When Biju Chandrika Gangadharan goes to the supermarket to buy his monthly round of groceries, the sheer volume of soaps in his shopping trolley outshines the buy of even the most beauty-conscious ladies. Unlike us though, the 36-year-old soap sculptor has different plans for his supplies.
"I certainly buy an unusual amount of soaps," he tells Community with a chuckle, "That's because if you make the slightest mistake or if the soap breaks a bit at any point, there's nothing you can do except starting all over again on a new bar of soap."
It only helps that Biju is proficient at soap-sculpting now. “When I started off, I found sculpting on soap to be extremely difficult. Most people who would try their hand at this rare medium would likely give up in days. However, I’m happy that I persisted,” he says.
In an exhibition that opened on the second day of Eid at the Al Dosari Park at Shahaniya — it is on until tomorrow (Monday), from 3.30pm to 7pm — Biju put out more than 70 of his soap sculptures. “I am pleasantly surprised by the great turnout. The rush of positive feedback has been overwhelming,” Biju says, “Mohamed al-Dosari Sir liked my creations and was kind enough to allow me to exhibit them.”
For Biju, a reserved artist whose passionate pursuit remains fiercely private, this is the first time he has put his work out in the public realm. Ever since he first tried his hand at soap-sculpting, carving wonderful designs, shapes and faces on fragrant bath soaps has meant to serve only as personal gratification and nothing more.
“I post my pieces on social media such as Facebook and Instagram as I find people’s feedback interesting and also encouraging. Each post fetches a minimum of 1,000 likes on Facebook. At times, somebody points out that the symmetry is off or the proportion is wrong. Such feedback only helps me in improving my work,” he says.
While he started off soap-sculpting using a small, sharp screw-driver, Biju has progressed to using moulding tools used for clay modelling to achieve more precise results. Some of his pieces are: Eagle, Ostrich, Golden Sheikh, Mickey Mouse, Chimpanzee, Tutankhamun (Egyptian pharaoh), Arabian Oryx, Turtle, Camel, Frog, Kathakali (a traditional dance form of Kerala), Arab lady, Camera, Obama, Gandhi, Dinosaur and Dorothy fish from the Elmo series. While some like the menacing-looking Cobra takes Biju five hours to create, the simpler ones he pulls off in two hours.
“The latest piece I made is of Tamil superstar Rajinikanth from his upcoming film Kabali,” he shares, “My work has been widely circulated in social media and the response has been heartening.”
Biju, who hails from the South Indian state of Kerala, is a computer graphics professional with more than 15 years of experience in 3D and web graphics. Always the one in search of an entirely different medium to convey his creative expression, Biju swung from sculpting on foam and Thermocol to working his way through sand on the beaches of Trivandrum, and finally, accidentally, chancing upon soap.
“I would see everybody working on the same kind of materials such as sand, clay, foam, or Thermocol. Every other day, I would wonder how could I do something different,” Biju recalls, “One day, I was looking for some sponge to sculpt on. But I had run out of it. I found a bar of soap instead and instinctively tried sculpting on it. That was 10 years ago.”
Soap-sculpting is easy to learn if one is inherently creative, feels Biju. “Once you get past the initial difficulties, it’s a rather rewarding art form. The tools and the material you need are simple and easy to find, and you can create a piece as and when you get time. Due to my office work, I create a piece over a few half-hour or one-hour sessions,” he explains.
Brands don’t matter to Biju. “I buy all brands and kinds of soap. Sometimes, if a piece I’m creating demands a transparent effect, then I use Pears or Chandrika transparent soaps. The very nature of soap is both a boon and a bane. Its softness enables effortless sculpting but also makes sculpting very tough to control. Since the chances of going slightly wrong are very high, I can’t afford to lose focus for even a moment. At times, I spend hours bringing out the finest details to the fore. At times, I stop myself in only half hour. A lot of it depends on my mood,” Biju says.
While he currently has upwards of 70 of his soap sculptures, he has lost around 40 over the years. “Some melted away, some broke. It was heart-breaking to lose them,” he says. Three months ago, Biju resolved the problem by getting specialised, air-tight, detachable wood and glass box cases made from a local carpenter — and now his delightful creations stay safe inside them.
“Some I gave away as gifts to friends or film personalities I met. But I never sold a single piece and I don’t plan to. If a piece melts or breaks, I can make peace with that. Selling, however, would be harder for me. Soap-sculpting is my passion and I create these only for my satisfaction.”
What then drives him to chisel away on soap? “The lessons of my late father,” he says, “I credit all my creativity and the determination to persevere to my father. I grew up watching him work very hard. He passed away when I was 15 but during my formative years, I absorbed the will to work hard from him. I am far from a born talent. But my father made me believe that one can do anything in this world if one puts his heart and mind to it. To me, soap-sculpting is an extension of the same concept.”
Ultimately, Biju aspires to have his name in the Guinness Book of World Records, as perhaps the man with the most number of soap sculpture exhibitions. “I don’t know of any other artist in Qatar or elsewhere who focuses on soap-sculpting,” Biju says, “While there is no category for soap sculptures in the Book yet, I’m sure something will work out eventually. I, for one, will keep making more of these pieces. They keep me happy.”