In 1968, almost five years after KG Subramanyan completed his acclaimed terracotta mural — based on the characters from Rabindranath Tagore’s stage production Arup Ratan — created for Rabindralaya in Lucknow, architect Charles Correa invited the Baroda-based artist to Delhi. He wanted Subramanyan to design a work that represented another public figure, Mahatma Gandhi, to commemorate his birth centenary.
Known to have worked with the Mahatma during the freedom struggle, Subramanyan chose to translate the leader’s text, India of My Dreams, in his sculptural installation designed for Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti in Delhi. Housed in an open quadrangle, after years of neglect and repeated requests by artists to take steps for its restoration and upkeep, the work is now being restored by the institution. “We have sent a request to the National Museum and asked for an estimate. The restoration should begin soon,” says Dipanker Shri Gyan, Director, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti. Geeta Shukla, research officer at the institute, adds that a few years ago the installations were covered with metal sheds to protect them from rain and direct sunlight.
Designed over a period of one year, the three structures are now placed in an open center of a remodelled building. Fabricated using sand-cast cement reliefs fixed over a core of concrete and other material by Subramanyan, the sculptures now have dust settled on them and are partially damaged. Each of the three structures carry a quotation. If the first, with a wheel of hands and products of village crafts and industry, reads “Every man finds fulfillment through dedicated pursuit of work”, the second with a rural grain-chest carries Gandhi’s caveat, “If the villages of India perish, India also perishes”. The third structure carries two quotes from Gandhi: “There are as many religions as there are individuals,” and “God has many names as there are creatures and so we call him The Nameless, and since he has many forms, we also call him the formless”.
R Siva Kumar, professor of art history at Visva Bharati in Santiniketan, and a close associate of Subramanyan, recalls the dilapidated state of the installations when he last visited the place in May 2013. “Toilets had been built within the quadrangle and the place had turned into a dumping yard covered in grime,” he says. He recalls how Subramanyan, who passed away last year, had used personal money to finance the work apart from what he was paid by the government. “A freedom fighter, he borrowed money from an artist friend and produced not only one of his important works but also a landmark in modern Indian public art and a visual embodiment of Gandhi’s idea of India,” notes Siva Kumar. He adds that several other artists were also commissioned to make works for the institution, including Shanko Choudhury, Paritosh Sen, A Ramachandran and Badri Narayanan.
The restoration is part of a larger project, which includes mending other artwork in the collection of Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti. Over 26 works have been identified. “Our internal team first did the analysis and sent it to National Museum, from where experts were called in. We had submitted a report where we had spotted deterioration, including dust, spots, loss of paint and scratches, in the paintings,” says Gyan.
In a small room at the institute situated next to Raj Ghat, a team of five from the National Museum has been working on the paintings for the past few months — the restoration of each painting could take few weeks to a month, with the team starting with the careful cleaning followed by retouching.
Shiv Kumar has a word of advice before work starts on the Subramanyan masterpiece: “It might help to involve people who know Subramanyan’s work,” he says.