Carmel Berkson: A sincere devout of ancient Indian architecture

By Alok Deshwal

Carmel Berkson, the renowned scholar and artist has recently donated her 38 sculptures to the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA)as a permanent collection. Born in 1924 at New York, she studied history at Duke and Columbia University but soon became focused on the creation of statues in clay, wood, plaster and welded metal sheet. It was in 1970 that she came face to face, in their indigenous context, with the entirely different aesthetic of the cave and temple sculptures of India. Having become fascinated by the country’s sculptural traditions, the Padmashree Carmel Berkson maintained aesthetics and form life of Indian art as the prime focus of her study during the past forty years.

Berkson’s first encounter with Indian art was on a trip to this country while she was still studying and practicing the art of sculpture in various mediums, back home in USA. Her fascination for the ancient Indian Temple and Cave art led to her staying in India for almost 40 years and travelling extensively to the most ancient of the historical sites and capturing their aesthetic finesse in her camera. A sincere devout of the ancient Indian Temple and Cave architecture, her careful study, documentation and exhaustive research is well incorporated in the numerous books authored by Berkson on Elephanta, Ellora and other places in Aurangabad district. Berkson has also exhibited her sculptures in well known art institutions, art galleries and Museums in India and Israel. Her photographs of Indian Temples form part of the collections of prestigious institutions in India and abroad.

Carmel traveled extensively to innumerable sites all over India, photographing and documenting them for her research. Primarily her focus was on understanding the unique aesthetic which was entirely distinct from the stylistic transformations with which she was familiar. She read texts concerning the systems of proportions and iconographical representations of the religious and mythological subjects of India, while continuing her travels, investigations and researches in the Indian civilization.

In 2001 Carmel Berkson returned to her first love – the making of sculptures in clay for casting into bronze. Her new works are inspired by her long involvement with the history of Indian sculptures. These new creations rely heavily on traditional Indian sculpture, even while her own stylistic past is in evidence. The original unique underlying structure and the life of the interacting shapes and forms, the configurations and iconographical identifications have been retained in contemporary form.

Carmel Berkson writes: “Although styles of east and west do differ substantially, nevertheless, underlying structures and many factors influencing the life of form are often ubiquitous. At the level of the collective unconscious, artists from different cultures, working in separate historical periods, often share those fundamental characteristics that can be identified as authentic works of art. At the deepest levels of the unconscious, the sources of artistic response may often be comparable”.

She is deeply influenced by India and its tangible heritage as is reflected in her own words, “Once I was exposed to the Indian monuments there could be no turning back. In regard to my own work, the shock of discovery and the subsequent photographic studies at many sites in India deepened my understanding of what is possible when a society is organized for the purpose of maintaining the traditional heritage. These outpourings in stone can only have been accomplished in an organized society where wealthy royal and trader patrons commissioned and supported dedicated architects, scholars, priests and sculptors and where the efforts of thousands of workers were coordinated towards the common goal. The resulting monumental works of beauty and grandeur remain as the profound expressions of the prevailing meaningful and syncretic religious experiences.

Before I came to India forty years ago, as a sculptor in the United States, I had already intuited some of the internal processes operating within the sculptural fields and the grid within which forces were propelled out from a centre. But I had not anticipated the amount of tense, compressed, energetic interactivity of the multiple diverse harmonious and dissonant forms, nor the enormity of the scale and complexity of interacting form life on so many medieval temple walls, and at Ajanta, Elephanta, Ellora and, Mahabalipuram.

I wondered how then can individual contemporary sculptors, separated from one another and functioning within a market economy, benefit from the retrieval of connections in order to make sculpture relevant for today. For me the answer was that, no matter how individuated we are, and no matter how limited we are by working alone, what can be shared with the ancient sculptor has to do with aesthetics and with the India spirit- all that involves the integration of form life.

And so, after all those years of photographing at the Indian sites, when I started sculpting again, I kept in mind the qualities I have listed above as they function in the fields of force. In the process of making art the conscious level actually takes a subordinate role; rather, the ever-attractive eye instinctively operates to order diverse elements into a mobile entity.

While the basic shapes of my sculpture are relevant to my work in the past, the configuration and mythological references are modeled upon those of the ancient Indian sculptors, or they are my own interpretations of these configurations. After I had realized that in Cave 15, at Ellora, the double figures were indeed great contributions to the history of world art, the relationship to one another of two mobile figures became very important to me. Consequently most of my sculptures are devoted to the aesthetic problems posed by these interrelationships.”

Carmel Berkson has organised four major exhibitions of her works at American Institute of Indian Studies at USIS, New Delhi (2011), Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai (2010), Art Heritage, New Delhi (2005) and Exhibition of Indian Temple Photographs in three museums in Israel (1996). She has several publications to her credit such as, Elephanta, the Cave of Shiva, with Wendy Doniger O’flaherty and George Michell, (1983), The Caves at Aurangabad, Early Buddhist Tantric Art, (1987), Ellora, Concept and Style (1982), The Divine and Demoniac, Mahisa’s Heroic Struggle with Durga, (1995, 1997, 2011), The Life of Form in Indian Sculpture, (2000) and Indian Sculpture, Towards the Rebirth of Aesthetics, (2009).

For her contribution to the art and art literature, she was awarded Padmashree in 2010 by Govt. of India.

The handing over of the works, personally, by Carmel Berkson to NGMA and their formal acceptance on behalf of NGMA and Govt of India by Kumari Selja, Minister of Culture took place at a function in NGMA, Mumbai on Oct. 7, 2011.

The works will be open for public display in Mumbai till November 6, 2011 and will also be exhibited subsequently in the NGMA Delhi and NGMA Bengaluru. (A PIB Feature on Indian culture)

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