Sculpting an Irish connect

A chance encounter between an Irish monk and an Indian sculptor set the ball in motion for the 16-year project to set up the Indian sculpture garden in Ireland.
The park in Ireland is designed for people aged 28 to 60 years
The park in Ireland is designed for people aged 28 to 60 years

CHENNAI: A chance encounter between Victor Langheld, an Irish monk, and T Baskaran, an Indian sculptor, in the late 80s set the ball in motion for Victor’s Way, an Indian sculpture park spanning 22 acres in County Wicklow, Ireland

Parents are discouraged from taking their children to Victor’s Way, an outlandish meditative park spanning 22 acres in Roundwood, County Wicklow, Ireland. Maybe the young ones don’t conform to the contemplative purpose of the sculpture garden. Or the chances could be high for them to be shaken up by the trove of statues depicting nudity, violence, and mammoth-sized deities featured in the garden. 
The last aspect, which forms the major chunk of the project, is marked by an Indian facet that dates nearly 35 years: none of the sculptures of deities hosted by the spiritual garden originated in Ireland. 
They were shipped from India between 1988 and 2004. 

It took a battery of 20 sculptors from Mahabalipuram over 16 years to carve out — under the zeal of hammer and chisel artistry — Buddhist designs and about 12 sculptures of deities to serve the purpose of the sculpture park. The deity sculptures — most of them depicting Ganesh immersed in books or pursuing the beats of tabla, veena, or flute — stand tall and mighty at 10 or 12 feet, weighing eight to 10 tonnes. 

A chance encounter between an Irish monk and an Indian sculptor set the ball in motion for the 16-year project to set up the Indian sculpture garden in Ireland. It was painstaking and consumed time. It meant meticulous craftsmanship. It began in the late 80s. Victor Langheld was in search of the true self and that voyage brought the Berlin-born Irish philosopher to India in 1988. “I was a Buddhist monk with a begging bowl and a credit card in it,” reminisces Langheld in a 10-year-old interview. He is in his 80s now. 

Langheld’s philosophic stopover in India spanned almost 30 years. Inspired by the expertise of the craftsmen sculpting through time in Mahabalipuram, Langheld pronounced his vision for an Indian sculpture park in his hometown, ushering in a period of prolonged research and exploration that culminated at the entrance gate of the Government College of Architecture and Sculpture about five kilometres off the east coast. 

Making a park

He desired to handpick the finest sculptors afforded by the spiritual town. Recommendations poured in. The name of young T Baskaran stood out, and the Irishman was convinced that he found what he sought. Baskaran was roped in to lead the project, persuading him to quit his government job at the Fine Arts college. 

“I must have been in my early 20s. Langheld, who is approximately 30 years elder than me, entrusted me with an assignment as enormous and intense as the sculptures I was asked to carve out of stones,” says Baskaran. 

Kicking off the project, black granite stones were transported from a quarry in Kanchipuram. He recalls that a 10-foot Ganesh statue required about 12 tonnes of rough stones. Black granite stones take on a greyish tone once sculptures are carved out of them. 

Once done, the 20-odd-strong workforce of sculptors, headed by Baskaran under the mentorship of Langheld, made wooden boxes in which were the Ganesh statues, ready to be loaded onto ships, placed.  Then it was time again to look forward to carving out the next design in line. Victor and Baskaran communicated mostly via fax. “He used to frequent Mahabalipuram to research and talk through the making process,” adds Baskaran. 

Each in the array of sculptures stationed in the art park signifies the fragments of meaning that add up to the ontological experience of an individual. It is Indian philosophy. The sculptures indicate the stages of becoming in the life of an individual. 

The pathway leading to the park marks the formative stage in becoming when a child lets go of the pure experience bestowed on it upon birth to an uninterrupted continuity of meaning. Its world becomes relativised, and thereby the pure experience thins out into fragments of meaning. 

Other sculptures include “the finger” representing the phallus and then there is the “split man” who, overwhelmed by earthly dualities, tries to slice himself up using a bladed weapon. “Create or die” is marked on the nail of the finger. 

Langheld designed the park for individuals between the age group of 28 years and 60 years. It is an open space for individuals to contemplate and reflect on the true self and ponder over fundamental philosophic questions. He has always kept politics out of his park.

Langheld bought the land parcel spread across 22 acres in County Wicklow in 1995. He cashed in on family inheritance. As for Baskaran, the freakish outline of the concept allowed him to break free from monotony, motivating him to think out of the box. 

In a sea of sculptors...

He is now known by the sobriquet, “Creative Baskaran”, which stemmed from the name of the craft studio he runs in Mahabalipuram, Creative Sculptures. “The Irish project set off my career, establishing me as a promising sculptor here. It (Wicklow park) is my permanent exhibition in Europe,” proudly says the native of Thanjavur. 

In the initial few years, the remuneration was paid through the exporters; afterwards, Langheld paid visits to Mahabalipuram to directly pay Basakaran and his team of sculptures. The finesse and perfection of the 12 or more sculptures are defined by the use of hammer and chisel; it was a blessing that the Irish project was commissioned prior to the transition to machinery and other equipment, says P Rajendran, the principal and in charge of the Government College of Architecture and Sculpture. Baskaran and Rajendran were colleagues at the Fine Arts College in the 90s. 

According to Rajendran, the Irish park project stood out among other projects of the bygone time taken up in Mahabalipuram as most of the graduates of the Fine Arts college eked out a living by settling in to construct temples.

In this day and age, the use of machines has been affecting the quality of the sculptures being produced, says the head of the Fine Arts College, expressing concerns over noise pollution and environmental degradation due to the adverse use of machines to cut stones. 

“It saves time, it is true, and there is no way we should return to the timeless hammers and chisels; there is no need, to be honest. However, the stone cutters should be strictly advised to put on safety gear before picking up the equipment,” warns Rajendran. 

Amid the chorus to set up a stone quarry in Mahabalipuram, Baskaran warns of landscape alteration, stating that it would disturb the tranquillity of the town. “Mahabalipuram is perfect as it is. The stone quarry in Kanchipuram is not so far away,” the art master says. 

As dusk settles over the sea beyond the majesty of the Shore temple, Baskaran casts a white cloth over the newly carved sculptures in his studio, guarding them against the weather and time. Returning to his office, the 57-year-old sculptor comes across a diary on the table. He flips the pages to revisit a letter drafted in Ireland in the spring of 2004: “… absolute confidence in his (Baskaran) ability to produce, what will someday be recognised as, masterpieces of contemporary South Indian art.” To the many more years of finesse to come.    

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