August 14, 2023
“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” – Aristotle
“I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” – Georgia O’Keeffe
It is impossible to ignore the meaning of the two quotes mentioned above. As someone who has always been drawn to the literary and artistic side of things, I can wholeheartedly agree with it. Art, in some cases, is a spiritual feeling. It may be used to give a physical shape or form, but the intention of doing it comes from within. An artist creates a piece of art to provide joy or happiness or to evoke certain feelings in his audience. At times, pieces of art speak volumes, without uttering a single word. The beauty that they possess in themselves can render a person speechless and are capable of bewitching people’s souls, just like a siren’s song. That is the kind of effect art has on people. But it will work only if the people have their heart and mind open to all the emotions and feelings present in the universe. Only then, will one be able to appreciate art as it is, without any judgement or prejudice.
Clay, terracotta and colours come alive in innumerable appealing forms at a modest art gallery called Chitralaya Art Gallery, in Palimar, a little village in Udupi district. It is owned by a local artist, Venkataraman Kamath, well known to the locals and others as Venki Palimar. Calling the art gallery as just that would be a mistake because it is so much more than that and adds life to everything in and around itself. It is hard to miss the passion, dedication, determination, hard work, efforts and resources that have gone into creating the art works and setting up the gallery.
Before we delve deeper into this quaint and elegant looking art gallery, let us understand what terracotta actually means.
What exactly is terracotta art?
For the unversed, the word ‘terracotta’ is taken from Latin language (‘terra’ and ‘cotta’) meaning “baked earth”. It is most commonly used to describe a type of sculpture, unglazed ceramic art, or decorative architecture, made from a coarse, porous clay, which is dried and fired in temperatures of around 1000°C giving it a distinctly orange, red, brownish grey colour. It is noted for its versatility, cheapness and durability.
The Art Gallery Entrance
Terracotta has been in existence since thousands of years. It is an ancient art form, perhaps one of the first expressions of creativity of the human mind. In fact, it makes use of five elements: air, water, earth, fire, and ether; giving it an air of mystery and auspiciousness. But, the number of people practicing terracotta art have declined considerably over the years, in most parts of the world.
Coming across Venki Palimar and his terracotta art was truly befitting of the English idiom, “finding a needle in the haystack” because that’s how rare such artists are. It was at that moment that I realised I had to know more about this talented artist and his art.
The Beginning - Art Gallery in the making
The art gallery was inaugurated in 2017, after almost three years of careful planning and preparation. It is named Chitralaya, after the artist’s mother Chitra, and it symbolises the amount of love, respect and admiration Venki Palimar has for his mother. In his early days of terracotta modelling, it was she who used to help him with getting the clay and other requirements ready and it was his father who stayed behind to help him with whatever he needed during the entire process of clay modelling. Now, his wife and daughter have wholeheartedly joined him on this journey. His family members have always been his greatest supporters and his strength.
The gallery houses more than 500 artworks and models made by the artist. He considers terracotta modelling as ‘God’s gift’ and was inspired to take it up after coming across a number of rare art works in books. He has been creating sculptures for more than 25 years now.
Initial glimpse of the artist’s art gallery compound
From the moment you enter the gate of the art gallery compound, you can see rows and rows of terracotta sculptures at every available surface, arranged systematically and beautifully. They are gorgeous to look at, as well. Their presence, amidst the verdant nature adds an ethereal touch that you just cannot ignore. There is a kind of magnetic pull that draws you to it, making you unable to look away from the magnificent pieces of art.
A peep into the art gallery
At the entrance of the gallery, one can get a sneak-peek of what might be inside. The first room of the gallery has life size terracotta models that were created a few years ago, and some unique paintings on the walls. Venki Palimar feels proud of the fact that he owns the largest collection of paintings by Ganjifa Shri Raghupathi Bhat. The speciality of ‘Ganjifa’ paintings is that, they are all traditionally hand-painted, depict scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Indian mythology and so on, use natural dyes and colours, as well as squirrel hair brushes to provide finesse. There is one painting by Ganjifa Shri Raghupathi Bhat in this gallery, which is painted using real gold. It is an exquisite piece of art that demonstrates the artistry of the painter. In addition to this, there are nature sceneries, portraits, and other drawings, sketches, and paintings that decorate the gallery walls.
The terracotta models and sculptures found here have their own symbolism and purpose. While some are made for the sole purpose of creating art, for enjoyment, or for sale, some others have a specific purpose of their own. These are found in the second room and they depict scenes from rural agricultural life, folk art and culture, Yakshagana, etc. You can also find sculptures of Buddhist monks, ascetics, musicians playing musical instruments, sculpture of an ancient tree trunk with a human face, ox carts, tribal people and tribal masks, forts/fortresses, animals, fishermen, farmers, and a few other sculptures here. These sculptures provide messages that have a profound impact on people, especially during the current times, such as environment conservation, wildlife protection, conservation and preservation of culture, especially the local culture, righting the wrongs done and so on.
