Statue of Unity: Meet the sculptors who help politicians carve their place in history

modi-patel-pti Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the inauguration of a 182-meters high statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel | PTI

In the 1990s, veteran sculptor Ram V. Sutar studied the many photographs of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel; he visualised the leader of India’s nationalist movement as a brisk walker. “Like he had a goal in mind, which he had to quickly achieve,” says the 93-year-old artist, sitting in a rather homely corner of the sprawling 2,000sqm studio in Noida. “I realised he should be portrayed as this strong, decisive personality who looks straight ahead while walking.” Ram was referring to the 1998 statue in which the dhoti-clad Patel was depicted striding ahead. This walking style, however, could not be structurally replicated on the Statue of Unity. At almost 600 feet, it will be the world’s tallest statue when it is unveiled on October 31 at Sadhu Bet, an island in the Narmada river, near Vadodara, Gujarat.

Ram’s attention to detail, like the folds of a shawl, the threadwork in a jacket, and minute anatomical features, is without a parallel. But Ram is not too fussy about this compromise. He knows he is the last word for monumental sculptures in the country, specifically those of political figures. He is the principal sculptor behind sculptures of three political giants—Statue of Unity, at around Rs 3,000 crore; the world’s biggest equestrian statue—Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj on his steed, in the Arabian Sea, with his sword piercing the sky at 397 feet; and the tallest statue of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar (350ft) to be installed at Dadar, Mumbai, for Rs 425 crore. It is no surprise then that Ram is a great admirer of Mount Rushmore, which has massive faces of four US presidents carved on solid granite in South Dakota. “The height of the Mount Rushmore heads is 60 feet. The head of Sardar Patel on the Statue of Unity has a height of 70 feet,” he rubs it in with an unmistakable glint of triumph in those sparkling grey eyes. But, he still wants to make a Mount Rushmore-like memorial to Shivaji in his home state of Maharashtra.

On February 19, next year, Ram will be 94 years old. And, he has lost count of the statues he has made since the 1940s. He has dominated the business of making Gandhi statues; out of the 70 commissioned between just 2001 and 2010, he made 22. His modelling studio in Noida is a strange, unnerving, and otherworldly kind of modern art gallery with clay and cement structures of leaders, thinkers and philosophers in various stages of dismemberment and uprightness. The courtyard is circled with 25-foot models of solemn figures—Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ambedkar, Shivaji and Sardar Patel—awaiting finishing touches from the master sculptor, who is now patiently texturing Mayawati’s face for a special commission by the lady herself. The other end of the studio has workers cutting and hewing busts of Param Vir Chakra awardees and expansive murals of battles scenes for the proposed National War Memorial coming up near India Gate in Delhi. While many political leaders have come and gone, Ram has unflinchingly carried on sculpting their portraits in cement, mud, bronze and steel. Nothing in his thin, medium-sized frame betrays any sign of frailty one might associate with his age. Always fascinated with height, he still does not think he has made the tallest statue yet.

Born in a small village called Gondur, near Dhule in Maharashtra, Ram’s father was a carpenter and blacksmith who made bullock carts, tongas and tools for ploughing. Encouraged by his drawing teacher Krishna Joshi, who was like his godfather, Ram joined the JJ School of Art where he admired the works of G.K. Mhatre, Balaji Vasant Talim, Vinayakrao Wagh and V.P Karmarkar and graduated in 1953 with a diploma in sculpture. Soon after, he started working with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at Ellora Caves, where he fixed cracks in the ancient rock-cut sculptures there. The 45-foot, monolithic Chambal Devi monument at the Gandhi Sagar Dam in Madhya Pradesh, which depicts the brotherhood between Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as two brothers standing on either side of a graceful Chambal Devi, signalled the birth of a true patriot-artist.

Ram’s 16-foot bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi in a meditative pose displayed in the Parliament House is considered iconic. “When a small model of this statue was presented to the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), prime minister Morarji Desai was so impressed with it, especially with the way the lips were sculpted, that he took it to his house to study it,” says Anil Ram Sutar, Ram’s son. The 21-foot statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at Rambagh, in Amritsar, has been exquisitely visualised for its study of horse, the royal dress, ornaments and the Kohinoor on his turban. “A lady was furious at the time of installation,” says Anil. “She said my father has made the maharaja look blind in one eye. My father was so happy to hear that. Ranjit Singh had in fact lost his sight in the left eye.”

