Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Gandhiji by Baij in Assam is Shaken: Is it a Moral Issue or an Ethical One?

Gandhi Sculpture by Ram Kinkar Baij

The question is only this: who would win in their refusal to die first, Gandhiji or Ram Kinkar Baij? Historian Ramachandra Guha says that Mahatma Gandhi is one personality that India has ever produced who could be interpreted in whichever way one wants without causing much of an uproar (words mine). Art Historian R.Sivakumar says that Ram Kinkar Baij would live on so long as there are artists in India. Sivakumar had termed the modernist art practices originated and flourished in Santiniketan and elsewhere in India as ‘contextual modernism’ and today we could say that Baij was the first modern Indian sculptor who fit the bill of a contextual modernist. What if both Gandhiji and Baij come together in a controversy? Both these makers of modern India are now in a controversy originating from Assam. The Kamrup Metropolitan District Council in Guwahati has taken a unanimous decision to remove a concrete sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi, allegedly done by Ram Kinkar Baij from the heart of the city citing the ‘disproportionate’ limbs and body of the Father of Nation. The artist community in general has condemned this move and nothing would be a befitting response than this on the 75th Anniversary of the Quit India Movement.

Gandhi sculptures are all over the world and he is perhaps the only one Indian (if you say Tagore included) who needs no introduction in any part of the world. The sculptures of Mahatma Gandhi (in that case those of any national leader worthy of that name) erected even in the remotest corner of India would definitely evoke respect and smile at once as we witness the creative enthusiasm of the unskilled sculptors going haywire while capturing the character in them. But we don’t mind as godly figures which are used for Saguna and Saakaar worship (an idol with a form and character) need not necessarily be the very similitude of the intended god or personality. It is our respect and admiration for the figure that makes it worship worthy. However there have been disputes over Mahatma Gandhi’s sculptures due to the lack of ‘realism’ in those commemorative sculptures. While gods are expected to have volatile forms, Gandhiji being one of the most photographed personalities in the world, people have an idea about him from all the possible angles. Hence, if the sculpture lacks realism people would get offended. Guha becomes right when we know that our country does not go into flames for the lack of realism in Gandhiji’s sculptures. That’s how Gandhiji is owned and disowned at the same time by the public.

Mahatma Gandhi
As per the newspaper report (Indian Express, 9th August 2017, Delhi Edition) it is not clear whether it is a political decision or an attempt to do away with the legacy of Gandhiji from the public mind. What has been pointed out by the committee is the lack of ‘realism’ though not in the same words. They talk of the clumsiness and disproportionate limbs of the sculpture. I remember such a controversy erupting in Kerala sometime in late 1980s regarding the ‘non-realistic’ (for some it was unrealistic) rendering of Gandhiji by a sculptor. The sculptor responded to the allegations by saying that it was ‘the’ Gandhiji in his mind not ‘the’ Gandhiji in the public mind. It is clear that there has always been an uncomfortable relationship with the artistic perception and the viewers’ perception. Often they do not go hand in hand. However, the reputation of the artists actually helps in some sort of reconciliation, if not time would take care of it. Even Rodin, one of the giants of modern sculpture had faced this when he did most of his public sculptures, for example the sculptures of Victor Hugo and Balzac. Even his much celebrated work, the Burghers of Calais was terribly criticised for their lack of verve and unrealistic stance.

Artist, Sculptor Ram Kinkar Baij
Perhaps, this is something new for the Ram Kinkar Baij admirers. Nobody had disputed his sculptural output. In fact even the contemporary artists are not able to move away from his shadow. The reason for Baij’s popularity (which is still rising) is his simplicity and truthfulness towards his art. If you go by the words of late KG Subramanyan, Baij was one artist who was finding pleasure in nature and its translation into works of art. Baij was always in pursuit of creative pleasure because he was not using it as a means to an end. He did not have any goal other than making art. He did not even care what would happen to his works. One of the documentaries on Baij, he speaks of postponing his exhibition in Calcutta towards winter or next summer for he has used all his canvases as roofing in his hut. He could take them out only after the Monsoon for the grass for thatching the hut is too costly for him to afford. Works of art that came from such a man cannot be artificial or lacking in life. Just look at any work of art of Ram Kinkar Baij. Unfortunately, the District Council members in Kamrup do not know that the work in question was created by Ram Kinkar Baij.

