She loves the sound of the chipping stone. With a demeanour as soft as clay, noted sculptor Kanaka Murthy, 72, likes the rough edges of the stone she sculpts. Her recently-released autobiography ‘Howde? Idu Naane!’ (Really? This Is Me) records, among other things, her journey in the world of stone art. She loves how stone gradually begins to reveal its form and texture. Sculpting definitely wasn’t something a woman in the small Karnataka town of T Narsipur was expected to take up in the 1960s. But Murthy has pursued it for five decades.
As a young girl, when they had guests over at their house, Kanaka’s father would arrange for them to go in a cart to see the Somanathpur temple and other shrines with Hoysala sculptures. She says, “When I looked at the deities and the sculptures, they seemed divine. I hadn’t known there were sculptors who could make the stone idols, till I first saw the works of my guru.”
It was soon after she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics in Bangalore. “My parents were looking to marry me off, but I didn’t want to sit idle at home,” she recalls. She enrolled for a painting course at Kalamandir, an art school where she found that while she was skilled at drawing, she wasn’t as satisfied with her work when she filled them with colour.
“One day, (Devalankunda) Vadiraj came and saw my line drawings. He asked if I would like to go see his work,” recalls Kanaka. At his studio, his sculptures fascinated her. On her request, he accepted her as his student. “But I couldn’t start learning immediately because I needed my parents’ consent. When my mother came to visit me a little later, I took her to his studio. Apparently, some members of her family used to make Gowri-Ganesha idols, so she was interested in sculpting. She asked my guru to teach me, but she had thought it would just be a hobby,” she adds.
Kanaka began learning with clay and then went on to work with wood, fibre glass and ceramic. But it’s stone that she loves working with best. “I like to give my sculptures an uneven texture rather than a smooth one,” she says. She practises a variety of sculptures, including Hoysala, Chola and Chalukya. “Some people say that Indian sculptors don’t come up with original work. It’s not true. There’s so much innovation (involved),” she adds. From ‘Gaanalole’, which is goddess Saraswati absorbed in the music of her veena, to Bareyuttiruva (writing) Ganesha, holding a book and sculpted for author Shashi Deshpande, Kanaka’s works reflect her love for the arts. She has also carved the portraits of music stalwarts Gangubai Hangal, Pandit Mallikarjun Mansoor, and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Recipient of the Jakanachari Award, the highest honour for a sculptor in Karnataka, Kanaka admits her life has not been a smooth sailing. People have plagiarised her work. “Some people have taken line drawings from me and got sculptures made by others,” she says.
She laments that sculpting is the least valued among the arts. “Many equate it with manual labour,” she says. She now wants to bring out a book on her line drawings that have not yet become sculptures.