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Significance of skull under Mahatma Gandhi’s feet in Ramkinkar statue

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Seminal Indian artist Ramkinkar Baij was a genius and so were his expressions while sculpting Mahatma Gandhi’s statues. For he sculpted quite a few, the one in Guwahati had recently attracted the ire of many politicians who found the statue distorted! One politician even commented: “Look at the disproportionate hands and feet. They do not resemble those of the Mahatma in any manner. His face is distorted, as also the pair of glasses.”

Ramkinkar Baij of Tagore’s Santiniketan was notoriously unconcerned about fame and posterity. Often considered as the father of modern sculpture in India, his joy of art lay in creation. His bas relief sculpture Dandi March too faced scorn when it was to be installed at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi to commemorate the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s trek from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi. “What is there in it?” a panel member had scoffed. “Just a man with a stick in his hand.”

Ramkinkar Baij had made a model of Gandhi remembering his last visit to Santiniketan. It was done in the late 1940s. It is now sitting at the National Gallery of Modern Art and is more stylised in my opinion than the later stylised versions. It was first enlarged into a concrete structure at Kalabhavan and this work was overseen by Ramkinkar himself in 1968. A year later, he made a bronze cast to be installed at Guwahati.

Ramkinkar’s work was often criticised by those who had no idea of his skills and imagination. He was a curious mix of the real/natural and the conceptual. He refused to be bound by the two opposite styles, using them both as he found fit. Under Nandalal Bose and the Bengal School of Art, he was naturalistic but he broke away from them under the influence of the Expressionists of Europe. His understanding of the human anatomy was influenced by Picasso and Rodin. He was a modernist in the true sense of the term. He stuck to the structural quality of the human body to define the body well. The statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Santiniketan has a skull below the feet which many believe was an expression of Baij regarding the Noakhali riots. It might be a reflection of the times when Gandhi came to Bengal after the riots.