R.Sivakumar, art historian who has extensively studied the works of Ram Kinkar Baij however has a different take on this issue. “Though I am not aware of the controversy, this work in question was created by a group of assistants based on one of the miniature models created by Baij in his studio sometime in 1948.” A similar work of the same scale as the one in dispute now could be seen in the Kalabhavana campus. Though it is said as Baij’s work, historians including Sivakumar do not underline the authorship. “This work too was done by a student under the supervision of Baij. He was definitely there to oversee the works but he never thought much about it,” says Sivakumar. Anybody could compare the texture of works like Mill Call and Santal Family and Buddha could understand how this Gandhiji sculpture is different. While the textures of the aforementioned sculptures are vibrant the texture of the Gandhiji sculpture in Kalabhavana is an imitation of it. “This was done in 60s and the work in Guwahati must have been done sometime in late 1960s,” Sivakumar observes. The report from Guwahati says that the work was unveiled in 1970. Interestingly, this work has been repeatedly whitewashed and painted to give a ‘facelift’ every year. To put in other words, even if the sculpture is by Baij, it no longer looks like a Baij anymore. Incidentally I should say that in Kerala too recently a controversy came up with the statue of the noted poet Kumaran Asan being given a coat of aluminium paint to make it ‘fresh’. This was later removed after the public outcry. Similarly, last year K.S.Radhakrishnan’s public sculpture in Kozhikode was given a coat of paint and was brought to the public notice thanks to the timely intervention of a press photographer; later the paint was removed.

Art Historian R.Sivakumar
There is a small piece of history here behind the image of Gandhiji sculpture. Gandhiji was shot dead on 30th November 1948 by a Hindutva fanatic. This apparently had affected Ram Kinkar Baij, a person who had never shown any political affiliation or interest in political developments the way other people around him had taken in those days. Baij was a true Gandhian because he imbibed quite naturally the values that Gandhiji had propagated and practiced. True to the declaration of Gandhiji, Baij believed in the eternal innocence of the rural life, its autonomy, beauty and eco-humanism. His works showed how his eco-humanistic concerns got reflection in them. Besides, Baij had the creative receptacles in him so that he could see the agrarian economy slowly changing around him. Hence, we could see a contrast between the work Harvester and the Mill Call. The Gandhian in him silently suffered at the news of the great man’s death. Baij sketched an idea for a sculpture and did a miniature. Curiously we could see Gandhiji’s right foot placed on a ‘human skull’. “Gandhiji, immediately after the partition came to the Eastern side and spend time in Naokhali pacifying people whose passions were rising and the pogrom was taking place. He remained there without participating in the power politics of Delhi. He saw human atrocities right in front of his eyes. This must be the reason why he added a skull just below his right foot,” observes Sivakumar. In the Guwahati sculpture it does not seem to be there. “Many people take this sculpture as the Dandi March sculpture as the walking stick and the stride are very palpable. Besides, Nandalal also had done the famous Dandi walk. But I am sure this Gandhiji sculpture was not a response to Dandi March, on the contrary it was a tribute to Gandhiji,” says Sivakumar.

The art community has now responded emotionally over the alleged decision to remove the Baij sculpture from the public domain. But slowly it is becoming an aesthetical issue also. Should a work which is remotely connected to Baij be called a Baij work only because it has been there for a while? The work has now become symbolic than aesthetical hence most of the people would say that the work should be untouched. It looks like the District Council has decided to ‘break’ the sculpture than relocating it elsewhere. Such breakings have now political uses and purposes. Recently at the Narmada Basin where the NBA is actively working against the building of Dams, a local Gandhiji shrine was vandalised. In Kolkata itself, a work done by late smt.Shanu Lahiri was broken and in its place the Global Bangla advertisement and symbol were placed by the TMC administration. As the issue has become now more of an ethical one, Guwahati move may be stalled for a while. But if it is politically motivated, then the sculpture is going to go. “I may not claim the sculpture in the name of Baij but definitely I would say, leave things as it is,” says Sivakumar. That seems to be the right move.

(All images have been sourced from the Internet for representational purpose only)

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