The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust on Friday condemned the Assam government’s decision to demolish and replace a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Guwahati created by Ramkinkar Baij. In a statement, the trust said the artists’ community was aghast at the proposal to dismantle the “distorted image” of the freedom fighter.
The trust, or Sahmat as it is popularly known, said the present Bharatiya Janata Party government has “no understanding of contemporary cultural values, none of any kind of aesthetic criteria”. It further added that the decision to demolish the artwork was because the government could not comprehend it.
Guwahati BJP MLA Siddhartha Bhattacharyya had said that statue’s hands and feet were disproportionate and do not resemble those of Gandhi. “His face is distorted, as also the pair of glasses,” Bhattacharyya had told The Indian Express on August 8.
The statue, located inside the Gandhi Mandap garden atop Sarania Hill in Guwahati, was unveiled in 1970. The trust said Baij was “dedicated to the person and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi”.
The trust’s statement added that artists’ community would not give in to such an “appalling and dangerous tendency”. It read, “We can together shame the communal and right-wing ideology of this government; together we can prevent them winning any of their vulgar victories.”
Sahmat is not the first to criticise the move. Swapan Datta, the Acting Vice Chancellor of Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan, had also called the decision unfortunate. Datta said Baij’s sculptures of Gautam Buddha and Sujata inside the university, also do not look exactly like the original people. “That is the point, it is an interpretation, it is art… Art is not about looking for similarities,” he added. Freedom fighter Krishna Nath Sarma had termed the act criminal and anti-national, and said he would draw the President’s attention.
Below is the full statement issued by Sahmat:
Artists and Creative Community of India are aghast at the vandalism proposed against the artwork of one India’s greatest artists by a representative of the BJP government in Guwahati. Ramkinkar Baij pioneered the modern movement in mid-twentieth century India. He was dedicated to the person and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, as he was to the adivasi communities and subaltern figures in the ethos he inhabited. He sought to find a form for this in several smaller sculptures of the Mahatma. This large sculpture was made by his students under Ramkinkar’s mentorship.
The rightwing ideology of the present government works with dangerous ignorance; no understanding of contemporary cultural values, none of any kind of aesthetic criteria. This is well known to the practicing artists of India. And they have resisted the pernicious spread of this ideology at every instance in the past 25 years and more. Being presently in power, the RSS-BJP’s representatives can now hold forth on the formal qualities of an artwork–in this case by a master artist. And decide to demolish what they cannot comprehend. This is like much else that is happening in India’s civil and political society; like taking over of the cultural and academic institutions.
Until now Indian artists and Creative Community have, on the whole, not submitted to such an appalling and dangerous tendency. Today, the defence of an icon: the defence of this Ramkinkar-guided sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi. Henceforth, and always, the defense of art and its experimental freedoms; of historical knowledge and its emancipatory possibilities. We can together shame the communal and rightwing ideology of this government; together we can prevent them winning any of their vulgar victories. Artists Dissent.
Kamlesh Kumar Kohli
Sudhir Chandra— Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust