Kanaka Murthy, the only woman sculptor in India whose images are worshipped in temples, has won the highest award for sculpture in Karnataka. An intimate profile by her daughter, classical vocalist N Sumathi.
I started calling my amma by her name, Kanaka, when I was very young. She never minded it—in fact, she liked it.
It didn’t take me very long to realise how much she loved stone and the different textures of stone.She lived and dreamt stones then, as she does now. Once, she said, “When I lift the hammer, I wait like a woman pining for her beloved just to hear the sound of its striking.”
Kanaka sees rhythm and music in sculpture.
She got me to start learning classical music at a very young age, and was like a dictator, controlling everything at home. I hated it. She insisted I practise at least 10 hours a day. If I did not, she would not speak to me.
At times, I felt she had got me into music only to get away from the responsibility of ‘being mother’. Later, when I asked her about it, she said: “I wanted you to have a lover for life, like I do. I have sculpture, you have music.” This sentiment was echoed by my guru, Pandit Ramarao Naik, whose greatness I was to realise only much later.
At a very young age I observed my mother was not like the other mothers I saw around me. She was mad, passionate, hardworking. She believed in discipline, besides God. On my summer holidays, she would make me practise 10-12 hours while she chiselled away with Vadiraj Mama (sculpture guru D Vadiraj).
Coffee breaks were brief, with Vividh Bharathi playing Kishore Kumar and providing respite from hard labour for something like five minutes.
The division of labour was clear and strict at home. My father and I had to do housekeeping, besides our own work. Guests who stayed over had to share the chores.
Kanaka had a love-hate relationship with her mother, an artist, theatre performer and singer. What Kanaka resented was being kept back to do household work. I have heard that she was a stubborn child, always breaking rules she considered irrational. But then, elders couldn’t reprimand her because she was good at studies, always a ‘rank student.’ For some years, she dreamt of becoming a doctor. Her parents did not make that happen. She learnt music and painting but nothing fired up her passion as much as stones and sculptures did.
Her love for three dimensions is something that intrigues me to this day. In music, it is always abstract images that can come across in two, three, five, and ten dimensions (if you take a beat, or a tala, as representing a dimension). Vadiraj probably was one of the most intellectual of artists who could capture three dimensions in a line drawing, which conventionally has just two (length and breadth, but no depth).
Kanaka loves line drawings. She would imagine three dimensions in more abstract forms like classical music. I could understand this passion for three dimensions even as a child because of my guru Ramarao Naik, who insisted on associating an image with a raga. Only with such a picture in the head should one practise, he told us.
I have many times seen Kanaka touching and feeling sculptures. Once, when we went to the Badami cave temple, there was a dancing sculpture and she caressed the legs of the sculpture, enjoying the three dimensions.
Our house was like the city railway station. Relatives frequently came and stayed over for days. Kanaka would end up being in the kitchen for long hours. Though our relatives were sensitive to her passion for work, they never realised that for her, each passing minute, hour, day and week meant that much of her life lost on trivial things and not on sculpture.
Kanaka just cannot be in the kitchen for more than an hour in an entire day. For many years, I saw Kanaka crying for not getting time to work. She would always say, “If I’d been a man, I wouldn’t have to do all this.”
At 13, I asked her, “Then why did you get married and start a family if you loved your work above all else?”
She told me the answer. One: For a middle class Brahmin woman during the 1960s, marriage wasn’t easy to escape. Two: And why should being married and having a family ruin one’s work?
But to my father’s credit, he was a pillar of support, and that helped her tide over those despairing moments.
Kanaka believes in God. She sculpts many deities and treats them as her friends. Once, she was sculpting a nine-foot-high stone Ganesha. Sitting on the stone and gently hammering away, she was saying, “Gannu, so you are playing around and not coming out properly?”
Kanaka is the only woman sculptor in India working on big stone sculptures. She is also the only woman whose sculptures are installed and worshipped in temples. That should have made her more famous than she is, but this is a world of so many contradictions.
My mother comes from a conservative, land-holding Brahmin family that would never encourage its women to take up labour-oriented arts. But she fought patiently at every step.
Kanaka’s approach is traditional. Most striking in her work is the authentic reproduction of Chola, Hoysala, and Chalukya styles -- yet each idol has its own unique composition and expression.
Her female sculptures are never very feminine: they are more often robust, even when they conform to traditional form and stylisation. All her Ganeshas are childlike.
She often faces opposition from the traditional community of sculptors because she does not care too much about theory. Contemporary artists claim sculptors who work on traditional temple sculptures are artisans and not artists, but she doesn’t care.
She argues that Indian temple sculpture is like Indian music. Its styles are like the musical banis and gharanas. Ragas are like sculptures, which each person sings differently and works out differently.
Each time she delivers a sculpture, she feels relieved. “Finally, another person has become free.” But that doesn’t mean she is not attached to her sculptures. They often get a send-off ceremony at home.
Moving from a rented house in Basavangudi into her own house at Ramaswamy Palya (near Lingarajapuram), she changed her entire house into a studio. The house looks like a workshop and museum today.
Her sculptures are installed at many prestigious places, such as the Satya Sai Baba Hospitals in Bangalore and Puttaparthi. Her Kuvempu bust greets visitors at Lalbagh West Gate, as does her Wright brothers feature at the Visvesvaraya Industrial museum. Her stone sculptures stand at Tapovana, Chikka Gubbi, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, and other places I haven’t even visited. She was invited to work and exhibit in London four times.
Kanaka has directed sculpture workshops all over India. Her busts of musicians Dr Gangubai Hangal, Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi have won acclaim. She has also done busts of Mahatma Gandhi, Visvesvaraya, Vadiraj, and other people who inspired her.
I remember her saying when she was working on the Mallikarjun Mansoor image, “Every swara reflects in his face and that is what I want to capture.”
She has won the State Shilpakala Academy award, the Rajyotsava award, the Suvarna Karnataka Award and many others from private organisations. She has published two books in Kannada—one on guru Vadiraj, and the other on sculptures. She is working on her autobiography.
She learnt from Vadiraj in the gurukula system, assisting him with his work. So for the first 40 years of her learning, she could not make any sculpture which she could call hers. Once she started working independently, she has taken no break. At 70, she is working on musical pillars, a project inspired by the sculptural artistry of Hampi.
Vadiraj Mama was unwell when he was invited to direct a sculpture workshop in Ellora by South Central Zone Cultural Centre, Government of India’s Nagpurbased organisation that promotes art and craft. He was in love with that style but he wasn’t in a position to walk and see the cave temples. He told Kanaka, “I will visualise these sculptures through your eyes and in my next life see those temples in detail.”
Kanaka visualises him while working even today. She says: “I feel he stands behind me and guides me like he would when he was alive.”
I congratulate her on winning the Jakanachari Award and wish her a long life full of love, passion and beauty.