Public Art: Sculptures by Deviprasad Roy Chowdhury capture key moments in Indian History

Deviprasad Roy Chowdhury (b.1899-d.1975) was an Indian artist and sculptor from Bengal. Though he initially trained in painting, it is his monumental sculptures at public spaces that he is remembered for. These sculptures, skilful and realistic in their execution could easily remind one of Auguste Rodin’s work. D.P Roy Chowdhury was hugely inspired by the French sculptor and his own work captures the moving human body almost perfectly.

In this post, we look at some of his key sculptures in Delhi, Chennai, Trivandrum and Patna that reveal unforgettable moments in Indian history.

1. At the Shahid Samarak (Martyrs Memorial) in Patna, DP Roy Chowdhury immortalizes the student lives lost in the Indian freedom struggle

Outside the old Patna Secretariat, you’d find this bronze sculpture featuring 7 men dressed in dhoti-kurtas who seem to be charging ahead in protest. The first figure, in leading position holds a flag, points towards the destination, urging his mates to follow. Behind him, three of the men seem to fall as others continue to march ahead with a sense of purpose. This sculpture was commissioned after India attained Independence, opening to public view in October 1956.

Here’s the backstory : Responding to Gandhi’s call (8th August, 1942) for a Quit India movement, freedom fighters across the country took the streets, leading non-violent demonstrations. Sensing trouble, the British proceeded to arrest an ailing Rajendra Prasad (prominent satyagrahi, later the first Indian President) as a ‘preemptive measure’. This enraged other freedom fighters such as Dr. Anugrah Narain & Dr. Srikrishna Sinha who marched out in protest, seeking to hoist the Congress flag at the Patna Secretariat. Their subsequent arrest led to almost 6000 students assembling in Patna (from all parts of Bihar) to participate in a demonstration on August 11, 1942.

Worried by the circumstances, the then Viceroy Linlithgow telegrammed Churchill, comparing the movement to 1857.

I am engaged here in meeting by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world.

Viceroy Linlithgow to Winston Churchill in a telegram (1942).

Failing to control or disperse the crowd, W.G Archer (the District Magistrate of Patna, also known for his writings on Indian art) ordered the police to open fire – a grim reminder of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh firing. 7 people lost their lives, 14 were wounded. Their names engraved on the memorial, the satyagrahis cease to be mere numbers.

A commemorative postage stamp (1942 QUIT INDIA) Source

* Umakant Prasad Sinha(Raman Ji) – of Ram Mohan Roy Seminary, Class IX, Narendrapur, Saran
* Ramanand Singh – Ram Mohan Roy Seminary, Class IX, Sahadat Nagar, Patna
* Satish Prasad Jha – Patna Collegiate School, Class X, Khadahara, Bhagalpur
* Jagatpati Kumar – Bihar National College, 2nd year, Kharati, Aurangabad
* Devipada Choudhry – Miller High English School, Class IX, Silhat, Jamalpur
* Rajendra Singh – Patna High English School, Class X, Banwari Chak, Saran
* Ramgovind Singh – Punpun High English School, Class IX, Dasharatha, Patna

If you’re wondering about the flag, indeed, it was hoisted, owing to the heroism of another student – one missing in the sculpture. Read more about Ram Krishna Sinha, a 3rd year student of Patna College in this article by The Telegraph.

Roy Chowdhury’s composition is a timeless representation of public protests and a reminder of student-lives lost in making of India. Ironically, the sculpture commission was overseen by Dr. Srikrishna Sinha who became the first Chief Minister, and was unveiled by Dr. Rajendra Prasad.

2. The ‘Gyarah Murti’ in Delhi by DP Roy Chowdhury is a tribute to the Gandhian ideal of non-violence and highlights its role in the Indian freedom struggle

Photo : Priyanka Parashar for a Gandhi-at-150 series by Mint

The Gyarah-Murti (sculpture of 11 people) is easily one of the most recognizable sculptures in India – if you haven’t seen it in person, you have seen it on our currency (or in a google doodle)! This iconic work is located outside the President House, at the end of T-Junction of Sardar Patel Marg in New Delhi, and was commissioned by the Government of India in 1962.

The reverse of a 500-rupee note, now discontinued.

The composition features Gandhi leading 10 people as part of the Dandi March of 1930 : a 240 mile walk against the oppressive salt tax imposed by the British. Take a closer look at the sculpture – it captures the sense of determination and urgency of the satyagrahis perfectly. It is commonly believed that some of the figures in the sculpture are modelled on the freedom fighters Matangini Hazra, Sarojini Naidu, Brahmabandhab Upadhyay and Abbas Tyabji, while many have stated that is simply a representation of people from all faiths.

This 26-m-long and 3-m-high bronze sculpture took 6 years to create; DP Roy Chowdhury passed away before its completion, which was then undertaken by his wife and students.  

3. ‘The Triumph of Labour’ in Chennai by DP Roy Chowdhury commemorates India’s first Labour-Day, aligning with a global movement.

Triumph of Labour, NGMA New Delhi

An important landmark in Chennai, you’d find this sculpture at the Marina Beach (or a similar one outside the NGMA in New Delhi). It was unveiled to the public on the 25th January, 1959 – eve of the Republic Day.

Here’s the backstory: On May 1, 1923, M. Singaravelar Chettiar (1860-1946), organized India’s first Labour Day (or May Day) and launched the Labour Kisan Party, committed to protect the interests and rights of the working classes. Singaravelar was initially aligned with the Indian National Congress under Gandhi’s leadership and was one of the prominent leaders from the Madras Presidency. Within six months of the Russian Revolution, Singravelar (along with others) had formed the ‘Madras Labour Union‘ (27 April 1918) – the first trade union in India. The union led a 6-month long strike against British exploitation of mill-workers at Buckingham and Carnatic Mills.

Deviprasad Roy Chowdhury’s sculpture stands close to the site where Singaravelar hosted the first Labour-Day celebrations. The earliest sculpture to be erected on the beach, it features four figures engaged in the formidable task of moving a boulder. The sculpture acknowledges the intense physical effort and the hard work of countless workers who play a big role in shaping India.

The monumental size and formation of the figures (with a focus on the muscles) can leave the viewer overwhelmed.

4. The statue of Sree Chithira Thirunal Maharaja at Pattom Thanupilla Park, Thiruvananthapuram by DP Roy Chowdhury

The statue of Sree Chithira Thirunal Maharaja at Pattom Thanupilla Park, Thiruvananthapuram, Wikimedia Commons , Aravind Sivaraj CC-BY-SA

On November 12, 1936, at the height of the Indian Independence movement, the last Maharaja of Travancore, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma issued a royal proclamation removing restrictions on Dalit entry into Hindu temples. A sculpture of the Maharaja commemorates this historic declaration. The statue was unveiled in 1940 by the Maharaja Rana of Dholpur; a bronze bas-relief on the pedestal (also by DP Roy Chowdhury) depicted harijans (untouchables) entering the temple.

Here’s the backstory: At the heart of the Vaikom Satyagraha, was the Vaikom Mahadeva Temple which did not permit anyone other than upper caste Hindus to use the public road around it. The protest lasted 604 days (March 30, 1924 – November 23, 1925) and resulted in the Temple Entry Proclamation.

Deviprasad Roy Chowdhury is known to have chosen his subjects from the street rather than rely on studio models which was common practice in art schools of the time. He went on teach at the Government College of Fine Arts in Madras from 1928 – 58; in 1958 he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour.

Image: DAG World.
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