A significant solo that constituted a substantial body of work by the artist, Shanthi Swaroopini, is ‘Clothing the Identity’ by the Gallery Threshold, New Delhi in 2007. The all-round sculptures she presented during this span were mostly smallish, enticing the viewer to discern the gradation of the forms in black patina from an intimate distance. Though an analogous theme ran throughout, these bodies let one sense raw tissues underneath and the surface of metal straddled the lush shine of smooth, ample skin. These sculpted forms- seating, standing, reclining and some suspended from the ceiling engaged both in steady and violent permutation, the purpose being the transgression from its carnal levels to spiritual level.
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Shanthi Swaroopini brings out from bronze the kind of gently rudimentary quality that is potent in suggesting, or rather incorporating, a great but permeable diversity of substances and shapes. Her plastic, free-standing statues hold a calm, static core, while inducing the spectator to pause in close proximity as well as to walk around them thus adding to the impact of a firm and yet fluid whole. In the images of young, ripe female bodies, the surface of the metal is able to evoked the lush shine of smooth, ample skin. Its delicacy, though, contains a degree of exposed rawness and roughness that have been acquired over the course of living, and that speak of grace and pleasure, of fertile strength, also fragility, erosion and latent pain. Both its glistening fullness and its hardened or somewhat awkward areas let one intuit a similarity, even unity, with the many forms inherent in the organic world- from creatures inhabiting soil to those hovering in the air, to water and earth itself with the vegetation they generate. The manifestations of this communion oscillate between softly evoked links and hybrid embodiment.
With acute intensity and with warm sensitivity, Shanthi attunes herself to her own body, from under and through its sheer physicality drawing both her inner feelings and her desires to feel other people and beings around her. During the process, the material merges with the emotive, the personal and the external. Whatever the degree of the compared and the metaphorically superimposed in a particular sculpture, the spectator can always recognize the artist as the recipient of things from outside her and as pouring herself out towards them. It is as much the generally experienced but utterly palpable aura of other women or people as it is of more specific shapes of animals, plants and of the intangible elements. Her vision of prevailing connectedness straddles archaic layers and contemporary knowledge. Imageries on the edge of the anthropomorphic and the organic belong to the ancient lore from the times when mysteries of natural togetherness were absorbed and expressed in an intuitive but literal manner, their vestiges still surviving in Indian iconography and worship. In all cultures throughout the ages, fauna and flora have been used in simple stories and arcane treaties as evocations, metaphor, allegories and symbols of the human spirit from its carnal levels to spiritual ones. With all its objectivity, modern science largely contributes such primeval insights, when it tells us that African gorillas make weapons or that trees can remember dangerous individuals and send messages to their ilk. Considering the love lavished on our pets, anyway, we need not think of ourselves as being so different from animal and plants. If such associations do arise from watching Shanthi’s sculptures, they come mostly through an oblique and sporadic reference. Primarily, the artist finds an individual path to this universal bonding, one that is personally incorporated and very direct in its physicality, if loaded with premonition and subdued emotionality. It addresses and partakes from the wider basis- the actual roots on which the many different interpretations of human- natural togetherness are founded. In consonance with the choice, after years of working with multi figural and conceptually oriented installation, Shanthi’s current sculptures show a fair simplicity and quieting but imply complex phenomena.
This encompassing ethos reverberates in how she approaches the figure. The realistic anchoring here must have grown from intimate self-depiction and often verges on portraiture retaining, nevertheless, an essentialist look throughout and eventually revealing tender closeness to others, one that was achieved in a long- maintained act of openness, accommodation and identification. Whilst the fine realistic ingredient can be understood terms of classic western lineage along with the contemporary echoes of Kiki Smith inspiration, occasionally the artist brings in faint allusions to the indigenous aesthetic heritage and the facial features of her statues acquire a dose of linear stylization. What strikes most, however, is the immediacy of personal, direct sensation. Shanthi mediates the borderline of tangibly descriptive but universalized, the intimately intuited, the mildly abstracted and the somewhat overemphasized or the proportionally altered. The all-round sculptures are mostly smallish; hence they have to be seen at an intimate distance. From there, they yet engender a circumstance of vastness and pervasiveness, hence the viewer has to step back as well as move around. Even though generalized to a large extent, and graceful, these bodies let one sense raw tissue underneath. They are solid volume stays grounded, whereas the simultaneous near-separateness of the slender limbs and other projecting or superimposed elements opens them out to the surroundings. Extremely plastic, they at the same time develop distinctly linear silhouettes while also interacting with their cast shadows, so containing graphic properties. The sculptor steers the metal to yield its colors. The bronze may be statuesque- black, as though capable of approximating abstracted ideas. It may have a patina that recalls human complexion as well as earth, vegetation and animal hues, weathering and ageing. Otherwise the artist gives it bright colors hesitating between the suggestive and the sign or symbol- like. The red of blood, hurt and fertility is particularly important, also the telluric blue, the happily eerie pink, and the timeless white of purity. The colors respond to what happens on the surface of the sculptures. Over the smoother areas, reflecting illumination and opening up, they seem to participate in the sunshine around and interact with the air, perhaps the wind too. On rougher, cracking ones, they approximate the textures of dry soil. The sculpted frames may resemble supple tendrils or harsh boughs, oily serpentine coils, slimy snail bodies and feelers or hard crusts or marine creatures. Even when displayed as immobile, they hold dormant movement. When in motion, they hide a static core. Thus, the figures appear to parallel and participate in the behavior of nature- ever engaged in steady or violent permutations, and ever dependent on some underlying primeval law that keeps the trajectories and their deviations, in place.
