Off the Pedestal: Experiments in Indian Sculpture

Off the pedestal: Experiments in Indian sculpture  

Sculpture is essentially understood as a three-dimensional, solid, object based practice which is usually executed in a single dominant material, and the word sculptor etymologically means a carver. Bearing to the understanding of today, this definition would seem rather too restricted.

At the Museum of Modern Art San Francisco in 2016, Khayatan left a pair of glasses on the floor under some paper write ups on the wall. His experiment did not fail him and in no time did he find people maintaining distance from the object in order to ‘interpret the work of art.’ A photographer with a big camera spent some good time clicking pictures of it and then walked away. This ironic incident amongst many illustrates the ambiguous position that art finds itself in today. This turn in painting and sculpture, the acceptance of found objects as a work of art, can be understood through interventions in history and maybe then not everything may seem frivolous. (Prankster Puts Glasses on Museum Floor — Visitors Mistake Them for Art, 2016)  

Sculpture has been an integral part of Indian culture, often codifying oral traditions as well as adorning community structures. From enough evidence of the past, at Ellora, Mahabalipuram or Konark for instance, artists have since revealed the spirit of the age through marvels intrinsically chiseled and carved out of solid rock. This rich and manifold history of sculpture has been inspiring to think of the imagination of the unnamed sculptors.

Panoramic view of the Descent of the Ganges relief. 
Ellora, cave 29, Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa

It is in the 20th century, accelerated in the 70s and 80s, that sculpture was slowly being taken off the pedestal and the former methods of making sculpture like modeling, casting and carving were not as extensively used, being replaced by sticking together or stacking, which needed no manual dexterity to execute. 

This discussion on experiments in sculpture is incomplete without evoking Ramkinkar Baij. His zeal towards the use of material for maximization of expression has been an inspiration to a great number of artists. He introduced cement concrete casting as an alternative to expensive plaster which in turn gave his sculptures the ruggedness and rigor demanded of his subjects. Sujata (1935) is one of his earliest works in cement that stands amidst eucalyptus trees in Shantiniketan. Her limbs are elongated and gracefully positioned. It is said that Rabindranath Tagore allowed him to make other seminal sculptures (Santhal Family 1938 and Mill Call 1956) in the Visva Bharati campus after viewing this work.

Left: Santhal Family | Right : Call of the Mill

The autonomy of material coheres into a shared dominant notion in the works of Adi Davierwala and Piloo Pochkhanawala. In Galaxy (1966) by Adi Davierwalla, we see a distinct formal understanding that comes with his fascination with science fiction and cybernetics, fused with his favoring of junk metal and wood as his materials. His work Icarus (1970) is a junk metal assemblage that is placed on a wall, blurring the distinctions between sculpture, painting and relief. He also used new age materials for that time such as Plexiglas. Further as a wide array of disparate materials burst open, alternatives such as fiberglass, rexine and so on were employed in the works of Dhruva Mistry, Ravinder Reddy, and Sudarshan Shetty to name a few.

Gradually, there was a need and desire to establish a spatial relationship with the environment around sculpture for the viewer to not just look at the work but ‘enter’ it or move actively around it.


Druva Mistry, Bust, fibreglass

With what is understood as Installation art now, formal sculpture is compromised in order to create a subject-object relationship where the understanding of the whole is constructed and reconstructed by spectators. In his series, Engine Oil and Charcoal (1991), Vivan Sundaram employs the third dimension by spilling engine oil from the top, stitching sheets together and extending his works from the wall to the floor in a manner that they begin at the viewer’s feet. He uses crude oil in particular in reference to the gulf war. Amongst many artists, Baiju Parthan, L.N. Tallur and Shilpa Gupta delve into interactive installations with quotations from cyber aesthetics, video games and politics respectively. Ranbir Kaleka often plays with the stillness of a painting or image with the mobility of a video image in Man Threading A Needle and Powder Room installed for the Boxwallah project.

Vivan Sundaram, Approach 100,000, stitched paper on wall and floor with engine oil in zinc tray,1991; Imperial Overcast, Engine oil and Charcoal, 1991

L.N. Tallur, Genetically modified landscape, Silicone rice, hospital cot, humidifier and heater, 2010

Shilpa Gupta, Shadow Series 1, 2, 3, Interactive video projection, 2006-7

Ranbir Kaleka, Man Threading a Needle, Single channel video projected on 59 x 91 cm, (23.3 x 35.8 inch) oil painting 6 minute loop with sound, 1998-99

Ranbir Kaleka, Powder Room, Single channel video/sculpture Installation, 3 minute loop with sound, 1999-2000

We realize that there are a lot of experiments and negotiations with material that an artist engages in, especially today when our world goes beyond the physical and into the virtual by the day. Thus, installations and other methods of working are employed by artists, as a reflection of changes around us and as inventions to express, demanding of the viewers to engage with the space and comprehend cerebrally. 


Appasamy, J. (1970). An Introduction to Modern Indian Sculpture. Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Panikkar, S. (Ed.). (2000). Twentieth-century Indian Sculpture: The Last Two Decades. Marg Publications.

Prankster puts glasses on museum floor — visitors mistake them for art. (2016, May 26). The Indian Express. Retrieved March 2, 2022, from

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