Sudarsan Pattnaik’s tryst with sand began when he was an 8-year-old, on visits to a beach in Puri, a holy city in the eastern Indian state of Orissa. For hours he would swirl his fingers in the sand and make sculptures.
Born into an impoverished family in Puri in 1977, he dropped out of school by the time he was eight, when the only income his family of six received was 200 rupees ($3.33) a month.
“My father had abandoned us and the little money that came into the house was from my grandmother’s pension,” Mr. Pattnaik, now 36 years old, said in a recent interview with India Real Time.
But he didn’t need much to pursue his interest in art.
“The beach was my canvas and my fingers, the brush. Water gave shape to my sculpture and the only color needed was that of sand,” he said.
As a boy, Mr. Pattnaik started making routine visits to the beach at dawn and dusk, before and after his shift as a domestic worker in his neighborhood. His sandcastles gradually grew into bigger and more complex artworks.
He received valuable encouragement and advice from passersby.
“I remember once being told by a tourist that the nose of a figure I sculpted was abnormally large. I went back to the beach for the next few days and made that figure over and over again till I got to hear that the nose was perfect,” said Mr. Pattnaik.
Nearly three decades later, Mr. Pattnaik is still experimenting with sand. His work includes huge sculptures of temples and the Hindu goddess Durga and Lord Jagannath, some of which have entered the Limca Book of Records.
He also keeps track of important global events and translates them into sculptures.
“I have to keep abreast with the news and pick up what is important and trending,” said Mr. Pattnaik, whose most recent sculptures have been dedicated to the ailing former South African leader Nelson Mandela.
Mr. Pattnaik has taken part in nearly 50 international sand art contests and festivals, in countries such as Australia, Germany, Italy, China, Russia, Canada and the U.S.
Event organizers pay Mr. Pattnaik for displaying his work. He says his two-year sponsored deal with Nalco, an aluminum company, ended last month.
In addition to the beach at Puri, Mr. Pattnaik says the unexplored Talasari Beach between the eastern states of West Bengal and Orissa is his favorite sculpting spot.
“The sand is impeccable on that beach. It is the perfect balance between coarse and fine. The only thing a sand artist will miss there is an audience,” he said, adding that sand sculpting is a physically demanding exercise.
Mr. Pattnaik hopes to expand his institute in Puri, where he has taught sand art since 1994.
Take a look at some of Mr. Pattnaik’s most memorable sculptures:
“Help the Tsunami Victims, 2004”: Mr. Pattnaik created a sculpture in Puri appealing for help for victims of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. “It was significant because the same water that helped perfect my sculptures had turned violent and taken so many lives,” he said.
“Sleeping Beauty, 2007”: Mr. Pattnaik made this sculpture when he represented India at the first Istanbul International Sand Sculpture Festival in 2007. “After I completed the sculpture, I stood there staring at it, amazed that I had created this beauty,” he said.
“Global Warming, 2008”: Created at the 2008 USF (United Sand Festivals) World Championship in Berlin, Germany, this sculpture won Mr. Pattnaik the title of world champion. “To my mind, it was the most interactive piece of art not just because the theme was universal, but because my interpretation of it was a result of my interaction with the locals there,” he said.
Part of the sculpture was a figure of Berlin Zoo’s famous polar bear, Knut, who became a symbol of the endangered animal. The sculpture showed Knut sitting on a blazing globe with a message saying, “Save My Family.”
“Change Has Happened, 2009”: Mr. Pattnaik says he was awestruck by Barack Obama’s campaign to become U.S. president. “I became a complete fan of his conviction in bringing about change,” said Mr. Pattnaik, who dedicated a sculpture to Mr. Obama on the day he was elected. He also created sculptures of Mr. Obama ahead of the president’s visit to India in 2010 and when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
“I really hope I get to meet him one day,” Mr. Pattnaik added.
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