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Sculpting thoughts: Neeraj Gupta’s public art

Jammu to Palakkad, aesthetics meet social commitment in Neeraj Gupta’s public art

Sculpting thoughts: Neeraj Gupta’s public art

Neeraj Gupta with his work ‘Cityscape’.

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi

WINDING back to those childhood days in Old Delhi starting half a century ago, Neeraj Gupta fondly recounts his routine visits to the nearby Basti Harphool Singh. Each trip enabled the family to collect objects of vintage value. At Sadar Bazaar’s trash market, the boy’s father would patiently sort items of visual appeal from heaps of metal articles. The results surprised Neeraj no end. The wares of mostly brass and bronze typified the subcontinent’s aesthetics. “Most of them were excellent specimens of village art. Good and authentic. In hindsight, they represented a bygone culture. Real treasure,” he trails off. “We donated quite a few of those to museums.”

The artist’s work at IIT-Jammu.

Not that Neeraj remains merely wistful about his past. He went on to nurture a creative mind and work on his ideas. Today, the 54-year-old is notable in the country’s public art circuit, his works travelling abroad for exhibitions too. From cut rocks and moulded metals, the hands conjure up sculptures blending beauty and message. These carry contemporary sensibilities and are even futuristic.

Self-taught Neeraj’s initiatives are increasingly finding space in the open. The most recent among them is on granite, and installed at the scenic IIT-Jammu, a 10-foot work on a stone pedestal. The grey-and-black body carries eerily pretty circular rings that don’t meet. The suggestion, scholars say, is open to interpretations. Some find it symbolising an octopus that balances life by adapting to circumstances in the depths of oceans. By night, when lit up, the monument perhaps gives the viewer an illusion of life as if glowing from within.

The Jammu milestone comes within months of Neeraj and his team completing a massive stonework down the country. The monolith, ‘Mind’s Eye’, at Kerala’s IIT-Palakkad was unveiled in 2022, inviting the curious eyes of both teachers and students. Some of them came up with remarks that only proved the scope for a wide range in appreciating a piece of art. Neeraj sums it up with a smile: “Great if I inspire the future engineers. After all, this project involves architecture too.”

The two works are 3,200 km apart, but functioned as equally intense engagements for the sculptor during the pandemic. Together, they have triggered the prospects of a chain of similar works in other centres of the country. On his part, Neeraj won’t classify them as part of a series. “Each has a distinct theme. Moreover, improvisations keep altering the texture and subtleties,” notes the disciple of poet-critic Keshav Malik. “Only I’m particular that they should all look good, however dense the seed of thought.”

The remark is also a preamble to the sculptor’s broad take on public art in India. “The general literacy about big installations is poor. We as a people are not sufficiently educated about the importance of art, leave aside its practical uses. The administrators have a role in the matter,” bemoans Neeraj, who has been active in the field for over two decades, having won the 2004 award by the Sahitya Kala Parishad under the Delhi administration. “Invariably, public art should be thought-provoking. For that, the officialdom has to draft a healthy policy and implement it well.”

If Neeraj’s entry into the world of public art began two decades ago, the reason turned out to be Delhi Metro. The rail network was readying for its first phase when he, an engineer then, saw his city losing its famed vegetation. The anguish led him to making sculptures in the shape of vanishing trees. Soon, his work found extension to the capital’s Buddha Jayanti Park made from a 100-acre semi-forest in the central ridge forest areas. Chiselling stones sourced from the Aravallis in the Makrana belt of Rajasthan, Neeraj derives inspiration from nature. As scholar-curator Uma Nair notes, “Neeraj is a keen participant in our ecological systems. His public installation of Lord Buddha helped the park reclaim its environs with more than 5,000 saplings.”

Neeraj, whose works have found venues in the Beijing and Gwangju (South Korea) biennales besides Büdelsdorf (Germany), acknowledges the help from his assistants. “We are a team of half-a-dozen people. I groomed them into skilled labourers, guiding each in the nuances of cutting and chiselling,” he points out. Their latest endeavour is at the capital’s most sought-after crafts bazaar. “Currently, we are stationed at Dilli Haat. The project is slated to complete later this year.”

So, is there anything linking Neeraj’s present artistic pursuit with that of his father? “I continue to collect old stuff from the same market,” Neeraj says. “Not long ago, I salvaged certain metal craft objects from there. In cases of exigency, I use them for my projects. That makes me guilty. To wash it away, I must realise my dream of opening a museum of such objects. Yes, in Old Delhi. I hope somebody will come forward one day.”

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