Monday, February 2, 2015

Story of an Uprooted Banyan Tree: Looking Behind the Vad Fest 2015

(The Banyan Trees, sculpture by Nagji Patel)

Vad Fest 2015 is done. The sky of Baroda has once again been cleared of controversies. But there at Fatehgunj, a nostalgic visitor who has not yet come to terms with the overdevelopment of the city has just found out something missing from the strangely transformed topography there; a gaping gap right in the middle of the circle that marks too many happening around it. Once there stood a pair of sandstone banyan trees tall and inviting the riders in and walkers in to the city which has taken its name from the Banyan trees that embroider the city through it mindboggling root-works. Vadodara means the earth bearing banyan trees. There under these monumental stone trees many a lover had rested down to see stars up there and the eyes of his beloved getting reflected in them or her dimples appearing in the scars on the moon. While the affluent lovers held hands, had coffee at the posh joints and then zipped away by motorbikes to the secrets heavens of sin and pleasure, the lonely ones from the fine arts faculty dreamt ineffable and fragranced dreams under these banyan trees till they were rudely woken up the policemen who did not differentiate love and crime and treated both with a unique sense of sarcasm that is inimitable but definitely inheritable by the ones who join the force in any part of our country.

(Nagji Patel at work)

The gap in the sky, in the space, in the circle and in the firmament where creativity joins hands with business acumen looks so telling and it is impossible not to think of a wrinkled woman with her broken teeth. Had the image that comes to mind been that of a cute child whose teeth have fallen off, a smile would have appeared on the lips of the lonely traveller who is terribly burdened by the sense of nostalgia. A fallen tooth would grow back, if it is of a child, the man thinks and if it is of an old man or woman it will never come back. He wonders whether the sandstone banyan trees would every come back to the place but there is no answer seen etched anywhere in the vicinity. The old Fatehgunj is now surrounded by large malls, cars, bikes and more fashionable girls and boys. Middle aged men and women have become very conscious of their health now. They go for morning and evening walk at the Kamati Gardens, just next to Fatehgunj. They all wear expensive sports shoes and men have started sporting grey stubbles and gold wire rimmed glasses. Given a chance they seem to be ready to sell tea for we have a former seller of tea from Gujarat for Prime Minister. Everyone looks like an aspiring prime minister here but none seems to care much about the missing sandstone banyan trees.

 (Banyan Tree, now at Space studio, Baroda)

These Banyan Trees once defined the art of Baroda. That may sound an overstatement. But grievances and celebrations are always overstated by superlatives. These Banyan Trees were made by Nagji Bhai Patel, the veteran modern sculptor who has sculpted a new contour for Baroda’s three dimensional aesthetic expressions through his marble, granite, sandstone and steel sculptures. Indian Petrochemicals Limited (IPCL) had commissioned this work in 1990. Nagji Patel took up this commission because he always wanted to do a monumental sculpture for Baroda, his adopted home town. He comes from a nearby village, which is also blessed with so many banyan trees. As an advisor to the IPCL and a resident artist in the company for many years, Nagji Patel was instrumental in collecting the early works of many contemporary artists and also for commissioning public and large scale works by them. When the work was finished in 1991, Fatehganj circle was selected as the location for public installation. For almost quarter of a century, Baroda has been seeing this sculpture day in day out and it has become a part of their life. Articles written about this sculpture along with other public sculptures done by Nagji Patel in Baroda and elsewhere proliferated the name and fame of the artist as well as his works. Have you been to Agra? If the answer is yes, then you need not ask, whether you have seen Taj Mahal. If the question is about your visit to Baroda, nobody will ask whether you have seen the Banyan Tree sculpture by Nagji Patel. You cannot miss it. It is as an absence.

 (Nagji Patel's hidden signature now revealed at the dismantled Banyan Tree sculpture)

You may ask where this sculpture has gone. This sculpture, which is almost twenty feet tall from the mound below, weighing thirty four tons is a monumental and impressive sculpture made completely out of sandstone transported from Jodhpur in Rajasthan. This sculpture with its peculiar pink colour, keep changing its sheen as per the climatic conditions. In summer it looks quite white and dusty and in monsoon they look washed pink with flesh tones. Today, the sculpture has gone from there. The nostalgic traveller asks around for the sculpture. Many of them do not know where it has gone. Some of them know, but they do not want to talk about it. But a few of them are very vehement about it and the traveller goes to see this sculpture, now lying dismantled in the Space Studio premises near Charni, which is away from the heart of the city. Space Studio is a privately funded community studio operating from a former industrial building space. Run by an industrialist family, this studio has so far been a nursery for so many budding artists who have just finished their education from the Fine Arts Faculty in Baroda. There are independent studios and an exhibition space. The cover of greenery gives it a peaceful atmosphere. The front courtyard is as spacious as a playground and artists sculpt and carve there and in the evenings this area turns itself into a tennis court. The sad story the traveller hears is that this Space/space is also going to be turned into a glittering mall. Development, the traveller thinks without any emotional turmoil.

(The Procrustes story depicted on a Greek vase)

At the far end of the ground almost touching the boundary wall of the huge estate, there lies our beloved Banyan Tree by Nagji Patel. You feel a shiver passing through your spine. Hey, it is Nagji Patel’s Banyan Tree, screams the traveller. Yes, comes the calm answer from a young sculptor who is giving the final grinding touches to his granite sculpture. Clad in granite dust, he comes forward to tell me more about it. But before he could proceed, the lonely man asks him, “Is it original?” The young sculptor smiles. Then you hear the story of a contemporary Procrustes. The story goes like this:

Fategunj is in a developmental mode. To ease the traffic out there, a flyover is proposed. But the fly over cannot really fly over this twenty feet sculpture of Nagji Patel. So the authorities decided to dislocate the sculpture from the circle. Highways are diverted to save a lonely tree on the path, that is the story we have seen and heard from the western magazines. Here we see the authorities uprooting a sculpture from its original location and dumping it somewhere. Let the flyover come first and let us think about sculpture later. Protests were held and memorandums were presented. So the mighty one suggested: Yes, we will accommodate the sculpture in the same place. But shall we cut the length of the sculpture a few feet down? If the artist is ready then definitely the Banyan Trees could come back to Fategunj once the fly over work is finished. If not.....Yes, that is the Procrustuseque thinking. If your legs are too long, he will cut them to the size of his cot. If your legs are small, he will pull and elongate. Art is an accidental and unsuspecting guest when it comes to the house of our own Procrustes, the Development.

 (Dismantled Banyan Tree, another view at Space studio campus)

Finally, the traveller gathers his information; the sculpture is going to be re-installed at the Charni circle, a far away location from the city. But isn’t it what happens to the people also when development takes place? Those who cannot ‘fit in’ are transported to the fringes and dumped there. Their needs and necessities are not addressed. They are rehabilitated by force, to the places where the words ‘habitat’ and ‘habitation’ look completely out of place. Moving of Nagji Patel’s sculpture to another fringe location is emblematic and an aesthetical marker for mindless and unkind development. This traveller does not hold anybody responsible for this shift. But he holds the city’s conscience responsible for this dislocation. On the one side it pays rich tributes to the art and culture of the city and on the other end it arrogantly uproots the rooted cultural emblems. When culture is uprooted a part of our earth turns barren and one day, may be after ages we all will walk out of the cool innards of glass and steel structures and go in search of the lost emblems. Let’s hope that they will be there at the same place where we had placed them last and let us also hope that we reach there by foot and not by any flyovers. 

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