Sisir Sahana Essay
Spring 2004 Fellow
It is surprising to learn that Sisir Sahana is the sole artist in India who is primarily devoted to glass technology and making glass art. Sahana, a Spring 2004 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America in Wheaton Village, draws on the great Indian tradition of figurative sculpture in his work and has been especially inspired by Hindu temples covered with many small figures executed in rough textured terracotta.
The son of a farmer, Sahana grew up in a small village in West Bengal, where he never saw a bus or a car until he was seven or eight years old. From a very early age, he was fascinated with the visual arts. His father tried to discourage him, even beating him for drawing and painting, but when Sahana’s artist uncle died, he left his crayons to the boy. The local teacher also encouraged him to develop his talent. Although his father refused to pay for art college, Sahana’s teacher told him, “You just go there,” and paid his fees.
Sahana went to the village of Santiniketan founded in 1863 by Maharishi Devendranath Tagore. In 1901 his son, Rabindranath Tagore established an experimental open-air school which is now the internationally recognized Visva-Bharati University. There, attending classes held outdoors under the trees, Sahana “slowly entered into a real understanding of what an artist should do.” In the five-year degree program, he studied many materials and processes and came away with skills and a certainty of the central importance of nature. His painting had evolved to reverse painting on glass.
After graduating, Sahana went on to study stained-glass at St. Martins College of Art and Design in London, but, somehow, he became increasingly interested in glass as a medium in itself. After experimenting with slumping and fusing, he began moving toward the multicolored glass sculptures for which he’s best known, though he continues to make paintings, as well.
Sahana now maintains a studio in Hyderabad. He visits his family home, where his three brothers now manage the family farms, two or three times a year. He completed his first residency at the CGCA in 2000. Because the field of glass art is just beginning in India, many processes which are fairly straightforward in the United States are problematic. Melting temperatures of colored glass are not compatible and sophisticated facilities for grinding, polishing and fusing are not available. Though Sahana is able to hire workers to help with some of the more mechanical tasks, he was enthusiastic about the possibility of returning for a second residency at Wheaton Village, where he could tackle ambitious, large-scale subjects.
The theme of Sahana’s present work is “Geosocial Reality: The Transformation.” It’s a complex meditation on the ways life is changing on this planet. Four vertical relief panels combine nature motifs: leaves, farm animals, birds, and flowers mingle with human figures. A book labeled “Hi-Tec” is perused by a female figure in the upper register of one panel, while others have a more bucolic character. Sahana observes that “In India, I have seen that urbanization–cutting down trees and carving up the rural lands—is very destructive. I pick up what is happening. I do not judge. There is no statement.” Nevertheless, he believes that the age-old struggle for survival and the power of nature continue to be the meaningful center of life.
In the kiln-cast panel Farmer Family, a man gazes nose-to-nose into the eyes of his cow: each being occupies a position of importance. The wife, above, is crowned like a goddess. All beings have a place on earth. In a related relief, a warrior with his horse and spear remind us that “Everybody is a warrior. The warrior is not past.” But, neither is the farmer. “The horse helps us to prosper. The cows [depicted in glass] come from my village and are part of our life. We all live together. If I die today I will go to the soil and be excavated. Everybody will go through that process. I love it.”
Sahana is not religious in the traditional sense, but he sees the Hindu gods within the living man and woman of today. His depictions of women, in particular, manifest the timeless variety of female deities and their stories. “Woman today may be the most powerful person. A woman struggles so much. They come into my work as imaginative forms. Maybe nature is a woman, feminine.” He acknowledges Hinduism as a way of life—an understanding of nature.
Sahana’s sculpture has something in common with the paintings of Chagall in their poetic use of color, free-floating dream-like forms, and rural village motifs. Often disembodied hands and heads in profile dominate his work. Sahana says his predilection for straight angular noses is partly based on the conventions of Greek sculpture. The nose, he believes, gives power to the face. Jewelry is essential to the figures he makes. Ornamentation and decoration are signs of joy in life itself.
Sahana sometimes joins several tall narrow panels into a single column, a monumental free-standing work. More often the panels are intended for residential settings where the subject matter of family, interdependence, and nature is particularly suitable. These pieces have been installed in homes in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, as well as India. He believes glass has great potentiality in India in spite of the fact that some still fear its fragility. Sahana has accepted a great responsibility. He stands at the beginning of glass sculpture in India, where the tradition of figurative sculpture in stone, metal, and clay has evolved for hundreds of years. Fortunately, the energy, commitment, and vision of this young artist seem equal to the challenge.