Statues of Historical Figures Lie in a Shambles at Guwahati
"A nation that does not honour its heroes (martyrs) will not long endure." - Abraham Lincoln
Like every other Indian city, Guwahati has its fair share of towering statues to commemorate the prominent personalities of the region. There is a sculpture of almost every legendary person of the state that dots the city’s various localities.
But the pathetic conditions in which these same dedications are left in compel us to reflect: Are we actually honouring our heroes? Doesn’t this bad maintenance amount to dishonouring them instead?
Constructed from the tax payers’ money by established and prominent artists, the statues are often part of political parties’ election agenda, as the sentiments associated with each luminary is immense.
A walk by the Brahmaputra riverside, starting from Bharalumukh to Panbazar onwards (the stretch that was included in the Guwahati Smart-City mega project) one comes across a number of such statues.
Starting from the Bharalumukh bridge, adjacent to the dirty Bharalu ‘drain’ is the statue of freedom fighter Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri followed by a memorial for the freedom fighters of Assam including Kanaklata Barua, Kushal Konwar, Maniram Dewan, Piyoli Phukan, Kamala Miri, and Bhogeshwari Phukanani. A few more steps and the statue of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala stand tall. Just opposite to that is the statue of Tarun Ram Phukan.
But the way these statues are currently maintained, does it do justice to the contributions these luminaries have made towards the development of the Assamese society?
Narrating the condition of the monument of Bir Lachit Borphukan, a senior advocate of Gauhati High Court, Bhaskar Dev Konwar recently posted on Facebook, “Lachit Borphukan is our pride. It's not enough to make a monument in honour of him and dedicating a day i.e., 24th November as Lachit Divas. But to truly honour him we must maintain it in all its glory.”
The 35 feet tall statue of the great Ahom General was installed in 2017 on the mighty river Brahmaputra. The monument does not just honour the great hero but also depicts the glorious Battle of Saraighat.
Constructed with an expenditure of more than Rs. 8 crores, the concept was designed by eminent sculptor Biren Singha. Its foundation stone was laid in 2011 and it took 6 years to complete; it was supported by Gammon India Limited which constructed the concrete pedestal.
Within three years, the statue reeks of ill-maintenance as the pedestal is covered in a black plastic sheet – a complete eyesore!
Further, the park on the river bank standing opposite the statue and dedicated to the life of the Ahom hero and the Battle of Saraighat, is now in shambles. The sculptural depiction of the Battle on the walls of the park goes unnoticed even to the passerby due to the overgrowth of the once decorative plants.’ With the lockdown in place for months, these public monuments have almost lost its identity.
“The majestic view is blocked by anchoring of the ferries around it, and it is now also a bathing ghat for some people which ought to have been banned. There is no dustbin and proper lighting facilities in the area,” wrote Bhaskar Dev Konwar.
G Plus reached out to Biren Singha for his thoughts on the lack of upkeep of the creations that are born out of an artist’s hard labour as well as emotions.
“Our society is yet to understand its responsibilities and duties towards our heritage, culture and history. We have lots to learn, especially from the European society,” he said.
Narrating a learning incident from his life, Singha recalled, “I was asked to make the sculpture of Frederick William Sudmerson, the first Principal of Cotton College, during their centenary celebration in 2001. I was also invited for the inaugural program alongside Sudmerson’s grand-daughter, who came all the way from London. I had dressed up in my best for such a prestigious occasion, but I was shocked to see his grand-daughter wearing a very old dress.”
“I was already wondering about this when she was called on the stage. After being felicitated, she started her speech by pointing out at her dress. Apparently, the dress she was wearing was hundred years old. It was the same dress that Frederick William Sudmerson’s wife wore on their wedding,” he added.
“I was left in awe. Never had I imagined that a dress could be worn after 100 long years. That day I realised how well the Europeans know how to preserve their inheritance and legacy. Do you think we can acquire such habits? An artist gives a lot to his creations. Every creation is a child, and this must be understood by all.”
Dr. Hemen Ram Phukan, grandson of Deshbhakta Tarun Ram Phukan, speaking about the negligence of the luminary’s statue by successive governments said, “None of the governments have done anything for the maintenance of the statue that remains forgotten at one corner of the park (Phukan Park of Bharalumukh). Earlier there was just the bust of our grandfather. Then the government built a complete life size bronze figure. But it was forgotten thereafter. None of the governments have ever bothered to pay respect here, not even on his birth and death anniversaries. Our family pays the due respect on every anniversary at the statue and perform the rituals.”
“And it is a bronze statue. A few years ago someone painted it back. I saw it much later as I was not in Guwahati. I do not understand why a bronze statue should be covered in black. We also have a pedestal in our campus that was built by the government to commemorate the very place where Mahatma Gandhi burned foreign goods during the Swadeshi Movement when he had visited Gauhati. But the main fire-like sculpture was made of wood and perished with time. Now only the pedestal is there. It was never remade. Not just Tarun Ram Phukan, even Nabin Bordoloi and many others are now forgotten,” he added sadly.
Often it is seen that NGOs and organisations are allotted the task of maintaining the area and the statue adjacent to such monuments. But the parks are often left without proper care and what is even more saddening is that the figures that are usually made of bronze are painted with other colours in the name of maintenance and upkeep.
We can cite the example of the life size statue of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and the freedom fighter’s monument at Bharalumukh. Both these parks were taken over by Lions Club of Guwahati City for maintenance. However, instead of maintaining the originality of the statues, the sculpture of Jyoti Prasad has been painted in white and the other in red.
Biren Singha informed that although its best to keep the bronze statues polished, they can also be painted as bronze tends to change colour due to atmospheric reactions. But spray painting is advisable as harsh brush painting by anyone without proper knowledge may eradicate the intricate carvings on them.
G Plus reached out to members of the Lions Club to enquire about the repainting done on the bronze statues. We wanted to know why such a beautiful sparking bronze figure was suddenly painted a dull white, and red was painted on the all golden brown structures of Assam’s freedom fighters.
Bineet Bagaria, project Chairman for the maintenance of the park, said that Lions Club only looked after the park and was unaware as to who was responsible for the painting activities.
But residents of the area confirmed that the statues were painted by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation as a part of their river front beautification drive ahead of the Indo-Japan summit when all buildings and properties along MG Road were painted. The summit did not materialize eventually.
“It is the most accurate statue of Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwala in the entire state. Its posture, the size, the ‘cheleng sador’, everything was appreciated by Neera Dogra to be of utmost perfection.
But GMC was the least to understand its value and thought it better to paint the beautiful bronze figure rather than polish it. By the time we saw what had happened, it was already too late. The bronze had turned white,” said residents of the area.
This is however just one area of the city with quite a few statues of visionaries and freedom fighters that we have pointed out in this article. Across the city there are many more that remain abandoned year round only to be cleaned and paid respects on anniversaries. Another such neglected structure is the epitaph of Dr. Banikanta Kakati at Ulubari. The epitaph is right in the middle of the footpath.
Although a memorial shed with a larger epitaph was constructed nearby, the desolate state it is in is saddening.
G Plus took stock of the government departments responsible for maintenance of the statues. While the Lachit Borphukan Memorial is under the tourism department, a few statues in public parks are looked after by Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority or GMDA. The authorities responsible for the remaining others were unknown.
“No matter who is the concerned authority, people must also learn to take responsibilities and speak up for our heroes, our heritage. We cannot always put the blame on the government. It is time we learn stand up for our society,” said Biren Singha.
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