It’s a journey from the world of art to the world of faith. A 41.5-foot granite statue of Bahubali is wending its tedious way on a 146-wheel trailer truck from Bidadi, Karnataka, where it was made, to Songadh, a Digambar pilgrimage centre in Gujarat. As people flock around it, it’s not the artisan’s hands they marvel at; their rapture is for the lord, who they say is sui generis. It is this swift transference of his work from the realm of the earthly to the divine that master sculptor Ashok Gudigar, who created the monolithic statue over 18 long months, is trying to come to terms with.
Gudigar is likely to get many more orders to sculpt huge figures; indeed, some orders are at his doorstep already. But the question that’s lingering in the mind is this: Will this Bahubali give him a place in history? Will he be able to assert his authorship of it? It’s not that he thinks his work will be forgotten. Indeed, Gudigar believes that, as in the case of the 57-foot Gomateshwara statue in Shravanabelagola, of which this Bahubali is a replica, people will value his work a thousand years from now. But will they also read an inscription that says it was he who created the second tallest Jain statue in the world? At Shravanabelagola, there is a reference to the sculptor’s patron, Chavundaraya, but no mention of the sculptor (said to be Arishtanemi). So, will Gudigar, in this more individual-centred era, be allowed to put his name to it? He is unsure. “If permitted, I’d definitely like to do it,” he says.
Plotted and pieced Gudigar and a scale-marked model of the Bahubali statue
Dreaming this little dream is quite reasonable, given the quality of Gudigar’s work and the ordeals he went through since the time the Shri Kund Kund Kahan Digambar Jain Swadhyay Mandir Trust commissioned the statue two years ago. The Jain trust had settled on Gudigar after a search across Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Karnataka and other states, for the best sculptor it could find at the best price. It was after seeing a 28-foot Hanuman that Gudigar had carved for southern film actor Arjun Sarja that the trust officials felt confident he had the ability to take up the project. After that, they started negotiating the price. “They were pucca businessmen,” says Gudigar. “They went from one sculptor’s workshop to another, found out the cost of the large works they were executing, the time taken, the number of people involved, the wages—everything. They arrived at a figure on the basis of this research and started imposing it on me.” He says they had made a point-by-point calculation, but one that did not take into account the skill, knowledge and artistry he would be bringing to the job. Despite that, he did not want to let the opportunity pass by. “That was my weakness, so I compromised,” he says. “A sculptor from Tamil Nadu had quoted Rs 90 lakh for the job, but I sealed the deal for less than half that amount.”
The challenge had only begun. The single block of granite from which the statue was fashioned weighed 400 tonnes and it had to be transported 100 km from the quarry in Koira to the workshop in Bidadi. Even at the quarry, it had to be hoisted 40 feet to get it out. The company hired to do that messed it up, causing huge losses, which the patrons weren’t willing to compensate for. In the end, it took four months for the block to reach the workshop when it shouldn’t have taken more than 15 days. To ease the extraction and save time, Gudigar went into the quarry to rough-hew the stone. So the Bahubali got its primary contours in the dark womb of the quarry. “I was chipping off instinctively,” he says. “This led to a tiny problem. There is a one-inch discrepancy in the final alignments, but since it is a huge work, it doesn’t make any difference.”
The trust initially wanted a 51-foot statue. But it scaled down its requirements after consultations with the Gujarat government, which, according to Gudigar, was not sure if the bridges leading to Songadh would survive the weight of the statue during transport. Given these uncertainties and risks, the height of the statue was reduced to 41.5 feet, and correspondingly, its width and depth too.
But other earthly worries were to intervene and shake Gudigar’s concentration as he tried to focus on the divine being he was creating. The patrons had said they would pay him in instalments on the basis of the progress made on the statue. But they were unable to reconcile themselves to the sheer slowness of the enterprise, says Gudigar. All along, especially during the planning stage, he had to struggle to convince the patrons that he and his team of 10 sculptors were working. To make up for lack of funds, Gudigar and his team had to undertake other work. “At one point,” he recalls, “I was so upset I told them I’d willingly offer my house as a collateral for payment. All this led to a loss of focus for a while. But once they saw Bahubali shaping up, they didn’t hold back money.”
Bringing a megalith to life is indeed, as Gudigar describes it, a very slow process. The planning stage lasted four months because of the sheer complexity of the task. When a sculpture of this size is made, its base is at eye level and would seem bigger to the viewer than the head and chest. Sculptors work to avoid this effect and achieve a visual, though not actual, proportionateness: they make complex calculations on the basis of which the upper parts of the statue are made slightly bigger than those below. Arriving at the exact measurements for each part takes a long time. “It has to be perfect,” says Gudigar. “There is no chance of correcting any mistakes later.” Finally, the job is done, and the Bahubali will stand on a hillock in Songadh on a pedestal 40 feet high and large enough for 600 worshippers.
Meanwhile, in this age of competitive statue-building, Gudigar finds himself greatly in demand as a creator of divinity from stone. A Christian organisation has approached him with an offer to commission a 35-foot statue of Christ to be erected on the outskirts of Bangalore; he has also been tasked with carving a 30-foot Bahubali for a site in Tamil Nadu. And, trust deficit repaired, his original Jain patrons have also come calling again—this time with a request for a 52-foot Bahubali. One way or the other, it seems this master sculptor will get his place in history.