The artist’s inspiration
When asked about his inspiration, he says that he finds it everywhere. In the people around him, their expressions, the different reactions that people have, the bountiful nature, etc. Mr Venki Palimar loves to capture and represent things he sees around him, in the form of terracotta art. My personal belief is that people who have hobbies or are really passionate about something they love, can relate to this. When you think of things in a certain way, life seems to be so meaningful and interesting. It feels like you are just a tiny drop of water in an infinite ocean where there are endless possibilities and outcomes, but it all depends on your choice, what it means to you and your ability to see it through, no matter what happens.
According to Venki Palimar, rural life appeals to him greatly and he has portrayed it in his terracotta art in the form of farmers, school children, and the local culture—be it Bhootaradhane, the lambanis or the masks. Most of the sculptures have a flavour of coastal Karnataka in them since all these aspects are deeply rooted in him because he grew up with and around it. He identifies these aspects as a part of him. He says that he prefers the viewers to have their own interpretations regarding any kind of art.
The process of making terracotta sculptures
The process of making terracotta sculpture is not at all easy. It is long and painstaking and requires delicate handling and consistent monitoring, at the right temperature. The process includes heating, drying, keeping moist and baking at different temperature levels. But not all the terracotta models that enter the baking kiln or blast furnace come out unscathed and in one piece. Many of them crumble or break, unable to withstand the high heat. Still, that hasn’t stopped Venki Palimar from pursuing the hobby he loves most – his terracotta art.
The artist and his students
Over the years, he has not only mastered the art of clay modelling, but has also passed on his expertise to a number of students for free. Venki Palimar is an art teacher himself and he balances his art teaching responsibility at the school as well as his terracotta modelling hobby quite well. That being said, I had the privilege of visiting the house of one of his students, Mr Laren Pinto. This boy became Venki Palimar’s student when he was just six years old. The latter saw the former’s potential and began training him since then. That little boy is now a young lad of seventeen, who just wrote his 2nd PUC exams this year. As a shy, introverted boy, his terracotta artworks speak for themselves. Venki and Laren share a close bond and the latter visits the art gallery during his free time and even creates his own art pieces there. Venki Palimar is mighty pleased with Laren’s dedication to the craft and appreciates the time and effort he puts in, while working on his terracotta art pieces.
Chitralaya Art Gallery - Its unique attribute
Chitralaya art gallery has attracted a lot of attention in the area over the years. What makes it unique is that no two models are alike. Apart from making life-like human terracotta models, Mr Venki has also made models of forts, animals, carts, etc. Some visitors find it astounding that Venki Palimar has managed to create so many pieces of art work over the years. One piece usually takes up to a few weeks to two months or almost a year to complete. If you consider more than 500 terracotta art pieces, just imagine the amount of time and effort invested in building a gallery from scratch: it seems quite unbelievable but it is definitely incredible.
Visitors to the art gallery
Chitralaya Art Gallery is a must visit spot for art enthusiasts. Venki Palimar receives local, national, as well as international visitors and patiently answers their questions. It is a good thing because an artist of his calibre and the kind of art work he produces, is definitely worthy of being applauded, praised and promoted.
Journey over the years…
As a self-taught sculptor, Venki Palimar has come a long way. It wasn’t an easy task, but a long and arduous journey of trial and error, of understanding the medium, the patrons and blending it with his vision. No man is an island and in the same way, no artist nor his art pieces are an island. Venki Palimar has had several supporters and admirers of his work and it was because of them that this gallery was able to come to fruition. Many people like Mohan Alva, Balram Bhat, Ramakrishna Kamath, Ramesh Rao and his teachers (from the time when he was doing his five-year Diploma in Painting) have given him their complete support and co-operation. He is indebted to them for their guidance, their acknowledgement, and their belief in his abilities. He has also won awards at the district, state and National level in recognition of his work in the field of terracotta art/modelling.
As of now, he has some plans to extend his art gallery and also intends to construct a baking kiln at his place to further his artwork.
My impression of the Chitralaya Art Gallery and the artist Venki Palimar
My visit to Chitralaya Art Gallery was truly a memorable experience. In many ways, it was an eye-opener regarding so many things. It made me realise that rather than trying to find happiness somewhere, someplace, sometime, it is necessary for us to look inward or around us and find it in mundane or simple looking things, which we usually tend to ignore.
It was also a chance encounter with an artist who has so much life in him and who loves to create terracotta sculptures that give life lessons and messages that would help people change their lives for the better, and to live well. It also showcased a quiet human being, a person who is very humble, down-to-earth and simple, but one who possesses incredible talent that is considered to be god’s gift.
I absolutely recommend this place to all the art lovers out there. You won’t regret visiting it. Instead, you will definitely be able to learn a thing or two about terracotta art and truly see it in all its breath-taking glory.