, if someone has come to place an order for a temple deity and is unable to decide between a schist work and a granite piece, he/she would be told that the figurine of the god or goddess if made in schist would melt over the years and that would be 'inauspicious.' Granite they add is 'sacred' and remains strong forever. Apparently, sculptors categorise stones, based on the sound they generate, as either male, female or transvestite stones and while granite gets into the male category, schist takes the transvestite label. This element is also misused by Tamils to support their argument for granite.
Venkataramana Bhat provided a specific instance. He had made a Venkateshwara statue for a temple in Bangalore and had obviously worked in schist and in the Hoysala style for which he is well- known in India and abroad. A Tamil sculptor who visited the temple told the donor that "he would die" if the schist statue was not replaced. "I had to spend weeks to convince that this was utter misinformation. I had to provide scientific evidence to prove there was nothing wrong with the stone and it wouldn't melt. They were later convinced." Scientific evidence does not often work when it comes to matters of faith, but in this case, Bhat says, he was sheer lucky. He also adds: "The unfortunate thing is that in recent years a prejudice has taken roots in the mind of our own people that if temples have to be built and sculptures have to be made, then, the best ones to hire are people from Tamil Nadu. They don't seem to realise that their own people are equally qualified if not better. Tamil sculptors can't provide intricacy and depth in granite that we provide in schist. As a result our prices are also on the higher side. We make no compromises with quality."
The beauty of working with schist, says Kanaka Murthy, a rare woman-sculptor of eminence in a male world, is that you can make corrections, even if you go wrong. "Also, if a finger comes off or an arm falls off, there is scope to fix it. This is not possible in granite or marble. Deformities remain. Once a giant figure that I was working on broke at the torso. We could still fix it. Since our medium offers flexibility it is pooh-poohed as 'dough' stone by Tamils," she says. Despite this grouse, Kanaka Murthy admits that Tamil workers are "hardworking, disciplined and also very effective salesmen."
The schist versus granite battle adds to the larger, mutually demonising narrative that has existed on both sides of the linguistic divide for many decades now and although gods are made in both the stones, there is little hope that the ugly narrative will be erased in the near future.