(Written by Ashish Kale & Dipanita Nath)
In 1919, an 18-year-old approached Lokmanya Tilak in Mumbai and asked if he would sit for a sculpture. The struggle for India’s independence was at a critical phase, but the freedom fighter agreed to the request of the young artist. In the next few days, Keshav Baburao Lele created a likeness of Tilak for a statue that is, possibly, the only one that the latter ever modelled for.
In a world without Covid-19, it would have graced a public pedestal on Saturday, the death centenary of Tilak. Instead, the statue gazes — from the entrance of the home of Lele’s granddaughter in the city — at members of the family.
“We would like to keep the statue in a place where a lot of people will be able to see it and be inspired by it. It was kept at Tilak Smarak Mandir and Geeta Dharma Mandal briefly and we were in talks with authorities to display it in a place which has a relevance to the ideals of Tilak,” says Chitra Yeshwant Lele, the sculptor’s granddaughter.
She had never known the sculptor but heard stories of the talented artist, who was chosen by the British government to represent the country’s art and culture at the World Fair in the UK in 1923 and the US in 1926.
Lele’s son, 85-year-old Yeshwant Keshav Lele, says that the family used to make Ganesh idols originally, which gave Lele his artistic streak. “He would create entire scenes and mechanise them. There was a work that showed Mahatma Gandhi being operated on, with moving states of the nurses entering and leaving the room,” he adds.
Lele’s primary means of livelihood was exhibiting the sculptures throughout the country to huge crowds of people. “These statues were made of Plaster of Paris. At the time, the risk of using PoP wasn’t known and inhaling the dust affected my grandfather’s lungs… he passed away in 1945, when he was barely 44. After he died, my grandmother used to travel all over India and hold the exhibitions because that was their only means of livelihood,” says Chitra.
In 1948, in the aftermath of riots following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Lele’s entire life’s work, stored in a shed in their home in Dadar, Mumbai, was destroyed. “The statue of Tilak was inside the house and it is the only work by him that survived,” says Chitra.
Until 20 years ago, the statue would watch the neighbourhood from the balcony of the house in Dadar. “I moved to Pune and brought the statue here, partly because it was showing wear and tear from the sea breeze of Mumbai,” says Chitra.
Every two months, her father changes the clothes of the statue and gives it a new copy of the newspaper.
“I hope we can find a place from where he can see the country he helped liberate,” says Yeshwant.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines