Meet the 93-year-old sculptor behind the Sardar Patel, Chhatrapati Shivaji statues
As a teenager, Ram Vanji Sutar had been fascinated by the Statue of Liberty – not just by what it stood for but also by how tall it stood on the Liberty Island in New York. From an early age, he had known that he wanted to be a sculptor and he grew up dreaming of creating a statue that would dwarf French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s 305-ft neoclassical robed female figure.
Now 93, Sutar’s life-long ambition was fulfilled on Wednesday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the 522- ft ‘Statue of Unity’ of Sardar Patel on an island in the Narmada near Sardar Sarovar Dam. “It is almost double the size of the Statue of Liberty,” says Sutar proudly, sitting in his Noida studio that the locals call a ‘statue factory’. This is because one can see gigantic fibreglass statue models popping out of the studio premises.
Even before he was commissioned the Sardar Patel statue in 2014, Sutar was India’s tallest sculptor, having to his credit over 8,00 sculptures created mostly in bronze over a career spanning seven decades. “It’s impossible to know if he’s the most prolific monumental sculptor in human history, but if he’s not, he’s got to be pretty close. He’s certainly the most prolific of the last century,” was what Melia Belli Bose, an assistant professor of Asian art history at the University of Texas at Arlington, said about Sutar in an interview to The New York Times.
The Statue of Unity, Sutar says, is by far the most challenging project he has undertaken — before that, his tallest creation was a 45-ft statue of ‘Goddess Chambal’ at Gandhi Sagar dam in Madhya Pradesh in 1959. “Getting the personality, the pose, the facial expressions, the drapery right is a formidable challenge when you design a 522-ft statue. Every muscle has to be sculpted finely with the right texture,” says Sutar, who took about a year to create the final model of the Sardar Patel statue.
In fact, the statue started as a 3-ft model at his studio, which was enlarged to an 18-ft clay model, and then to a 30- ft clay model. “Then we further enlarged it into a full 522- ft thermocol model with the help of 3D imaging,” says his son, Anil Sutar, 61, also an architect and sculptor.
While the statute was designed in Sutar’s Noida studio, it was cast in bronze in a foundry in Nanchang, China. “About 177 tonnes of bronze was used in casting the statue,” says Anil. In fact, the father-and-son duo has made several trips to China in the last three years to oversee the making of the final thermocol model and the casting of the statue, which has now been shipped to India in parts and is being assembled at the site in Gujarat.
Sutar has his own foundry in Sahibabad in Uttar Pradesh, complete with furnaces, wax cranes, grinders and welding machines which can handle about 10 tonnes of bronze casting every day. “But no foundry in the country, including ours, has the infrastructure to cast a statue of this scale in such a short time. In China, they have the tradition of casting 400-ft Buddha statues, and have these big foundries,” says Anil. “ But now we wish to have a foundry where we can handle casting of such mammoth statues.”
Post the Sardar Patel statue, a pet project of Prime Minister Modi, the Sutars have bagged a few similarly gigantic projects. They have already completed the designs for a 400-ft Shivaji statue and a 250-ft Ambedkar statue, both to be installed in Mumbai. The fiberglass models of both statues stand tall at their Noida studio.
There is a spark in Sutar’s eyes as he discusses the giant statues — the taller his statues are, the happier he is. “My father’s life has been like a mountaineer, who sets his goal and with the help of his equipment climbs up step by step, enjoying every moment. After climbing some height, the mountaineer looks down, and feels happy that he has attained a certain height and puts in more efforts to climb higher,” Anil writes in a biography of his father.
Age has not diminished Sutar’s love for his craft — at 93, he comes to the studio every day at 11 am and spends eight hours doing the clay models for statues. Twelve feet is the average size of the statue the father-son duo makes at their studio, most of which are of political figures and industrialists, both famous and not-so-famous.
“Sculpture is much more difficult than painting and involves intensive physical work,” says Ram Sutar, walking around his 20,000 sq ft, high-ceilinged, air-conditioned studio, designed by Anil. The studio is like a sculpture museum, which has on display his entire life’s work, including the numerous busts and statues of Mahatma Gandhi that he is famous for.
Of all the statues he has created, Ram Sutar’s favourites are those of Gandhi, especially his 16 ft-high bronze statue in a meditative pose in Parliament, which has several other statues of national figures designed by him.
Sutar proudly tells us that statues and busts of the Mahatma created by him are installed in over 350 cities across the world. “These were given as gifts to various countries by the Indian government.”
“The challenge while designing the Mahatma’s statue is bringing out the ethereal serenity and the peace on his face,” says Sutar. In fact, he created Gandhi’s first statue in 1948 for a school in Dhule district in Maharashtra. He was 23 then. “But I created my first ever statue in 1947. It was the 7ft high figure of a bodybuilder.”
Sutar was born in 1925 in Gondur, a small village in Dhule district in Maharashtra. His father was a carpenter and blacksmith who used to make bullock carts, tongas and farming tools. As a teenager, Sutar had made a name for himself as a prodigious sculptor in Dhule. After earning a diploma from JJ School of Art, Mumbai, in 1952, he worked with the Archaeological Survey of India on the Elora Caves, where he was tasked with restoring broken stone sculptures.
He came to Delhi in 1959 to join the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP), where he worked as a technical assistant for exhibitions. But he quit his job to take up a freelancing assignment.
His first statue of a national leader as a professional sculptor was a 10-ft bronze statue of Pt Govind Ballabh Pant in 1966. “I was very excited; it was also my first statue to be installed in the capital. I rented a house in South Extension and worked on the statue in its backyard,” he says. The bronze statue was installed at the Krishi Bhavan roundabout. He has since crafted statues of several leaders from Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru to BR Ambedkar to Ram Manohar Lohia. BSP leader and former UP chief minister Mayawati has commissioned him to create statues of various Dalit icons, and also of herself, over the years.
He built his first studio in Delhi in Laxmi Nagar in 1970 and shifted to his current studio in Noida in 2004. Sutar, who received the Padma Bhushan in 2016, says he now wishes to create the world’s tallest statue of Mahatma Gandhi. “He was the tallest messenger of peace,” he says.
But tell him about the controversy created by the astronomical costs of such projects, and he quips: “ Taj Mahal would not have been built if cost considerations had come into play.”
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