LEGENDARY sculptor Ramkinkar Baij’s Mahatma Gandhi statue in Guwahati will now escape the hammer, after the state government changed its mind. However, the damage caused to it over the past five decades may not be as easy to erase. Originally cast in bronze, the statue now lies covered by layers of lime and enamel paint, applied at least four times a year.
The statue, installed in the garden of Gandhi Mandap, atop the 200-metre Sarania Hills in the heart of Guwahati, is now clear white, and officials admit even they didn’t know it was originally bronze.
“I have seen this status since my childhood, and I was always under the impression it was a concrete statue,” says Guwahati Mayor Mrigen Sarania, who was present at the August 7 meeting held in the Kamrup (Metro) deputy commissioner’s office where a resolution was passed to dismantle the statue because Gandhi looked “distorted” in it.
Adds Kamrup (Metro) Deputy Commissioner M Angamuthu, who presided over the meeting, “Everyone present at the meeting thought it was a concrete statue.” That included Assam’s Minister for Culture Naba Kumar Doley, Guwahati (East) MLA Siddhartha Bhattacharyya, and former Union minister of state for Education and Culture Renuka Devi Borkataki. The latter has been a member of the Gandhi Mandap Trust since its inception in 1968.
After The Indian Express reported the decision, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said there was no question of removing, replacing or demolishing the statue sculpted by Baij. “Instead, the government will ensure that the sanctity and heritage of such a national treasure will be protected,” he said.
Angamurthi agrees with him now. “With so much evidence and literature emerging, we must preserve the statue at all costs. The Chief Minister has already made this clear,” he told The Indian Express.
Says veteran Guwahati-based artist Noni Borpuzari, “For the first few years, (the statue) remained as it is. Then they began white-washing it with lime. Later, they started applying coats of plastic paint four times a year — Independence Day, Republic Day, Gandhi Jayanti and Martyr’s Day.”
Art critic and film-maker Manik Bora says a photograph of the Gandhi statue getting a fresh coat of paint on the eve of Gandhi Jayanti and Martyr’s Day has been a regular feature in Guwahati newspapers for many years. “Go to newspaper archives and you will find such photographs almost every year around those dates,” he says.
That the statue was originally bronze is confirmed by a Visva Bharati professor, and the writings of a bureaucrat, now dead, who had liaised with Baij on behalf of the Assam government when the sculpture was being made 48 years ago.
In a Facebook post, after the Express story appeared on August 8, Janak Jhankar Narzary, a renowned sculptor who was a student of Baij and later worked as a professor at Visva Bharati, said, “I can understand from the picture (in The Indian Express) that the bronze statue is now painted on the surface with white enamel paint. As a result it has lost (its) organic and living quality, as also its homogeneity with earth and nature. The enamel colour should be removed and restored (to) its original condition and look.”
He added that the statue conceptualised Gandhi’s march to bring peace after the Noakhali riots of 1946. “The statue of Gandhi is structurally much emphasized to be strong and stable, characteristically the physiognomy is exaggerated to be massive, the gestures are bold stepping with confidence, fearlessly over the skulls and skeletons of dead bodies… His right hand holds a large walking stick expressive of power and determination, while left hand holds a money bag to help the victims.”
Narzary, who says he saw the statue being made, as a student at Visva Bharati, says Baji titled it ‘The Apostle’.
According to Narzary, Asit Dasgupta, who later became a national cultural scholar, assisted Baij, his teacher, in making the Gandhi statue first in clay and then in cement concrete. Once the concrete statue was complete, it was shifted to a workshop at Baguihati (near the Kolkata airport) to be finally cast in bronze, he wrote. “The finished concrete statue was cast in bronze and given a greenish black patina colour by Bipin Goswamy, a sculptor from Kolkata sent to Guwahati for installation (in 1970).”
Ajit Barua, who was posted as trade advisor to the Assam government in Kolkata in 1968-70, too talks about the statue in his memoirs, saying it was cast in bronze by Goswamy after the concrete one was completed in Shantiniketan. “Ramkinkar once stayed in the Assam House in Kolkata several days to supervise the finishing of the bronze statue,” Barua, also a Sahitya Akademi award winner poet who died in 2015, wrote in his memoirs titled Smritikatha.
Benu Mishra, a veteran artist and sculptor who was a student of Baij at Visva Bharati, also told The Indian Express he had seen him making the statue. “I later saw the bronze statue on several occasions when I went up to the Sarania Hills in the early years,” he says.