IN ORDER to keep a tradition alive and to prove its enduring value, there needs to be a master of it in every generation. Devalankunda Vadiraj performed this service for Indian sculpture. His life was dedicated to studying the deeper meanings of this art form; his own communication of these in sculpture; and teaching a new generation. He showed that a tradition fully understood is not a strait- jacket for the artist but a liberation, a means for individual expression and an inspiration at the highest level of human endeavour.
Born into a family of temple priests who were hereditary guardians and teachers of oral and written religious learning, Vadiraj spent his early childhood around the temple in Devalankunda (hence his name); and later, when his father died and the family moved, he roamed the temples of Nanjangud.
His family sent him to the school of art started by the Maharaja of Mysore, where he studied under two gurus of temple carving, Ganapatappa and Venkatappa, working in stone, wood and ivory. He continued his studies by travelling to compare the different schools of stone sculpture - Chola, Pallava, Chalukya, and Hoysala, always seeking within them a style and an identity true to himself. He preferred working in hard granite - finding wood sculpture more suitable for the literal.
A government post at the Bangalore Centre of the Akhil Bharat Karakushal Mandali gave Vadiraj further instruction from the master Hariharan. On leaving, he produced remarkable sculptures while working independently, which won him many honours from the Indian government, including a special prize for his Hoysala stone sculpture Venugopala during the Silver Jubilee celebration of Indian independence in 1973.
Although 90 per cent of Vadiraj's sculpture was commissioned by individuals or galleries rather than by temples, his work was known to the spiritual masters and recommended by them: his large Buddha in a temple garden in Kyoto, Japan, is a striking proof of his international recognition.
Vadiraj's sculpture became known in Britain when he led the team of distinguished Indian artists in the Living Arts of India festival organised by the Arts Council in 1982, exhibiting at the Serpentine Gallery, in London, and in Cardiff, Glasgow, Bradford and Sheffield. Invited to return in 1985 to the Art in Action festival and workshop at Waterperry, in Oxfordshire, he took a delighted interest, and returned to it five more times up until last year. This in turn inspired him to found a school in India, the Shilpakala Pratishtana, with organised camps and workshops for young sculptors to learn traditional art. Vadiraj believed that students should learn to draw well before the age of 12, while the wrists are still supple enough to learn flowing line.
Vadiraj's working method was first (after the appropriate deity had been chosen) to recite the contemplative verses from the Vedas, Puranas and Shastras describing that deity; then to wait in stillness until an image appeared in his mind. This he drew rapidly, for fear that the mobile mind would interfere with it. Then a piece of stone, preferably granite, was chosen which had a 'ring' to it - the sound of Vadiraj's remarkably light touch of chisel and hammer on hard stone sang out like music. Vadiraj's assimilation of the shilpa shastras, the sixth-century manuals of art which deal with such matters as the appropriate proportions for representing the various orders of being, enabled him to combine the traditional discipline and his personal vision in a living synthesis.
With his wide knowledge of recent sculpture in Europe as well as in Asia, Vadiraj had a profound understanding of art and conversations with him were always absorbing. His work was individual and the message that it leaves to world art is that tradition can lead to freedom, to the benefits of a common language, and to the greatest emotional power.
His was a whole life lived in the company of the gods.