Earlier this month, when US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun re-inaugurated the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Washington DC, artist Gautam Pal was relieved. The sculptor had been anxious since he read news reports on the vandalization of the bronze statue with graffiti and spray paint last month, during the nationwide protests against the custodial killing of African-American George Floyd. Since then, he has been keeping a lookout for related statements, hoping that protection to his sculpture will be ensured. “I immediately called the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (that had commissioned the statue). They said it was being looked into and will let me know if there is a lot of damage and I am required,” says the Kolkata-based artist. He distinctly recalls his 2000 trip to the US Capital for the inauguration of the 8-ft 8-inch tall statue. “President Clinton told me how magnificent it was,” he says.
At 70, the sculptor has made more than 50 commissioned statues of Gandhi for the Government of India, installed across the world, including Edinburgh, Yangon, Lisbon, Santiago, Bogota, Panama and Naples. “Gandhiji made me famous. I feel very honoured that my work is representing India through him,” he says, adding, “He popularised ahimsa world over and we should rely on his ideals at a time like now.”
The thoughts have particularly preoccupied him in recent weeks, when Gandhi statues are being vandalised by #BlackLivesMatter protesters who are denouncing him as “racist”, deploring his derogatory views towards native Africans. There are several pleas for the removal of his statues across the world, including Amsterdam, California and Ottawa. While in December 2018, a Gandhi statue was removed from the University of Ghana after protests by students and staff, the recent petitions are part of a global movement questioning the appropriateness of certain statues and commemorations to protest racial inequality. This includes Italian navigator and coloniser Christopher Columbus’ statue that was taken down in California and the the statue of former US President Theodore Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Even as Pal completes one more Gandhi bronze – a Dandi March sculpture that will travel to Georgia, as part of a commission of eight statues that he received last year to commemorate the national leader’s 150th birth anniversary – another statue by him had become the centre of attention. An online petition titled ‘Remove the Gandhi Statue in Leicester’ sought the removal of Pal’s 2006 Gandhi sculpture in the city, alleging that Gandhi was a “fascist, racist and sexual predator”. A counter petition “Save the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Leicester” was thereafter launched on Change.org. The mayor of Leicester has now promised to protect the statue. “This sort of vandalism should not take place. The statue should not be removed,” says Pal.
Born in Krishnanagar in West Bengal, the artist grew up observing and assisting his father Kartick Chandra Pal design marble sculptures, and clay models that the city is famous for. He recalls making a Gandhi clay model with charkha when he was 14. “I have loved and respected Gandhiji since my childhood,” he says. A diploma holder in art from Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata, Pal completed his art studies at Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan. After returning to India in 1974, he visited Delhi in 1987 with the desire to create commissioned works for the Government of India. Success came when his design for a Gandhi statue for Moscow was chosen from 20 submissions by the Ministry of Culture in 1988. “It has been a long journey. There are many good sculptors but I am happy that several of my submissions have been sanctioned… I really admire Ram Sutar. He has made many more works than me. When I began making these sculptures, I always felt I had to distinguish my work from his, only then would I get a chance. I try to make realistic work,” says Pal, who has also developed a sculpture garden in Krishnanagar.
While he notes that the selectors usually prefer “Gandhi walking with his stick”, over the years, he has attempted to experiment with other postures, including a statue of Gandhi reading the Bhagavad Gita, installed in Geneva. The references come from the numerous books on Gandhi that Pal has in his library. “I often read about him and his thoughts. Every time, I attempt to showcase his determination, firmness and steady movement,” he says. Among his 120 statues world over are also sculptures of Swami Vivekananda, Kasturba Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, among others. Several of his works are also in the Indian Parliament, including a statue of freedom fighter Shaheed Durga Malla, a sitting statue of Rabindranath Tagore reading a book and of Mahatma Gandhi.
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