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December 2001

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A Day in the Life of an Artist

Profile of Sadanand Benegal


 By Ramani Ramakrishnan


Sadanand Benegal with one of his sculptures - THE ELEPHANTS OF MAHABALIPURAM *


One always wonders at the creative process of an artist! Myriad questions of disbelief keep cropping in the minds of lay-audiences when they witness the finished piece of, say a painting or a sculpture. The wonderment does not cease when something new is created from the least expected of materials. For instance, when the word sculpture is mentioned, one always thinks of bronze (or any metal) or stone or clay. Never the word polyurethane foam comes to our collective thoughts, particularly in the context of classical Indian sculpting. I am talking here of the artistry of Toronto's Sadanand Benegal. His sculptures are a familiar and welcome sight during some of the local (Toronto) dancers' performances, particularly those of the Chitralekha Dance Academy.






Recently, we visited him in his studio, witnessed his process and learnt a lot about making sculptures with foam, a fragile and brittle material.


It was a cold, but sunny December morning when Benegal kindly drove us to his studio space in Stouffville, Ontario. The studio is situated in the mezzanine annex of a major scale model-making firm specializing in topographical scale models. The company, Topographics Limited, where Sadanand spent most of his Canadian working life, makes scale models of major topographical, three dimensional representations. One of their prized projects was the reproduction of Tutenkamun's sarcophagus replica in foam, for a major Toronto exhibition in the late 70s. The company had started using foam material for their replicas and models and Benegal honed in his skills as part of his work. He became adept in using not only the large three dimensional cutting machine, but also simple chisels, knifes for cutting and shaping foam materials. One must remember that the material is brittle, fragile and incredibly delicate to work with. To digress, now I realize how anxious Sadanand gets when novices, including yours truly, handle his creations.


We were first led on a general tour of the facilities - the building was undergoing renovations after the recent move. One soon realizes that Benegal's tools are very spartan and the dominant tools are his imagination and his deft fingers. One is rather amazed that with such minimal resources, he is able to produce rather striking sculptures.


We requested Benegal to explain the process of producing sculptures from such user-unfriendly materials. We call these foams unfriendly for one can imagine the amount of wastage created by a beginner. Imagine the frustrations! We decided to use his last creation for Chitralekha Dance Academy for their 'Shringar' production to understand the process. Benegal was working on completing a base for the piece and hence the sculpture was still stored in the studio.


Benegal began his explanations by pointing out that his creations have usually two starting points. Either his creations are purely from his imagination, which he immediately sketches out, or they are building blocks of some Indian paintings or sculptures. For instance, his 'Shringar' used a photograph of an existing sculpture on the walls of the renowned 11th century Rajrani Temple in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, as inspiration. The finished piece was very much redolent of Rodin's famous Kiss sculpture. Sadanand immediately points out that the photograph at hand is only two-dimensional. His first task was to create an enlargement of the two-dimensional painting and use his imagination to give it depth and also sketch out the rear-side of the sculpture. Of course, the rear-side can always be modified as the artist starts to immerse himself into this creation. Then the real task begins. The colour and shade of the foam piece are selected and the foam sheet of the requisite thickness is chosen. One must always remember that foam creations are monolithic and cannot be undertaken as modules which can be joined (in some fashion) at a later time. What this means is that if one makes a major faux pas near the end of the creation, the piece has to be discarded and nothing can be salvaged. Perhaps, this is true of all artistic creations. Patchwork mending doesn't behoove of a creative endeavour. Then the chiseling, cutting (not much actually) and shaping begin.


Sadanand was full of excitement when he actually showed me how to polish and shape a piece of foam. However, it is indeed a painstaking labour intensive undertaking. One can only summarize the time spent as 'pure labour of love.' Sadanand spent approximately 300 hours on the 'Shringar' from start to finish. Most of his tools are small and require methodical attention to detail. Benegal has devised tools befitting the medium, polyurethane foam in this instance. 'The foam, which appears as granite, yet crumbles as sand,' says Sadanand. Small hand saws and a artist's palette knife serve as chisels to hew away larger volumes of material in carving, while specially shaped files, fashioned from a denser foam, are used for carving, smoothing and coaxing in the finer details, creases, swells and expressions out of compliant artistic raw materials (polyurethane foam). Of course he has honed his tools over the past 30 years or so. His actual sculpting began only about 10 years ago. His oeuvre spans from small to quite large pieces; from relief to full fledged three-dimensional sculptures.


In addition to creating stand-alone pieces, Benegal has also mastered mould making, whereby he could create many copies of his favourite creations, for fragility of his polyurethane foam sculptures have been his constant fret. In an effort to guarantee durability to his creations, he has adopted a process of making moulds, shown above, of some of his creations, such as bas-relief modules, mosaic tiles and architectural motifs. This entails making painted latex rubber or poured silicon rubber moulds bolstered by plaster or fibreglass-reinforced polyester resin "mother moulds." Final copies of the original sculpture made from pouring of a casting material of choice varying from urethane resin, polyester casting resin to the traditional casting plaster. All of the castings are paintable, though some properties differ, yet they are all commonly more durable to touch than the original foam carving and faithful in appearance to it. Benegal's "The wheel of Lord Surya's Chariot" and "The Horse of Lord Surya's Chariot," bas-relief mosaic tile composite sculpture, is the most important example of the process described. It was exhibited at the Odissi dance performance by the Chitralekha Dance Academy of the classic "Konarak Lasya Leela" in September 1996 at Toronto's MacMillan Theatre.


Sadanand Benegal has retired from Topographics Limited. However, one cannot stop him from visiting the premises and imbuing the smell of foam so that the aroma could entice him to plan his next project. He keeps a regular schedule of visiting the studio everyday (from 9.30 a.m. till about noon) and puttering about. Where does he go from here? He is working on assembling his creations for a possible showing in a major Canadian museum space. He hopes the arrangements could all fall in place such that an exhibition could be mounted sometime this year. We dearly and eagerly look forward to that assignation!




Ramani Ramakrishnan, specialist in Aero-Acoustics, is on the faculty of Architecture, Ryerson University, Toronto.  He is the   Editor/Publisher of Kala Arts Quarterly, where the above article first  appeared.