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For Carmel Berkson, India has been the home where her heart is. It is here — in the ancient caves and medieval temples — that the 86-year-old American sculptor discovered her artistic calling nearly four decades ago. Still, this year remains special for her. She was awarded the Padma Shri in January. Now, she showcases her latest work, inspired by the ancient Indian sculptural tradition. The show titled 'Retrieving the Connection' is Berkson's last before she retires from work and returns to the US.
Her works — on display at Jahangir Art Gallery, Kala Ghoda, till Sunday — reflect the cubist influence of western masters and adds novelty to her rendition of Indian figures and myths. "I adopted this style as Picasso and the cubist movement have deeply influenced me," she says. However, her statues are mostly adopted from Hindu scriptures. The depiction of Lakshmi and Vishnu as horse and mare; the bronze statues of Shiva dancing as Apsamara and Vishnu on the mythical bird Garuda are fine examples of this.
"I came to India in 1970. I saw a completely different world on the walls of Elephanta, Ellora, Mahabalipuram and medieval temples. So after practising sculpture for 22 years in the US, I quit my work in 1977, I took up a camera and travelled extensively to study Indian sculpture," says Berkson. Her photographs of ancient Indian sculpture are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. She has even authored five books on the subject including Elephanta, the Cave of Shiva; Ellora, Concept and Style and her latest Indian Sculpture, Towards the Rebirth of Aesthetics. In 2001, she returned to making sculptures.
The best reward for her efforts came with the Padma Shri. "I was in my bathroom, making my statues, when I got a call from the Home Ministry. I thought there must be some tax issue, but I was ecstatic when I heard they were awarding me,"she says. With this honour, she has won her family's support too. "My family in the US has began to support my decision to be in India — which I had taken years ago without their consent."
By her own admission, living in India has framed Berkson's personality as well as artistic career. So has having friends like writer Mulk Raj Anand. "He was a very dear friend. During his last years, he was unwell and living Khandala. I was in the corner of the room when someone asked who I was. He squinted his eyes, and said, 'she is an American'. He could not recognise me," Berkson laughs. On a serious note, she adds, "He was right. My heart lies in India but I think it is time to return to America."