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September 18, 2000
The Mahatma's sculptor
Savera R Someshwar in Washington
Gautam Pal just could not stop smiling. Five hours had passed since he met and shook hands with the 42nd president of the United States of America, but a sense of euphoria still hung around him like a soft cloud.
"It was beyond my expectation that I would meet President Clinton," says Gautam, his eyes shining with the memory of that moment.
A resident of Calcutta, Pal was standing among the special invitees as he watched the prime minister and the US president participate in the dedication ceremony of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Among the witnesses to the occasion in the leafy glade was the 100-year-old weeping beech tree.
The eight feet, eight inches tall statue had been painstakingly crafted in bronze over a period of seven months.
Pal first heard about the government's decision to install a statue in Washington DC through a letter he received from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations towards the end of 1998. It invited him to submit a sample of the statue he would create if he were selected. Similar letters were sent to 11 other sculptors from all over the country.
"When I read that the statue would be located in Washington," Pal recalls, even as he signed autographs for appreciative members of the Indian community in Washington, "I was even more determined to make sure I would be selected."
One-and-a-half months later, at a cost of Rs 20,000 which was borne by the Government of India, a Plaster of Paris model was ready.
"I had put all my efforts into making a perfect model," says Pal. "Three Ps – pose, proportion and portrait – are required to make the perfect sculpture. For my pose, I chose the immortal Dandi march. It is a common choice, but it is a posture that is most representative of Gandhi. I consulted several photographs to get the exact determined expression on his face."
Pal and his sculpture then travelled to New Delhi by train. He left the statue at the ICCR, where it was to be judged by a selection committee comprising of Vice-President Krishan Kant, B C Sanyal, Satish Gujral, Rajmohan Gandhi, Kapila Vatsyayan and H V Sharda Prasad.
One-and-a-half months later, the committee had made their choice. Sanyal called Pal and told him the United States Fine Arts Commission wanted to see a sample of the statue.
Pal returned to Delhi, where the Government of India provided him with a studio and a place to stay. A fortnight later, a three foot fibreglass replica – at the cost of Rs 20,000 borne by the Government of India – was ready to be flown to the United States. It is now exhibited at the Indian embassy in Washington.
In a time-consuming, painstaking process, Pal – with the help of 20 assistants – created first a plaster cast, then a piece mould, then a wax model. The final bronze structure statue – created in five parts that were carefully welded together -- weighed somewhere between two-and-a-half to three tons. It cost Pal – and the Government of India – somewhere between Rs 800,000 to Rs 900,000.
The statue was sent to the United States. The dedication ceremony was slated for some time in September 1999. At about the same time, Pal's mother fell seriously ill and had to be hospitalised.
"Her biggest worry," recalls Pal sadly, "was that I would not be able to go for the dedication ceremony. I told her not to worry, that I would go later."
A few days later, on October 8, Pal's mother passed away. "I miss her very much. I have been thinking about her all through this trip."
In another blow to Pal, the statue was not dedicated as planned. "First, the pedestal was not ready. Then," explains Pal, "the government fell and the election took place."
The statue, obviously, receded in importance.
Until the prime minister of India was invited, and accepted, President Clinton's invitation to pay a visit to the United States of America.
Fifty-one-year-old Pal, who hails from Krishnagar – a hundred kilometres from Calcutta; this little West Bengal town is famous for its little clay models – can trace his family's roots to the last nine generations. "Though my family always made clay models, it was my father who first began making sculptures."
A bachelor in science, Pal went on to do a degree in sculpture from the Government Art College in Calcutta before specialising in the art from the Brera Academy in Italy.
Pal's sculptures grace government buildings in many states, but most of them can be seen in West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Orissa. Another Gandhi statue made by him for the Government of India is now displayed in Moscow. His statues have also been installed in the United Kingdom, Italy and China.
His most popular creation are statues of Mother Teresa, Rabindranath Tagore and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi.
But, amongst his most memorable sculptures, he lists the 18 foot statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose now installed at Parliament House in New Delhi.
And, of course, the Gandhi statue now installed in Washington.
"President Clinton loved the sculpture," he glowed. "After he saw it, he himself asked, 'Where is the sculptor?' "
Pal was rushed from behind the rope barrier to meet the two leaders. "President Clinton told me it was 'a magnificent statue. When I was in front of it, I felt that Mahatma Gandhi was walking towards me.' "
The president then asked the official White House photographer to shoot a photograph with Pal.
As for the prime minister? "You know Vajpayeeji does not speak much. But he was very happy," smiles Pal. "He just smiled at me gently and said, 'Aap Bengal se hai na?' "
rediff.com assigned Associate Editors Amberish K Diwanji and Savera R Someshwar to cover Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the United States. Log into rediff.com to read news and features about this historic visit.
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