Sculpting Stones and Lives

Some people assume that artisanship is a trait that an individual possesses by birth. However, the world has been witness to stories where interest and hard work overtook natural talent to create wonders. It is a challenge indeed, to learn a complex skill from scratch and master it such that it leaves viewers gaping with awe; but here is one such institution that has been fostering one of the most intricate skills in students from rural backgrounds since 20 years.

The CE Kamath Institute for Artisans, located at a serene location on the outskirts of Karkala at Miyar is a school like no other in the area. For one, it doesn’t even look like a school with bells and books and corridors – it in fact looks like a natural escapade where you’d resort to for a vacation. This school is a part of the CSR activities of the Canara Bank, and has been functioning by shaping the lives of nearly 700 students so far in a beautifully unconventional way. Yes, it is a school that takes in students from rural and financially modest backgrounds; but no, not to teach them the regular stuff they taught you and me in school.

This school is a place where students learn to create wondrous artefacts from wood, stone, clay and metal. It is a sculpture school with currently 77 students being trained to be ace sculptors by three faculties. Students from around Karnataka (and a few from out of state as well) are admitted here and provided accommodation, food, uniform and training free of cost for the span of one and half years. There are two courses that can be currently availed here, one being wood and stone artisanship and the other being metal artisanship. The school management plans to extend the courses to pottery, terra cotta art and painting in the coming years.

The students (males only) admitted here must have a basic qualification of up to class 7 at least, just so that they are capable of basic measurements and note taking. An interest in the arts taught here is mandatory, for the administration is cautious against having students who might tend to misuse the free facilities. The school also provides free raw materials and tools for crafting alongside computer training and spoken English classes for these students. With an increase in computer dependency in the field of fine arts, computer training is an added advantage availed by the students here. The facilities are not just limited to the span of the course; Canara Bank also funds start-ups and follows the students up to avail them a reasonable job in the same field once they finish their course. Almost all students who have trained themselves here during the past 20 years are now working in the same field of fine arts, representing the sustainability of the area and the reliable scope to earn a livelihood.

The course begins with drawing, where sophisticated patterns are practiced so that the students wire their brains for higher levels of creativity and precision. The drawing phase lasts up to four months after which they are allowed direct access to sculpting under the guidance of skilled masters. The best part is that they literally have to start from scratch with a design drawn from imagination and raw material painstakingly carved out from bulk storage. The design can be anything, ranging from religious Indian artefacts to Western literary references, or even modern day lifestyle representations. They incorporate the design into the material with primitive tools and then the process is subjective based on the type of material being used. Wood is apparently the easiest to work with, though it does take up to a month to finish one moderate sculpture. Stone is the most difficult as it takes more precision, strength and patience to carve out a structure. Some designs are truly a test for the student’s stability of mind and hands for they almost seem impossible to chisel out, but well, the students here shall not fail to surprise us. Based on the design, a sculpture on stone can take months to be prepared.

Metal, however, is a different technique altogether as it does not involve direct sculpting of the structure. Two kinds of metal artefacts are produced by the students here – through the methods known as casting and embossing. While casting produces idols and solid sculptures, embossing brings out three dimensional impressions on metal boards. Both these processes involve first making the sculpture in wax. For casting idols, beeswax is used to mould a model which is covered with five layers of clay and left to dry, before the wax is melted out and liquid metal is poured in its place. This process requires extraordinary skill, as some idols are required to be made in one piece and a small mistake will mean complete failure. These structures are exceptionally heavy, though small in size. Bronze is the prominent metal being used at this school, which produces few of the most expensive metal artefacts that are one of a kind and precious. Embossing, on the other hand, is a relatively easy technique that uses a wax mixture to create impressions that are later beat into shapes.

One could spend an entire day watching wood, stone and metal come to life here at the CE Kamath Institute. But it doesn’t stop at that. The campus incorporates in students more than technical skills of artisanship – it also teaches them life skills. A tour around the campus shall unfold the beautiful garden and surroundings maintained by the students themselves. There is no security guard, no warden or a housekeeper within the campus where nearly 80 students stay – all the day to day tasks are happily managed by the students themselves, and managed commendably well.

All said and done, the biggest attraction of this institution is the massive collection that has been produced by the students for 20 years. The museum within the administrative block houses over 1,400 sculptures made of different materials, which is for free display. Anyone willing to have a look at this extravagant collection can drop by at the campus between 10AM to 4PM on working days. Few of the sculptures are for sale, but selling is not the primary objective here. “Most of the artefacts are preserved for reference for students. Not only do these sculptures represent the hard work and excellence of this institution, they are in fact a pride. There are a few items that can cost up to Rs.30,000 or even more, but we neither endorse them nor compel people to buy them. We only make sales over voluntary enquiries from the public,” says G P Prabhu, the Director of the institution. Out of the 60-70 final artefacts added to the collection every year, hardly handfuls are sold.

The CE Kamath Institute for Artisans is a feast to the heart and soul, as artefacts metamorphose from plain blocks accompanied by the chiselling music. It isn’t a fancy place where sophisticated people perform incomprehensible tasks. It is a simple place where students from modest backgrounds work wonders in the most disciplined manner possible. The student intake has been intentionally kept low so far, but the institution is planning to expand itself so that it can facilitate more students. After all, the students who complete their courses here tend to be a part of the larger sculpting community and stay in touch through professional means. The institution being one of its kind in the state, it is undoubtedly amongst the ones that deserve respectful applause.

(This article was made for and published in Spectrum, Deccan Herald.)

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