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Neglected treasures

RAKTIMA BOSE

The works of sculptor Ramkinkar Baij, slowly disintegrating in the Santiniketan campus, are in urgent need of restoration. Our artists definitely deserve better.

Time has already taken its toll on his works. Pebbles have started falling off from the sculptures.

Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

In a fragile state: “Mill Call” by Ramkinkar Baij at Santinekatan.

The famous sculpture of a Santhal family walking to work carrying their meagre possessions stands before the Kala Bhavan within the Vishva Bharati University campus in Santiniketan.

Just across the Santhal Family stands another sculpture — Mill Call. It shows a working class family setting off enthusiastically for work on hearing the mill siren.

The slender and graceful “Sujata” stands behind the Kala Bhavan.

At first glance, these statues appear to be made of mud, but a closer inspection reveals that cement cast and laterite pebbles were the materials used. Created around 70 years ago, the works speak of the artistic genius of Ramkinkar Baij, the famous Santiniketan sculptor.

Ramkinkar Baij was one of the first Indian artists to understand the language of modern Western art and use it in his sculptures. He is regarded as the father of modernism in art in India.

However, these priceless works of the master (there are six such outdoor sculptures on the campus) face an uncertain future because of the fragile medium Baij used. “Laterite pebbles and cement make a very unstable combination which cannot last. Day-by-day the cement is moving away from the armature,” says R. Siva Kumar, professor of art history at the Kala Bhavan.

Time has already taken its toll on his works. Pebbles have started falling off from the sculptures. Though some of them are placed under fibreglass canopies, these sculptures, if not quickly restored, may soon be relegated to a passing mention in history textbooks.

Need for a bronze cast

Prof. Siva Kumar says, “The sculptures need to be cast in bronze immediately to prevent further deterioration. Bronze-cast means making an exact replica of the sculpture in bronze. However, it should only be done under expert supervision, as it is a complex process and the sculptures are delicate.”

Ramkinkar Baij was born into poverty in 1906 in Bankura district of Bengal. As a child prodigy he caught the attention of Ramananda Chatterjee, editor of the Modern Review Journal. Ramkinkar arrived at Santiniketan in 1925. Under the patronage of Rabindranath Tagore and the tutelage of the famous painter Nandalal Bose, he evolved into a master sculptor.

It was in Santiniketan that Ramkinkar came into contact with European sculptors like Lisa Vonpott and Margaret Milward. This widened his artistic horizons and he incorporated the human element that was a part of the Western style into his art.

Ramkinkar’s works reflected the life of the poor and dispossessed, and he portrayed them in all their dignity, grace and vigour.

His works paralleled the growth of the Left and its influence on contemporary art and culture, and became an example of how political elements could be merged into art. “The flamboyance and rhetorical gestures of Ramkinkar in his works were very much in tune with the winds of change in both contemporary middleclass society and the political scene,” says Prof. Siva Kumar.

Ramkinkar never cared to publicise or preserve his works, and so used clay, or cement or whatever medium his limited resources could afford.

After Ramkinkar’s death in 1980, his works were declared “national treasures” by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The National Gallery of Modern Arts (NGMA) in New Delhi subsequently bought most of the works.

According to the noted artist A. Ramachandran, who was Ramkinkar’s student, the delay in preserving the works is due to “sheer neglect” on the part of the Vishva Bharati authorities.

“The University authorities could have applied for funds from the University Grant Commission (UGC) to preserve the sculptures,” he says. He adds that not even moulds of the sculptures have been taken.

Prof. Ramachandran points out: “The sculptures at Santiniketan, and even the smaller ones at NGMA made of plaster and clay, should be preserved without delay by the Ministry of Culture and NGMA,” he says.

Noted artist K.G. Subramanyan says that former Minister of Culture Jag Mohan Malhotra had taken up the cause of preserving Ramkinkar’s works at the NGMA, but his plans are “yet to materialise”.

Director of NGMA, Rajeev Lochan, says, “The sculptures in plaster and clay have been stored in wooden crates after proper cleaning and required restoration under internationally recommended, centrally controlled, temperature and humidity control for its proper preservation.”

Mr. Lochan says that a proposal to cast the “Santhal Family” was taken up by the Government of India. A committee headed by Prof. Sankho Choudhary was set up for the purpose. “Only one copy of the mould was cast in bronze, the result of which was not approved by the committee and the copy was left with Santiniketan. The second copy for NGMA was never undertaken.”

Help from private sector

Prof. Lochan points out that the NGMA would be happy to assist and support interested organisations in the private sector in any restoration project. They could send their proposal to the government.

Prof. Siva Kumar, on the other hand, says that the Vishva Bharati University authorities are doing everything within their means to restore and preserve the sculptures along with other treasures. “Funds shortage is a reality, yet we have undertaken a major restoration project since the last year with the Rs. five crores allotted to the University by the high level committee appointed by the former President and visitor to the University, Abdul Kalam,” says Prof. Siva Kumar.

He also points out that UGC grants are mainly for teaching departments and not for preservation purposes. “We will still definitely approach the central government for funds,” he says.

He, however, feels that apart from government initiatives, private enterprises should come forth to protect these national treasures. “It is the duty of responsible citizens to do their bit to save our heritage,” he says.

The government should create a conducive atmosphere, like tax exemptions for private enterprises that invest in the preservation of art. He recalls an incident when one of Ramkinkar’s sculptures, “The Harvester”, broke into three pieces while it was being removed from its place to make way for a women’s hostel at the Vishva Bharati campus. “It is a shame that works of such great artists are lying in neglect even after 61 years of independence,” he rues.

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