Balan Nambiar, who was recently conferred with the Raja Ravi Verma Puraskaram, Kerala state's highest art award, is adept at many art forms. He is a painter, enamellist, photographer, academic researcher, as well as a sculptor
Photo by M. Jithendra
By Shevlin Sebastian
Artist Balan Nambiar felt disappointed. During the September 7 ceremony, organized by the Kerala Lalitkala Akademi, at Kochi, to present him with the Raja Ravi Verma Puraskaram, the highest state award for art, there was hardly anybody present from the artistic fraternity. “There were twenty adults in the audience,” he says. “The rest were filled by students of the fine arts colleges. There were two people on the dais who were supposed to give felicitation speeches, but none of them had seen my original work.”
It is no surprise that Nambiar left Kerala a long time ago. “Kerala is yet to become a haven for an artist,” he says. “Not many can thrive here. There is inadequate encouragement or patronage by cultural institutions. And there is a lack of critical responses to art works. Instead, all you get is indifference. That is the worst enemy for an artist.”
Today, the Bangalore-based Nambiar is respected as a multi-faceted talent: a painter, enamellist, photographer, academic researcher, as well as a sculptor. .
His stainless steel sculpture, 'Valampiri Shankha', commissioned by Texas Instruments (TI) and displayed at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, is a striking piece of work. “It is in the form of a conch shell,” says Nambiar. “When a conch is blown, it produces a sound which is closest to the 'Om' sound.” Incidentally, TI are the pioneers of digital sound processing in India. The sculpture gained an entry in the Limca Book Of Records as the largest steel conch shell in India.
Asked why he uses stainless steel, Nambiar says, “It is a durable medium. Ordinary steel gets corroded after a period of time.” Thus far, Nambiar has done over a hundred stainless-steel sculptures.
He is also adept at painting, both in oils and acrylic. While his earlier works were inspired by nature and the ritual art forms of South India, at present his themes are the symbols of growth, energy and mathematics. “The Golden Ratio and Fibonacci Numbers (mathematical concepts) recur often in my work,” he says. He has also done several enamel paintings, having learned the method from the Italian maestro, Paolo De Poli.
What will be an enduring achievement is the way he has tried to preserve the ancient art forms like Theyyam, Buta, Patayani, Nagamandala and other forms through photographs. So far, he has a collection of 12,000 photographs. Around 1800 of them have been acquired by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. To do the research, he was awarded the prestigious Nehru Fellowship as well as a Senior Fellowship from the Ministry of Culture.
Unfortunately, all these art forms are declining in importance. “They are being diluted, and the spectacular elements are highlighted,” says Nambiar. “The worst aspect is the use of the loudspeakers during an event in the villages. Sometimes, advertisements are blared through the speakers even as the mantras are being recited. This has reduced the sanctity.”
Nambiar is understandably upset because he has an emotional bonding, especially with the Theyyam art form. “I have seen Theyyam performances as a child in my village [Kannapuram, Kerala],” he says. “They would make their ritual costumes from tender coconut leaves.”
A son of a farmer, Nambiar showed an aptitude towards art and mathematics from an early age. “My parents neither encouraged nor discouraged me,” he says. When he grew up, he went to Chennai and got a diploma in Fine Arts (Sculpture) from the Government College of Arts & Crafts. Thereafter, he ventured onto a career in the arts.
Nambiar has displayed his work in places like the Venice Biennale as well as the Constructa78 in Hannover and is part of the permanent collection of many museums in India.
“I have lived by art for the past 49 years,” says this former chairman of the Lalitkala Akademi of New Delhi. “When I look back, I realise that I am one of the fortunate people. From the very beginning I was able to sell my work. And I have got all the recognition and creative satisfaction possible in my career.”
(Sunday Standard Magazine, New Delhi and New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)