The spectacle of sculpture

At a time when people seem to be talking about statues — and their relevance, or extravagance — it seems an appropriate moment to wonder whether these qualify as works of art. The massive Statue of Unity, at 597 ft, appears more spectacle than sculpture, and probably is intended as such. Though it has promoted a welcome discussion around Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and his role in shaping India’s history, the single descriptor when referring to the statue is as the world’s tallest. To refer to any work of art by volume seems a desecration of the artist’s intent — even though the commission to Ram Sutar was clearly size-driven rather than aesthetically motivated.

J J School of Art alumni Ram Sutar made his career making sculpture portraits of, mostly, political eminences. A large number of the busts we are used to seeing of, say, Gandhi, Ambedkar or Nehru owe their existence to him. As such, the nature of Ram Sutar’s practice has been reductive, almost a cloning of his own, earlier statues of leaders, but every once in a while he has risen to artistic prominence with such works as Gandhi’s Dandi March, popularly referred to as “Gyarah Murti”, on a pivotal location in New Delhi. The Statue of Unity bears Ram Sutar’s signature, but is he its creator, or is that something that Larsen & Toubro can claim as the company that approached it in the manner of an infrastructure project?

The National Police Memorial in Delhi is the kind of structure that does credit to the institution of the police, the city and its immediate surroundings
The Statue of Unity in Gujarat was commissioned at almost the same time as the National Police Memorial in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri. The National Police Memorial has been a while in the making, the Delhi Urban Arts Commission having protested about an earlier ugly structure, which was taken down following a vocal, public protest. The memorial that replaces it is of some significance — it is the kind of sculpture, or installation, that does credit to the institution of the police, the city and its immediate surroundings, as well as the artist who was commissioned to make it — Adwaita Gadanayak. Consisting of a specially hewn piece of solid rock, it has a solidity about it. It may not be entirely original in its approach but its sculptor can take pride in its making. In years to come, it will be studied by art students for its ability to transcend time. 

We can be sure that these two instances are the beginning of a fresh impetus for public art, even though their function seems to be to memorialise rather than create aesthetic junctions in our cities. Mumbai will soon have a Shivaji memorial in the Arabian Sea akin to New York’s Statue of Liberty. There seems to be some idea that a spurt in such memorials is on the rise in India. They may not quality strictly as public “art”, but there can be no doubt that they will go some way in creating conversations around it. In a sense, this mirrors another recent phenomenon of erecting mega-sized tricolours to instil a sense of pride among countrymen. But given the scale of these flags, they appear like installations — and so might be regarded as art by some, even though they are repetitive rather than creative. 

Cities have, of late, begun to feel the need for art-driven spaces. New Delhi’s Connaught Place has made some attempts to add sculptures, though they bear an institutional stamp rather than a creative temperament. Railway stations are being painted ingenuously. States such as Bihar and Kerala have made some inroads in this direction. Anything that replaces the ugly cement busts that constituted public memorials in the past can at least be an improvement. 
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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