Friday, May 09, 2014

Not Carved in Stone: Sculpture as a Metaphor for Writing

Another guest post on

Last February I spent three wonderful weeks in South India. The best part of my morning routine was a walk up a nearby mountain to visit a little ashram where I could sit and meditate in silence. On the way up, dotted here and there along the cobblestone path, sat a few of the local sculptors, selling their work and creating their next piece. Always I stopped to watch, fascinated.

These were simple men. They sat on the bare earth, their basic tools laid out before them. In one hand they held the stone they were working on, either soapstone or marble; in the other hand was the chisel. With all the patience in the world they carved away, scraping and sculpting to mould from the stone their works of art: effigies of gods, or elephants with babies in their innards, or ornate lampshades, candlesticks, incense holders, jewelery boxes, and, in one case, a snarling tiger. Each piece was perfectly formed.

They had no blueprint or model to work from. Each sculptor knew innately, with an uncanny surety and minute precision, how much to remove and at what angle, and did so as naturally and confidently as you and I would tap a keyboard. Sometimes he held the stone with his toes, and hammered (hammered!) away to get it right (see photo). A millimeter to the left or right would have ruined the finished product; but it never did. Symmetry and balance flowed from those sculptor hands, perfection in stone. It was as if the final product was already in the stone, waiting for the sculptor’s thought, the chisel’s touch. Some of these artworks may have lacked the sophistication of their expensive lookalikes in the boutiques of Chennai Airport, but each one was a miracle in stone. I was spellbound, hooked. I was probably their best customer in those three weeks; I bought several pieces to bring home as gifts.

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