Even the most realistic works, like “Standing Figure” and “Seated Figure”, exhibit that inseparable duality of behavior and address. The former, her head lowered, is probing her body, while her somewhat extended hands seems to be reaching out to the world beyond, embracing it, as if inviting it within. The latter’s face is raised in expectation. Even when not touching the ground, these women remain not just close, but physically and psychically linked to its matrix. Another figure is gravely contemplating her frame, with equal engagement examining clumps of clay in the hollow of her palm. It is as vital for these women to know their presence in the organic matter as to receive it within. A crouching figure is moving backwards and delights: “ah! I made a mark”, since she has left behind imprints of her palms. Nudity here- natural like in creatures of the earth and sky and as unaware of the male or any other gaze- enables both the exposure- probing of the body with the ethos inside, and the opening out to the things external. It’s young maturity is roughened up, somewhat until it resembles the surface of soil, its undulations, and parching. On the other hand, the female body’s ability to become a vessel that absorbs elemental substances is something wonderful, ennobling and tender that it often lends the human frame and enchanting, delicate grace. The statues of “River” and “Worm” are gracefully girlish with their creamy, elongated limbs. Rather than standing for impersonations, or metaphors, they are impregnated by chaste watery currents, that faintly meander along their limbs, and by a somewhat eerie spread of blood fluid. If the mount of a wet slug recalls a swollen female breast, the women seated above a humanoid “Turtle” and resting her hands on it’s back appears to have exchanged bodily characteristics with the animal, as the onlooker might notice a hint at the myth about the earth being supported by the divine karma.
This flowing of energy and substance between the human and the organic can make the artist on her women almost animalistic stances and features. One of them is lying with her belly to the ground like a “lizard”, her straightened body, rigid and hard. As “predator” of a somewhat disfigured face, and enlarged hands, she crouches alert, ready to pounce. Elsewhere Shanthi drapes and otherwise normal figure in the skin of a “spotted deer”, cover the shoulders and back of another with thick images of “bees” and punctuates the spine of yet another with sharp “reptile” spikes reciprocating, the powers of vegetation embed themselves in human life, clinging to a female body like a “thorny spine” or surrounding her, nearly engulfing amid hard, arid twigs. The dizzy relish experienced during such communion is not devoid of pain- the pangs of natural growth appearing to merge with the perosn’s own ache. A woman’s head literally “spitting tree” seems to epitomize the content compulsion of it and the discomfort, the sensuality of its complexion having coarsened under the jagged eruptions and sore cracks. Eventually, she becomes as if crucified as well as elevated to the position of identity with the soil of fecundity and of death. Reposing on the ground covered with branches emerging from her stomach.
The sense of soaring that permeates those images enhances further when the artist thinks of vast spaces and the air, of birds flying. Her woman may be portrayed then as “floating” on water or among the atmosphere, although the elements are not represented, merely indicated by the pose. She may be squatting over the ground with her hands lifted wide as if “taking off” or her stretched out frame may gain the hues of a “blue-breasted” creature of feathers. Again, the metamorphosis is achieved in the form of a contemporary gandharvi with her gradual transmutations and avatars. A young, beautiful woman, rendered in the mode of essentialist realism, seems to be rising lightly from a lying position with her arms by her sides until her legs become the stumpy tail of a “bird”. In another sculpture she has the face of a dressy, serious but slightly coquettish girl on the feather- clad body of a bird, the acutely gay pink enhancing the mood of defiance. In still another, the combination is subdued and almost normal, like in representations of winged cherubs. The baby-cherub transposes into a graceful but graver form of the “phoenix”. This version of the bird- woman as the symbol of regeneration in a different shape, of rebirth from ordeal and annihilation, could be indeed considered to be the root of and the solace or the salvation discovered through Shanthi’s imagery. It could also be intuited as the epitome of all-natural transformations that bond the world’s diverse creatures and enable their sustenance over their shaping, re-shaping, dying and re-emerging in the continuous cycle of life ever spiraling towards new metamorphoses and ever reverting to the source.
Metaphors are present in these sculptures without, however, turning verbal even when the hybrid language remains clear. Rather, they come through their physical impregnation and the sensations it stimulates. This material and carnal yields an overwhelming lyricism. It bears equally on the most archaic layers of experiential and aesthetic memory and on present- day sensitivities. The expressions on the faces of Shanthi’s women are finely intense instead of specific. The sculpture may carrt echoes of ancient statuary or may assimilate some of the look of people from ordinary environs, but the emotions captured blend inner contemplation with attuning to external phenomena, marry warm, focused curiosity with contentment. Even under the residue of suffering and aggressiveness, those resolve into tender closeness and quiet acceptance, into immersion in a diversity of natural forms and permutations, into surrender and participation during the sheer process of it all.