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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Mystery of the missing ‘Spark’ as Thackeray gets statue in Mumbai

As a Bal Thackeray statue, the first of the late political leader in Mumbai, comes up on the island on Saturday, it has suddenly come to notice that 'Spark' has gone missing again — and may have been missing for months now.

Written by Benita Fernando , Laxman Singh | Mumbai |
Updated: January 23, 2021 7:37:00 am
The statue of Bal Thackeray which is to be unveiled at the site. (Express photo by Ganesh Shirsekar)

Sometime in the early 1990s, an imposing sculpture at Haji Ali Circle was lost to a road expansion project. Over two-storey tall, shaped like a peacock, the sculpture called Spark had been built by pioneering artist Pilloo Pochkhanawala. Years later, in 2002, a miniature version of the work was placed on a traffic island outside the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Colaba. As a Bal Thackeray statue, the first of the late political leader in Mumbai, comes up on the island on Saturday, it has suddenly come to notice that ‘Spark’ has gone missing again — and may have been missing for months now.

The BMC is undertaking a makeover of the Colaba traffic island. Asked about the missing replica, Assistant Municipal Commissioner, A ward (Colaba, Fort), Chanda Jadhav said, “We are not aware of the whereabouts of the sculpture. I checked with our staff whether it was shifted to some other place or removed, but no such thing has taken place from our side.”

HSBC, which funded the Spark replica and maintains the traffic island as per an arrangement with the BMC, did not comment on its current location.

The Spark replica had been installed through a citizen’s initiative, including members such as Dr Pheroza Godrej, former director of the NGMA, and Zarir Cama, ex-CEO of HSBC India. Godrej made the replica based on Pochkhanawala’s scale model, which she owns. The replica was one-third the height of the original sculpture at Haji Ali.

Pochkhanawala, who died in 1986 and whose legacy is now almost forgotten, made notable contribution to modern Indian art, pushing sculpting beyond busts of royalty and dignitaries. She was among the few women sculptors at a time when the Indian art world was dominated by men and painters. Born in 1923 to the Adenwalla family that set up the firm Cowasjee Dinshaw & Bros, she married into the family of Sir Sorabji Pochkhanawala, one of the founders of the Central Bank of India.

While she started out working with an advertising firm, a Europe tour in 1950 introduced her to original works of Constantin Brâncusi, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Alexander Calder, among others, and convinced her to become a sculptor. But her works were as inspired by American and European modernism as Hindu temple sculptures.

Spark was originally commissioned by BEST (Bombay Electric Supply & Transport), and Pochkhanawala made it welding scrap metal together — the heavy, industrial quality of the work set off by its light, bird-like features. Godrej says Pochkhanawala probably gave it that name due to BEST’s connection with electricity.

Pochkhanawala chose Haji Ali Circle as the location as she lived in the neighbourhood. However, Spark was shunted around even during her lifetime, sidelined to a smaller traffic island next to the roundabout. The black sculpture also got a coat of red. Eventually, the circle vanished, and so did Spark.

“I remember it lying on the side of the pavement, where Café Noorani is today. The metal had corroded and the top angles had broken. I was quite fond of it for three reasons — it was a nice piece, it was Pilloo’s and I used to see it every day,” Godrej said.

The citizen’s initiative chose the NGMA to place the replica as Pochkhanawala had played a key role in the foundation of the gallery and also organised the Bombay Arts Festival for many years. However, Spark had always been tough to locate amidst the shrubbery on the traffic island, and now nobody, including residents and shopowners in the area, remember when they saw it last.

It was ‘Art Walks Mumbai’, which runs art tours and education programmes in the city, that first noticed the disappearance of the replica. During the lockdown last year, they had covered it as part of a virtual art tour.

“For a city with so little engaging public art, it’s devastating to lose Pilloo’s Spark yet again. This piece was a key visual element of our art tour in tracing her journey from a sculptor working with scrap metal to the organiser of the Bombay Arts Festival. She was ahead of her time in her choice of material,” the Art Walks founders said.

But if Spark died unheralded, that is unlikely to be the fate of the new inhabitant. The traffic island has been given a makeover to receive the Thackeray statue, which will be inaugurated on Saturday, on his birth anniversary. It’s 11 feet tall and towers atop a pedestal.


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