The works of K. Shyamkumar (born 1955) form a rare blend of shamanistic mysticism, fantasy and science fiction. Shyam crafts his works in different channels such as stone, terracotta, bronze and mixed media for his sculptures, and produces intricate pen-and ink-drawings and acrylic on canvas paintings. They reveal his fantastic inner world. Over the years Shyam has become a recluse and he works on a single piece of art or a form meditatively for months together in his top floor studio in Wallajah Road residence.
The Steps for Mukhti is one the of the 12 pen and ink drawings series Shyam has completed recently and it features Penrose steps leading to an infinite black spot and a hole in the wall of a fort. Standing against the night sky the wall is a set of minutely drawn pen strokes. Shyam must have spent hours, days, and nights just repeatedly and rhythmically filling the paper with strokes to create the magical spot of infinity. Shyam is able to create different layers of textures with a few objects and motifs. The Shiva Linga, floating sperms, and female breasts are some of Shyam’s repeated motifs that we see in his paintings and sculptures. In The Steps for Mukhti, the Shiva Linga, floating sperm-like objects, and the holes in the wall create visual depths and asymmetrical illusions in such a way that the the viewer’s eyes are drawn towards the infinite spot in the drawing.
Eleven other pen-and-ink drawings in the series are named as colonies and landscapes but they exist in the outer space. Human faces and the other bodily parts are recognizable, though the eeriness of the outer space overwhelm you in these drawings. With Shyam’s ability to create science-fiction–like outer space creatures, landscapes, and figurines in pen drawings, one would also notice the laborious craftsmanship and the flights of imagination involved in their creation.
Shyam’s very first terracotta sculpture during his days as a student in the college of arts and crafts (late 1970s), Egmore, was a figurine with an elongated face that resembled a latter-day Steven Spielberg E.T. Shyam chuckles with amusement when he recalls how his first science fiction terracotta was received by his professors and fellow students. One professor even called his sculpture vulgar and disproportionate but the perception changed with the popularity of Spielberg’s film E.T. (1982). Shyam’s interest in science fiction is purely through imagination triggered by music of the Pink Floyd variety and never through reading. Shyam’s five-foot black terracotta figurine of a half-woman, half–animal-and-bird creature which he named as the colony leader emerged simply from his imaginary landscapes.
Shyam’s folkish fascination with the sages, wanderers, mystics, mendicants and monks made him create terracotta and stone and metal masks and faces with long beards. He called one of his large five-stone sculpture of a bearded face Wisdom. Most of of the mixed media and terracotta masks are frozen in meditative stances and in an other-worldiness typical of Shyam’s art. Some of his terracotta masks are bound in an expression of open- mouthed horror and exclamation signifying encounter with unknown.
That Shyam’s science fiction fantasies are home grown and are drawn from his immersion in Siddhar tradition is evidenced by the religious symbolism that inevitably populates his works. Shyam claims that sitting in darkness for a long period of time without even making an effort to think about anything is the driving force behind, what he calls, his tribal shamanism. His art is finding the expressions of Siddhars when they are about to discover the secrets of the cosmos. Ganesha and Kamadhenu are two traditional figures Shyam has sculpted in bronze and terracotta. Shyam would muse that both Ganesha and Kamadhenu are like his science fiction figurines. Unlike the traditional terracotta Kamadhenus, Shyam’s Kamadhenu is enormously full breasted, bound in a pleasure of endless giving.
Shyam’s belief is that the élan vital of the cosmos lies in its darkness, its void, infinity and the unknown. Shyam sees his sculptural amphibian figurines between this world and outer space. Shyam was obsessed with amphibian life of frogs at some point in his life and made numerous terracotta frogs. He even thought that he would not make any figures except that of frogs in his life. Shyam’s study of frogs (that live both in water and in land) aided him in creating figurines that belong to this world and outer space. Shyam holds a unique position among contemporary modern sculptors and painters working in Tamil Nadu today. His recent set of pen-and-ink drawings excel in draughtsmanship and are consistent with his artistic vision.