How Ram V Sutar dreamt big and went on to create the world's largest statue

Over the past four decades, Ram V Sutar has churned out 50 monumental structures, besides hundreds of smaller statues (Dalip Kumar)
Before signing his name, Ram V Sutar, seated inside his studio, slowly runs his index finger over a letter seeking an audience with the prime minister. It’s obvious that attention to detail is a significant characteristic of the master sculptor who designed the recently unveiled Statue of Unity — now famously, the world’s tallest statue with a height of almost 600 feet.

The 93-year-old has to be one of the most prolific statue-makers of his time. And for someone clearly detail-oriented, his career also displays a fascinating engagement with scale. Over the past four decades, he has churned out 50 monumental structures, besides hundreds of smaller statues. Sutar has been a favourite of ruling politicians through the ages, starting with Jawaharlal Nehru.

He and his son Anil Sutar, also a sculptor, have their studio in Noida. After finishing the humongous statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, aka the Statue of Unity, they are now working on similar if less grand projects dedicated to two other political figures — B R Ambedkar, architect of the Constitution, and Maratha king Shivaji.

The Statue of Unity, which reportedly cost the government close to Rs30 billion, was a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader choosing to deify a Congress leader is, of course, laden with political symbolism. But even before we start talking, Anil Sutar requests me to avoid questions around “speculations and rumours”, such as one about Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath roping them in to build a statue of Rama in Ayodhya. Likewise, queries relating to how much the Sutars got paid for the Statue of Unity.

A crowd of statues of mainly political personalities is lined up in the studio, including on an upper floor of the studio, while a few workers concentrate on a model of Ambedkar. The model is one-tenth the size of the structure that will eventually be built in Dadar, Mumbai. Inside, Ram V Sutar, wearing a khadi kurta and pyjama with his flowing strands of hair slicked back, recounts his journey.

He was born on February 19, 1925, in Gondur village in Dhule, Maharashtra. His father was a carpenter and blacksmith, so he was exposed to smithy, wooden crafts and manufacture of farming implements very early. He was asked to make a wooden figure of Ganesha at the age of seven. He also loved to make murals of Shivaji and his steeds, apart from assisting his father.

He went to a school in a neighbouring village till Class V, and then to Dhulia to finish his schooling. In 1947, he made his first statue, that of a bodybuilder. A year later, he made a bust of Mahatma Gandhi that earned him Rs100 from Ramkrishna Joshi, a schoolteacher who spotted his talent.

Joshi had relatives in Matunga, Mumbai (then Bombay), with whom he arranged for young Sutar to stay even as he asked him to enrol in the prestigious Sir J J School of Art. In acknowledgment of his precocious skills, he was admitted directly to the second year of a five-year diploma course in sculpture. After graduating in 1953, Sutar got a job with the government’s Department of Archaeology, where he worked on restoration of the Ajanta and Ellora caves. Four years later, he moved to Delhi and was employed with the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity. As he was denied any private assignment, he decided to quit in 1959 and began making sculptures in Pragati Maidan. Next up, Parliament , first with a sculpture of the Ashoka Pillar and later of political figures, including, notably, one of Mahatma Gandhi in a meditative pose.

Although he had met Nehru earlier, when the latter had visited Ajanta and Ellora, Sutar caught the attention of the former PM at this time and made his mark with a 45 ft monument deifying the local Chambal goddess at the Gandhi Sagar Dam in Madhya Pradesh.

“In Madhya Pradesh, there was no proper place for a foundation of the dam. The Rajasthan government initially didn’t allow it but in the end agreed to a joint project. I felt the presence of both states had to be depicted, and I made this design,” he says, showing me photos of the sculpture — a mother (Chambal devi) with her two children (the two states) — at a gallery in his studio. The sculpture was made out of a single block of iron sheets piled into forming a huge rock.

“I wanted to make big statues, always think big and never cared about money,” he grins.

The studio gallery has on display small fibreglass models of some of Sutar’s best works. One of them is a statue honouring labourers, which he designed at Nehru’s behest, who wanted it installed when the Bhakra Dam was inaugurated in 1963. And although he approved the design — among the four workers are a driller and concrete mixer —the plan was shelved for lack of funds. After Nehru’s death, Sutar says, nobody cared.

The nonagenarian, whose statues of Gandhi and poet Rabindranath Tagore are to be found in over 350 cities across the world, still works some eight hours a day in his studio. In his spare time, he relaxes with a change of subject. “He will pick up pistachio shells or stones from the riverbed and paint faces and human figures,” says his son, as I look closely at frames on a wall comprising such abstract pieces.

Anil Sutar has been working with his father since 1994. He says although requirements vary for different clients, they get enough time and space from political leaders who approach them for projects. Among them are former UP chief minister Mayawati, who commissioned life-sized statues (including several of herself).

For the Statue of Unity, built over two and a half years, the father-son duo had to travel to China every two months to monitor the bronze cladding for the structure that was made there for want of a foundry in India that could support work of this scale. 

According to Anil Sutar, the ability to infuse realism in sculptures so that one can almost feel the texture of the clothes makes his father’s craft unparalleled.

“People don’t want to work that hard. In art colleges, teachers encourage students to do abstract art and tend to label Ram Sutar as a commercial artist,” he says.

Adwaita Gadanayak, director-general of the National Gallery of Modern Art, and himself a sculptor, calls Ram V Sutar a master of realistic sculpture, with rare expertise in handling clay and portraiture techniques. He also admires his ability to work on a monumental project like the Sardar Patel statue despite lacking facilities at home.
Gadanayak adds that the lack of urban planning in India is reflected in the growing penchant among the ruling classes for erecting statues that match their political ambition. “Traditionally, the sculptures that were made in India, be it in Ajanta and Ellora or Konarak, were linked to society. Our culture was based on rich symbolism, so we never made statues of people. That concept was introduced by the British.”

The Sutars aren’t complaining, and perhaps not even interested in this possible area of debate.

Their work is simply about continuing a craft honed over generations. And, meeting expectations of monumental proportions.

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