Vijay Kumar, a 33-year-old assistant in Ram’s studio, says he used to read about his work in chapters on Indian monumental art during his MFA days. “He has this unique eye to know how a statue will look from a distance. No one has that,” says Vijay. But how much of that artistic imprint is lost in commissions? Big engineering firms like Larsen and Toubro, international architects, and consultants were roped in to erect the Statue of Unity, the casting work of which was done in a private foundry in China. The workers there initially made the skin surface of the Indian leader very smooth. “We had to tell them that this was not a statue of a deity or sage like Buddha,” says Anil. “We had to constantly oversee their work to bring through the muscles and other facial textures.”

Ram and Anil had to make multiple trips to China. “We have the biggest infrastructure for statue-making in India,” says Anil, who is an architect and has collaborated with his father on many statue projects. “I did not understand the need to make this statue in China. I tried to explain that it can easily be done in India, if we expand our existing facility.”

They have a separate two-acre bronze-casting facility in Sahibabad, where 25 workers are employed. “If this Sardar Patel statue was made in India, I could have employed 2,000 people for two-and-a-half years,” says Anil. “At least the money would have stayed in the country.” He has other grudges too. “Now, I am going to charge a design fee. We did not get any royalty even though our statue was used. This time, I am putting my foot down for the Shivaji statue,” says Anil of the Rs 3,600-crore Shiv Smarak statue, which is expected to be up by 2021.

When it comes to political figures, strict government injunctions and limited timelines often impede creative expression. But, Deepak Kannal, art historian, sculptor and former dean of the faculty of fine arts at MS University Baroda, says that some sculptors still manage to produce aesthetically astute and dynamic political pieces. And Ram is one of them. He says other statue-makers invariably succumb to top-down pressures. “Ram Sutar must have faced similar problems in his earlier days. But he could reach a status where people may not dare dictate their own terms. He is on a different level,” says Deepak.

Surinder S. Jodhka, professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, does not think political leaders should qualify as world’s tallest statues. “We need some kind of broad consensus like the Statue of Liberty, national-level icons everyone would agree to,” says Jodhka. “The only thing that brings us together as a nation state is our constitution.”

If Ram Sutar had his way, he would probably have preferred a Gandhi statue to be the world’s tallest. He met Gandhi only once, as a 10-year-old, and considers him the last messenger of peace and compassion. His very first statue of Gandhi in 1948, a four-feet high cement-concrete bust in his native Dhulia, has the Mahatma lighting up in the warmest “grandmotherly laugh”; his 1993 statue has the Father of the Nation sitting with his eyes closed, exuding a quiet intensity. But Ram knows that for artists and sculptors, statues go beyond emblems of specific ideologies, and his loyalty is only to his craft.

Moving portraits

Many art critics opine that if there is one person alive who is worthy of being called a great statue-maker in India today, it is Latika Katt. Art historian and sculptor Deepak Kannal says he is particularly impressed by Latika’s animated rendering of a bronze-cast Nehru, flying pigeons at Jawahar Bhawan in Delhi, and Rajiv Gandhi in a long coat, throwing a garland in Port Blair. Latika’s statues give you a sense of motion, they interact with the wind force, as seen in the swishing kurta, the airborne garland or the flying pigeons. But, she is unhappy with the way things turned out with her political commissions. Latika is particularly miffed about a 20-foot Indira Gandhi statue, which would have been installed in Hyderabad had Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy, former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, not died in a helicopter crash in 2009. “I spent Rs 50 lakh from my own pocket to make this beautiful statue, the only sculpture in the world where the pallu of Indira Gandhi’s sari is flying,” says Katt. It is currently waiting to be whisked away from Varanasi, where Katt lives. “I have vowed I will never sculpt a politician’s face again,” said an angry Katt, over phone.

