In Talk of Dismantling Ramkinkar Baij’s Gandhi Statue in Guwahati, an Unhappy Déjà Vu

In 1984, a Left Front minister in Bengal wanted Baij's statue of Tagore in Hungary removed because it didn't 'look like him'. Today, his statue of Gandhi in Assam is facing the same criticism.

New Delhi: By Hungary’s Lake Balaton, many would know, there is a promenade named after Rabindranath Tagore. This is because the town of Balatonfüred felt a sense of pride that Tagore, a Nobel laureate, came visiting in 1926 to have himself treated at the famed State Hospital for Cardiology there.

In 1984, the then public works department minister in the West Bengal government, Jatin Chakraborty (of the Revolutionary Socialist Party), visited that promenade in the spa town to inaugurate a bust of Tagore. The bronze bust was crafted by none other than the father of modern Indian sculpture, Ramkinkar Baij – also an old associate of Tagore at Santiniketan.

Soon after removing the veil from the bust, Chakraborty remarked that it didn’t “look like” Tagore and should therefore be replaced. On returning home, he went about working towards this, triggering a huge uproar and much resistance by the state’s art fraternity.

The protesters, led by Satyajit Ray, finally forced the then state government not to go ahead with this plan and Chakraborty had to take back his statement on Baij’s work. The culture minister who decided against replacing the bust was the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

However, much after Ray’s death, sometime in the mid-2000s, Baij’s sculpture was replaced by a new one that looked “more like” Tagore. The West Bengal chief minister, ironically, was Bhattacharjee.

The bust created by Baij was thereafter placed in room number 220 at the State Hospital for Cardiology, where Tagore was treated.

For those aware of the 1984 incident, news that the Assam government has reportedly decided to replace a bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi created by Baij simply because a group of administrators joined by a state politician think it doesn’t “look like” Gandhi, evoked unpleasant memories.

Begun in 1968 by Baij and later completed by his students, the statue was installed at the Gandhi Mandap in Guwahati’s Sarania Hills in October, 1970. Then chief minister Bishnu Ram Medhi inaugurated it on Gandhi Jayanti.

According to the Indian Express, the decision to replace the 47-year-old statue was taken in a meeting of Kamrup metropolitan district officials, attended by local MLA and former BJP state president Siddhartha Bhattacharjee. A new one which ‘looks like’ Gandhi is meant to replace it.

Without a doubt, this is Assam’s ‘Chakraborty moment’.

In keeping with the Left Bengal leader’s observation about the Tagore bust by Baij, the BJP politician was quoted in the report as saying, “Look at the statue. Look at the disproportionate hands and feet. They do not resemble those of the Mahatma in any manner. His face is distorted, as also the pair of glasses. That is why we have decided to dismantle it and place a new statue there.”

Though chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has not responded to appeals on social media to stop his government’s plan for the Gandhi statue, a tweet from the Assam government’s official handle late on August 9 evening, insisted the statue was safe:

The official tweet said, “This is absolutely false news. The Government of Assam has decided to renovate the entire area of Gandhi Mandap. The Gandhi statue will remain as it is.”

The France-based K.S. Radhakrishnan, renowned sculptor and a student of Baij at Shanti Niketan, was one of those who felt that moment of déjà vu after reading the Indian Express‘s report.

“I woke up in Paris, a city of great public sculptures, to hear this atrocious news of a few administrators trying to destroy a monumental sculpture of Gandhi done by Baij. It came as a body blow. As an independent artist, as a student of Baij, as a person who believes in Gandhian values, and as an artist who has done several public sculptures, I condemn this move. It is anti-ethical as well as anti-aesthetic,” Radhakrishnan told The Wire.

According to art historian R. Sivakumar, two sculptors, Baij and Sarbari Roy Choudhury, “loomed large over [Radhakrishnan’s] mental horizon during his student days in Shantiniketan”.

Ramkinkar Baij. Credit: Twitter

Ramkinkar Baij. Credit: Twitter

Recalling the 1984 incident, Radhakrishnan pointed out, “What happened in Bengal in 1984, now in Assam and many such incidents about other art works actually show that when it comes to art and aesthetics, the policymakers, administrators and politicians just can’t make a decision on it among themselves. If they find artistic distortion as something to be done away with, I would say that they should consult experts in the field before doing anything with works of art. Because, these kind of activities can adversely affect our public discourse on art and aesthetics. I feel it is high time that politicians leave art and artists alone to do their work.”

