Senior artists in Kolkata say politics has taken over and there is no policy on public art
Is art only for hanging in elegant drawing rooms? One artist who always said no was Shanu Lahiri, also called Kolkata's "First Lady of Public Art". She gave the city "Poroma" — a towering idol of a tribal woman that had pride of place at a traffic roundabout on an arterial road. But that was torn down in 2014 by the state.
Now, a mural the length of an Olympic swimming pool has been painted over in two shades of Kolkata's favourite colour — blue.
Her family has just a few photos left of the mural — a rural scene, a shepherd with a flute, lots of green and yellow, painted 33 years ago by Shanu Lahiri with many other artists, celebrities and ordinary folk adding a lick of paint or two.
Today, everything is blue, painted over about six months ago by the state government's transport department to which the wall "belongs".
"There was a huge scaffolding. Artists would have to climb on it to paint the top part of the mural. I would do a lot of that myself," recalls Chandra Bhattacharjee, now a top artist. At that time he was a second-year student at Kolkata's Government Art College. "It was a fabulous work of art. Usha Uthup, Aparna Sen, I have seen them writing on the wall, I love Kolkata. It's gone. All the memories are gone."
Locals say an electronics company that had offices on this road would maintain the wall art. But it moved out some 10 years ago and the art fell into disrepair
Balai Dolui, who never met Shanu Lahiri but knows of her work, was shocked at the news of the "whitewash". "It's very bad. Shanu Lahiri was a pioneer in public art in Kolkata. As young artists, she was inspiration and it is a disgrace her work is gone."
Locals say an electronics company that had offices on this road would maintain the wall art. But it moved out some 10 years ago and the art fell into disrepair. The transport department, the wall's owner, thought nothing of painting it over.
Mr P Patnaik, the manager of the government estate, said, "The painting had become very faint and trees had sprouted out of the wall. We had to do maintenance. So plastering and painting was done. Though the decision was not mine, but taken at a higher level."
Shanu Lahiri's Poroma statue had not faded, yet the government pulled it down in 2014 to replace it with a logo of Biswa Bangla — a blue revolving ball, all conceptualised by the chief minister.
"There was a huge scaffolding. Artists would have to climb on it to paint the top part of the mural. I would do a lot of that myself," recalls Chandra Bhattacharjee, a top artist
Self-trained artist Ayoti Ghosh, who had put her works on display at Charukala Mela, a state government-backed art fair at Nandan complex, had just a one-word response to both the pulling down of Paroma and the whitewashing of the wall art. "Outrageous," she said.
Damayanti Lahiri, Shanu Lahiri's daughter, is having to deal with the second assault on her mother's legacy. "Several people are saying why are they targeting Shanu Lahiri? I tell them they are not targeting her. There is just no space for public art. But it is really sad. In place of original art, why are we going for conveyor belt-like art that's put up everywhere?"
"Conveyor belt art" in Kolkata's upmarket Salt Lake township includes, in ugly grey plastic, plaster casts of incongruous angels at traffic roundabouts and attempts at copying Atlas, the iconic bronze statue in front of the Rockerfeller Centre in New York City.
Senior artists in the city who asked not to be named say politics has taken over and there is no policy on public art. Statues put up in the city are unaesthetic moulds and an embarrassment to the city, they say.