A native of Andhra Pradesh Capital Region, Prasad, too, has sculptor-forefathers, like Nagappa and Wagh. He made 500 two-and-a-half-foot busts of Gandhi to be installed at Vizianagaram on October 2. “They wanted me to make a thousand Gandhi busts in 20 days, but I said I will only make 500,” he says. He started work on a 125-foot statue of B.R. Ambedkar, but the Andhra government tightened their purse strings and the project was stalled. “Ambedkar is God for us,” says Prasad. But, he is also pleased that Ram Sutar is the sculptor behind the tallest Ambedkar. “He is our guru—the father of artists. Nobody can reach him. We are very small. He is Mount Everest,” says Prasad.

His statue-making company is a legacy brand in south India. “In the olden days, politicians were knowledgeable and had patience. They used to appreciate good work and talent,” says Kishore Nagappa, grandson of the famous sculptor from Chennai, M.S. Nagappa, who set up his studio in 1910 and was appointed the official sculptor to the British Crown by King George V in 1935. Kishore is currently working on statues of Jayalalithaa, C.N. Annadurai and Gandhi. Kishore was very fond of M. Karunanidhi who passed away this August. “He would give us time,” says Kishore. “A man of few words, he would personally come to inspect the progress of the statues and nod, ‘You are doing great work’. As an artist, that is all I needed to hear.”

Vinay Wagh and his father have made over a thousand Ambedkar statues, across the world. Even though no survey has been done, it is said that the number of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar statues erected would far exceed those of Mahatma Gandhi. “Me and my father have made over a thousand Ambedkar statues, across the world. We have made bronze statues ranging in size from two feet to 12 feet,” says Vinay Wagh of Mumbai’s Wagh Sculptors, set up in 1901 by Vinayakrao Wagh, who sculpted many national leaders in his day. “His wife, Savita Ambedkar, would visit our studio a hundred times to check,” says Vinay. He has made an Ambedkar statue with one hand folded behind his back, and another one at Chavdar tank in Mahad, showing him holding a successful court order allowing Dalits to drink water from the same tank. “While 99 per cent of Shivaji statues are those of him on horseback, I have made a Shivaji standing atop his fort, surveying the scene, for a park in Jabalpur,” says Vinay. But he is not at all upset about the fact that the biggest statues of Shivaji and Ambedkar in Mumbai are not from his studio. In fact, he considers Ram Sutar his guru. “I always take Ram Sutar’s blessings whenever I go to Delhi. He is a great artist and person,” says Vinay. Being a portrait artist, he thinks “big, bigger and biggest statues” is a product of technology for the most part. “I feel statues should not be so big and disturb the environment,” says Vinay.

Frozen in time

In a 2013 interview to Rajya Sabha TV, Ram Sutar says that among Indian politicians, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was perhaps the greatest patron of arts. But many media reports have pointed out how Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati was probably the most involved, demanding and generous of Ram’s benefactors when it came to commemorative architecture. So, when asked who would qualify as the most avid admirer of the art of statue-making, Ram does not hesitate to state it is Mayawati.

Lucknow’s Ambedkar Memorial Park, the Bahujan Samaj Prerna Kendra and Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal and Green Garden in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, are some of Mayawati’s most assertive sculptural commissions between 2005 and 2012, before her political fortunes took a nosedive. The Sutars and Mayawati’s chief architect Jay Kaktikar have always been the execution team behind this period of hectic statue-making. By the 1990s, the Sutars had already built a formidable portfolio, casting and carving Hindu subjects and high-caste leaders. This must have made Mayawati more adamant about choosing the same master sculptor.

Anil Sutar says their casting and moulding facility in Delhi-NCR employed the highest number of daily workers—one hundred, who toiled night and day—in 2011, when they were working for the BSP supremo, who was then Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister. Mayawati was particularly obsessed with quality and permanence, so that her commissioned statues are not easily vandalised, disfigured or razed to the ground. Kaktikar is supposed to have procured stone slabs that were thicker than normal and the Sutars used extra-thick bronze for Mayawati statues. She insisted on using red sandstone and white marble as building materials. Chunar sandstone was freely used during the reign of Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Mayawati, too, used it for erecting giant columns. Biku Chandra Ma, a dalit Buddhist monk, once said, “Mayawati is just like a modern-day female Ashoka.”

Although Ram did not comment much on one of his most important patrons, he did say cryptically when prodded, “Sab kuch Maya hai (everything is Maya)”.