Like Chakraborty three and a half decades earlier, Bhattacharjee betrayed his lack of understanding about the role an artist’s interpretations play in the portrayal of a personality. In fact Baij, considered one of the foremost sculptors of modern India, is recognised worldwide precisely for the non-conformist and earthy nature of his work.

It is also exactly because of this lack of refined consciousness about arts and aesthetics that a lot of statues across Indian cities are often seen getting a coat of paint, even though the material used by the artist may be stone or bronze. Baij’s Gandhi statue in Guwahati is one such victim of bureaucratic nonchalance. The brazen lack of interest from district administrators has led the statue to suffer, every year, at least three mandatory coats of paint during Gandhi Jayanti, Republic Day and Independence Day. Never mind that the statue is made of bronze.

A blog post on August 9 by Delhi-based art critic Johny M.L., quoting Sivakumar, gives more details about the statue. Sivakumar said, “This work was created by a group of assistants based on one of the miniature models created by Baij in his studio sometime in 1948.”

Radhakrishnan, who curated a retrospective on Baij in 2012 at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, said the 1948 maquette of Baij’s Gandhi statue is still at Kalabhavan, Shanti Niketan.

Gandhi statue by Baij in Santiniketan. Credit: Vijay Mahajan/vijaymahajan.worpress.com

“Though the maquette shows Gandhi stepping on a skull, showing his presence in riot-ridden Noakhali, the statue in Guwahati doesn’t. One may say it was a work done by Baij’s students and therefore it is not his work, but you have to keep in mind that when a sculpture of a considerable size, particularly when it is made of bronze, stone, etc. the artist has to take help from others. Baij used to do it very often; students would work on a piece under his supervision. He never thought much about his works or their criticism. He was like that,” he told The Wire.

A Guwahati-based journalist who asked not to be identified said that although the Kamrup metropolitan district officials indeed passed a resolution to bring down the statue on August 7, the decision had been in the works for “about a year”.

“There was a meeting of district officials about a year ago where the issue came up and the officials agreed to replace it with a new one. About four-five months ago, a tender was released too, seeking bidders for the new bust. Some people have also applied for it,” he claimed.

In an interview to The Wire, the well-known Guwahati-based artist Noni Borpujari  corroborated this claim. “Yes, this has been going on for nearly a year. I am glad that [the news] has come out at the national level now. When I got to know about it then, I alerted the Guwahati Artist Guild, and said we must petition the government not to go ahead with this. After all, how many cities today can boast of public art done by Baij? It is a matter of pride for our city. If publicised well, it can also be a tourist attraction. However, nothing happened. Some time later, I heard that a member of the guild too had responded to the government’s tender process to replace the significant statue. I feel so disappointed that assignment of art works has been reduced to almost a contractor’s job, through tender, etc.” he said. Attempts by The Wire to confirm the tendering process for the replacement of the statue met with no response from the concerned officials.

Though Borpujari said he failed in his efforts to mobilise support for the Baij statue, his attempts to protect the historic police station in Gohpur town of Biswanath district, which was also to be dismantled, have been successful.

“It was the police station where the celebrated Assamese freedom fighter Kanaklata hoisted the Indian flag for which she was shot dead by the British. While visiting Gohpur in early January with my wife, I took her to the station and began clicking a few photos of the old building. A policeman stopped me. When I asked him whether he knew about the significance of the old building, he said no, but added that Rs 18 lakh had been sanctioned by the previous Tarun Gogoi government to dismantle the historic building. I was shocked to hear that a few bureaucrats took the decision, much like what happened in the Baij statue case, while the local people, who are so proud of it, had no idea about the government’s plan. So I petitioned the chief minister’s office, requesting the government to preserve that building which makes us Assamese feel proud. Sonowal responded quickly. He not only stopped the earlier order but also got a statue of Kanaklata holding the national flag installed there,” Borpujari told The Wire.