One of India’s foremost modernist sculptors, Ramkinkar Baij is remembered as the ‘eccentric genius’ from Bankura who was ahead of his times. The pioneering artist experimented both with material and subjects to create works in multiple mediums and give India some of its most monumental sculptures that have become landmarks in public art. To mark his 115th birth anniversary this week, we look at five of his significant works.
Exemplifying Baij’s artistic genius, the statues in shivalik sandstone guarding the doors of the Reserve Bank of India building in Delhi took years longer and costed significantly more than originally estimated. Commissioned by the Government of India, Baij had taken inspiration from the Yaksha-Yakshi statues that he had seen in Mathura, Sanchi and the Patna Museum to sculpt the mythical benevolent figures. At first, it took him months to select a stone. He finally found it in Kangra valley’s Baijnath. Cut from the mountains, humongous pieces were transported to Delhi in special wagons and with assistance from carvers from Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district, Baij finally gave form to his sketches in stone. While the entire process took more than a decade, as the RBI website notes, even when the statues were finally installed in 1967, it “seemed to offend the prudish sensibilities of parts of the populace; the specific cause of provocation was the statue of the Yakshini, depicted in her natural beauty”. Though in some of the interviews, Baij shared how the work gave him ‘tremendous joy’, his associates recall how working on a budgeted sanctioned commission also left some bitter experiences for the artist who followed his heart. Years later, the Yaksha with a money bag and Yakshi with agricultural produce in her hands are recognised as iconic sculptures in Indian art history.
Belonging to the aristocratic family of Manipur, Binodini was Baij’s student who also became his muse. A prominent literary figure, she appeared in several of his works in multiple mediums, including oil, watercolour and bronze. An etching has the two walking together in a woody path — the master wearing a straw hat and his muse looking admirably. In the above 1948/49 oil, we see Binodini looking straight at the onlooker. Dressed in a saree, the slim figure is painted with numerous layers on a gunny cloth, a material that proved to be more economical than a canvas.
Girl with a Dog
Believed to be one of Baij’s earliest works in oil — a medium where he replicated the spontaneity and texture of his sculptures — Girl with a Dog reportedly had as its protagonist an Indonesian girl who was visiting Santiniketan with her father in the late 30s. This was few years after Baij had returned to Santiniketan, after teaching in schools in Asansol and Delhi.
Arguably one of India’s first natural or environmental sculptures, 11-feet tall Sujata stands in the greens of Santiniketan, surrounded by eucalyptus trees. One of Baij’s earliest sculptures in cement, she was moulded by him in 1935. To support the elongated figure, Baij reportedly used bamboo poles and cane. Carrying a vessel on her head, her hands are gracefully positioned, exuding calm and poise. It is after seeing this work that Rabindranath Tagore reportedly permitted him to make as many sculptures as he wished across the campus. A few years later, in 1940, Baij made Lamp Stand, arguably the earliest abstract sculpture by an Indian artist.
Several of Baij’s students often narrate how when he’d present William Shakespeare’s plays in the Kala Bhavan campus, and the audience often comprised local Santhal villagers who would be enthralled by the sheer energy of the productions. Hailing from the red-soiled land of West Bengal, Baij, who grew up observing the local clay idol makers of Bankura, shared a deep relationship with the communities around him, including the Santhals who lived near Santiniketan. Considered to be probably India’s first public modernist sculpture, Santhal Family, in cement and laterite gravel, was also Baij’s tribute to their resolve to fight against odds. Done in 1938, it represented the dynamism of traditional Bengal at the time of industrialisation. The rhythmic movement is unmissable, as the protagonists — a couple with their children and a dog — march ahead with a weighing scale. Years later, in 1956, he executed Mill Call, another significant work that celebrated the working class and the Santhals, depicting women rushing at the sound of the siren from a mill.