Sand is his canvas and also life’s greatest teacher, reveals Sudarsan Pattnaik – an artist whose rise from poverty to Padma Shri should be an inspiration to us all.
It takes a different kind of person who would want to spend days labouring over a sand sculpture that will sooner, rather than later, be washed away by the sea. Sudarsan Pattnaik, one of India’s most prominent sand sculptors is an artist who remains undisturbed by the ephemeral nature of sand art. “After all,” he shrugs philosophically, “nothing lasts forever… whether a sand castle or a song.”
It probably pays to adopt such a philosophical approach to life and work, especially if you are a sand artist. Developing fortitude too can be a useful trait because sand sculptures are always vulnerable to destruction by wind, sun, rain, birds and stray animals. And Pattnaik, who has spent over 25 years working with sand, knows precisely the meaningfulness of a ‘que sera, sera’ attitude.
In early 2014, Pattnaik shot to fame when he received the Padma Shri – a coveted Indian civilian award – for his exceptional sand art. But much before he could gain recognition in his own motherland, the artist from Odisha was quietly bagging gold medals at international sand sculpting competitions for his evocative creations with sand.
The first Indian to win the USF World Double Championship at Berlin, Pattnaik modestly attributes his success to the blessings of Lord Jagannath. Although it seems trite to ask what these many awards mean to him, the question is relevant because Pattnaik is a self-taught artist who dropped out of school at an early age and worked as a domestic help in various houses to make ends meet.
At the age of 12, the young artist would slip out at dawn to Puri beach, a short distance from his house, and leave anonymous sand sculptures on the shore. As public appreciation for his art grew, the young Pattnaik gained confidence to take on the life of an artist on a full-time basis.
A majority of Pattnaik’s sculptures draw their inspiration from topical themes like global warming, AIDS, bird flu, terrorism and saving wildlife amongst others. During festival time, the artist swings into action with larger-than-life Ganeshas and other gods and goddesses that leave the onlooker awestruck. Pattnaik’s innocence is disarming. “My endeavour has been to create awareness and bring social harmony,” he states quite simply.
In 2006, the artist created the world’s longest Santa Claus – an effort that won him entry into the Limca Book of World Records. “I hold several records for the biggest, highest, largest sculptures,” he says, adding absent-mindedly, “eight or nine records now.”
Although the history of sand art in India can be traced back to the 14th century, the art form has struggled to gain respectability in India. “Despite India’s lengthy coastline, sand art has failed to flourish,” laments Pattnaik. “Even schools and art colleges do not include this art form in their curriculum.”
At the same time, Pattnaik admits there’s been a perceptible shift in public reaction to sand art since he started twenty five years ago. The artist who has featured in Time magazine for his Michael Jackson sculpture attributes the new wave of public recognition and appreciation to extensive media coverage. “I am grateful for the media support. It has popularised the medium and encouraged other artists to believe anything is possible if you work hard,” he states.
If Pattnaik’s art inspires you to take a shot at sand sculpting yourself, it might help to know that the artist now teaches other aspiring hopefuls the basics of the art at his institute on Puri beach. Like any other art syllabus, the first step is all about conquering the medium; about understanding the technical nitty-gritty. As for the trick to building a sand castle that doesn’t collapse, Pattnaik adds encouragingly, “That eventually comes with experience.”
Apart from his institute, the artist is also in collaboration with the Odisha Tourism Department to set up a park where sand art will be on display throughout the year. The park has been his cherished dream for a while but Pattnaik in his inimitable style is taking things one day at a time.
“My life is like sand, it can change anytime,” adds Pattnaik contemplatively. Words to live by.
Text By Christabelle Athaide
Photographs Courtesy Sarat Patra