On being asked by author Somendra Nath Bandyopadhyay to explain the progress of his work, artist Ramkinkar Baij had noted how there was no standard approach. “It’s not as if I follow the same formula for every work. That depends on the mind,” he had stated in a conversation recorded by Bandyopadhyay in his publication, My Days with Ramkinkar Baij. Those familiar with the Bengal artist’s temperament and work would vouch that he was being honest.
Known to follow no existing style, Baij’s art was an amalgam of his various influences — from the artisans working on idols in Bankura, his birthplace, to theatrical productions that he painted backdrops for, India’s numerous traditions and Western modernism. Considered to be one of India’s earliest modernist sculptors, he gave the country some of its finest and earliest public sculptures, including the iconic Santhal Family (1938), where he depicted a family from the Santhal tribe carrying their possessions, and Harvester (1943) with a toiling body.
“He was the first Indian sculptor to work on a monumental scale. Till then, the focus was often on the rulers. He was the first to turn to common man and give him an iconic status. His work was truly nationalist, representing all people of the democratic republic,” says art historian and curator R Siva Kumar, who is professor of art history at Visva Bharati.
More than 35 years after his demise in 1980, now officials in Assam have decided to replace a statue of Mahatma Gandhi sculpted by Baij to mark the leader’s birth centenary in 1969. In a report published in The Indian Express on August 9, BJP MLA from Guwahati (East), Siddhartha Bhattacharyya, who attended the meeting, said, “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.”
The decision has led to outrage amid the artist community that is drafting a letter requesting the government to stop the dismantling of the statue that is erected in the garden of Gandhi Mandap in Guwahati. The letter will be signed by artists from across India. “It is a horrible thing. The work was also mishandled for so many years. It has been reported that it was painted over numerous times,” says veteran artist Gulammohammed Sheikh.
He is drafting the protest letter with Indrapramit Roy, associate professor at MS University, Baroda. “It also seems to be a result of great ignorance. It is a national treasure. We are going to request the government to stay this decision and to stop further recurrence. There should be a committee with art experts to take such decisions,” says Roy. He turns to another incident in the early ’80s when it was proposed that a bronze bust of Rabindranath Tagore made by Baij, which was placed in Balatonfured, Hungary alongside Lake Balaton, should be replaced with another since it did not “look like” Tagore. Roy recalls, “That led to a lot of controversy and finally the proposal was cancelled.”
Meanwhile, in his alma mater, Visva Bharati, process is underway to recast Baij’s seminal works in bronze to ensure longevity. “We have been trying to get funds for the same for a long time. The government is now considering it,” says Siva Kumar. “Most of his works were done with laterite pebbles and cement, so water and moisture can enter and break it up, and that is happening, which is why the urgency to cast it in bronze,” he adds.
Situated in the greens of Santiniketan, Visva Bharati is where Baij honed his art. It was Ramananda Chatterjee, editor of monthly magazine, Modern Review, who had noticed Baij’s posters painted during the Non-Cooperation Movement and suggested that he travel to Visva Bharati. Here, Baij studied under Nandalal Bose but also found a supporter in Rabindranath Tagore, who encouraged him to pursue his personal style.
“He was the first in Santiniketan who started doing public art, life-sized sculptures. He interacted both with commoners and scholars,” says Delhi-based artist Samit Das, an alumnus of Visva Bharati. Vivan Sundaram, who was associated with a theatre production, 409 Ramkinkars, based on Baij, adds, “His legacy is exceptional and he was a great modernist artist. He took confidence from Tagore’s modernism and in a sense worked in opposition to what we know as the Bengal school.”
His initial career might have been dominated by wash paintings, but Baij soon turned to the masses as his muse. In 1935, came Sujata, the sculpture of a tall, lean woman, followed by painted and sculpted depictions of numerous other protagonists that he saw around him. If his 1940 sculpture Lamp Stand was among the first modern abstract sculptures in India, Mill Call in 1956 had mill workers responding to the factory siren.
In 2012, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi celebrated the works of the master with a retrospective that comprised over 300 works, including his evocative watercolours and oil paintings, apart from documenting some of his iconic sculptures. Speaking about the exhibition, his student and artist KS Radhakrishnan, who had curated the show, had stated, “Ramkinkar only worked on what he knew, not on what he wanted to know. Observing him was a lesson, one didn’t need to be taught by him.”