Palakkad: Malampuzha garden
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Kanayi Kunhiraman’s Yakshi
How a female nude came to stand tall in Kerala
Fifty years ago, a sculptor braved beatings and prudish ire to create Yakshi. Today, it is a favourite with selfie-takers
Yakshi sits in a straddled, triangular posture, uninhibited and unaffected, her curves and curls blending into the backdrop of the verdant Western Ghats. At an imposing 18 feet, she is easily India’s tallest nude woman sculpture, and perhaps the only one outside of a temple.
Yakshi in Malayalam means demoness. But Kanayi Kunhiraman — who crafted the statue that now stands in the Malampuzha garden in Palakkad from a single rock 52 years ago — says it is a subversion of the myths surrounding Yakshi as a blood-sucking demoness, a wanton seductress of men.
Does he think the work plays to the male gaze? Kanayi says his Yakshi is homage to the empowerment of women. Admitted, her gigantic features were meant to provoke the viewer, but “nature is nude and there is no shame in it. It is men who introduced the concept of chastity to repress women,” he says.
It did get off to a controversial start though. Once Kanayi began to work on the sculpture with the help of ten local chisellers, news spread that he was making a naked statue and there were protest rallies to the site. He was forced to stop work for three months but fortunately the protests died out. “The panchayat president had complained that the statue will insult the sentiments of the local people and the district collector told him the final piece would have clothes over it.” Kanayi recalls, with a smile, that the promise to remedy the queasiness of beholders never came through. “Thankfully, I got support from progressive organisations and from the media once the statue was completed and the issue was sorted out!”
And now Yakshi has spent many decades in the company of coy honeymooners, repulsed puritans and recently, selfie-clicking enthusiasts. Nudity, he says, is a colonial construct, part and parcel of the Victorian morality imposed by the British. “Even today, we are comfortable seeing a nude sculpture inside a temple, but as public art, we are not ready to accept this as a symbol of empowerment of women.”
In his essay for the BBC, historian William Dalrymple also wrote about how for pre-colonial Indians there was no association of women with sin. “Women were associated not with temptation but instead with fertility, abundance and prosperity, and there is an open embrace of sexuality as one route to the divine.”
Yakshi, for Kanayi, symbolises womanhood, her deeper connection with nature and her longing to break free from the stereotypes enforced by a patriarchal society. “I have seen children gazing comfortably at the statue and playing around it, but men with preconceived notions of sexuality feeling shy to even stand nearby and take a photograph,” says the grizzly 84-year-old sculptor. “There is nothing obscene in her nudity and if people feel so, it is because they are conditioned to see women in that way.”
The inspiration for Yakshi, he recounts, was as organic. The Kerala irrigation department had approached Kanayi for installing a work of art in the park adjoining Malampuzha dam way back in 1968 to generate some tourism revenue. Kanayi was an artist-in-residence at the Cholamandal artist village in Chennai then, having just returned from a three-year Commonwealth scholarship course in sculpting at the famous Slade School of Fine Arts at the University of London.
He was already experimenting with big sculptures but the idea of Yakshi came to him during a twomonth retreat in a hostel in Palakkad near the dam when all he did was roam the countryside. On one such stroll, the contours of one of the hills in the valley appeared to him to be a woman lying with her tresses flowing. “I then decided the sculpture should be that of a naked woman in tune with the wild mountain landscape. I envisioned various postures and finally came up with the posture of a woman who is ready to take in or maybe deliver a new creation into this world,’’ he says.
Interestingly, he was never paid for the work and after a few months, he was enrolled as a gardener in the Public Works Department to entitle him to free accommodation near the work site. “We used to work from eight in the morning to six in the evening, braving the sweltering Palakkad sun. One day, as I got down from the bus, a group of locals beat me up, accusing me of denigrating Indian culture. They asked me to go back or my body would come up floating in the dam. I did not file a police complaint which would have escalated the situation,’’ he recounts.
State tourism officials say Yakshi is indeed a big tourist draw at the Malampuzha park now, and a selfie point for most of the 17.8 lakh visitors who turned up in 2019-2020, earning revenue of over Rs 4 crore. “Only the older generation still feel shy to look at the statue,’’ says D Ramanunni, a 66-year-old Palakkad resident.