Saving art from babudom

It all turned out to be a storm in a teacup after all, the Assam government’s attempt to replace Ramkinkar Baij’s sculpture of Gandhiji with another that resembled him better than India’s first modernist’s chose to represent him. The media hue and artists’ cries put paid to that attempt, but it isn’t the first and won’t be the last as long as their detriment because, of course, government interference means the only thing it does effectively: levy bans (or, in this case, stop them from being taken out of the country, even if only for exhibiting them). Or they relegate commissioned works, such as of sculptor Amar Nath Sehgal, to the basement when a fire-ravaged Vigyan Bhawan undergoes renovation.

Public money spent on art in public sector undertakings such as Air India mysteriously disappear, and no one is accountable for the loss to the exchequer, or to you and me as tax-paying Indians. Where is a record of ITDC’s art collection? And of other PSUs which, in their heyday, did spend a percentage of their money on acquiring art as a way of promoting it — but which is now likely squandered away.

We deface our architectural heritage, so why should we baulk at disfiguring or dismantling works of art that no one even knows the origins of? If Assam’s political establishment knew nothing of Baij’s role in the making of the Gandhi sculpture — it actually desecrated it with coats of paint every year! — it’s because it is not sensitised to the cultural heritage it keeps trotting up as “tradition” without a clue about what that actually means. As for the bureaucratic establishment that did not see fit to place a plaque with the artist’s name and the work’s provenance and history beside it, can anything better be expected?

A sculpture by Ramkinkar Baij at Santiniketan. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Biswarup Ganguly)
The Baij sculpture’s removal might have been stayed, but there is no count of works of commissioned art that have been removed or defaced through abysmal levels of ignorance. The National Gallery of Modern Art is in the process of digitising the contents of all state museums — a long overdue process — but why has something similar not been attempted with regard to public buildings and institutions? Ageing murals across the country are simply plastered over in the name of maintenance instead of being restored; officials rarely know the history of the buildings they occupy. 

The only way to check this malaise is for babudom to be forced to ingest a degree of art and culture as an essential part of their annual appraisal exercise. How many museums did they visit? Archaeological sites? Music performances? Do they know the difference between the ragas? Since they impact public life and decisions, should they not be aware of the culture they represent and ensure that it is safeguarded? Alas, all of this is only possible in an idealised world, but one can still hope…

Meanwhile, having been the cause of the heated exchange of words in the media, one should use the occasion to celebrate Baij’s legacy. The twin Yaksha-Yakshi sculptures outside the Reserve Bank of India building in New Delhi have their admirers, but in Santiniketan, Baij’s alma-mater, where his best-known, life-size sculptures were made and installed, protective walls and built infrastructure have managed to despoil the sanctity of Baij’s vision. It might be too late to remove these now, but further corruption can be arrested by the simple measure of highlighting Baij’s contribution to the world of Indian art as its first modernist sculptor.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated


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