Iconic steel sculpture joins others vandalised by urban 'renewal' across India

Where once was a soaring 30-foot sculpture of welded steel at a traffic roundabout in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, there is now a concrete flyover to ease the city's chronic traffic congestion problems. The “Flight of Steel,” installed by artist and Padma Bhushan awardee, Jatin Das, it appears, has been cruelly cut short by the exigencies of urban planning, prompting a debate on the role of public art and the limits of an artist's control over his work.

“The sculpture was commissioned by the Steel Authority of India Limited in 1995 and completed in 1996,” said Mr. Das in an interview at his studio in Delhi. Mr. Das spent several weeks touring the Bhilai Steel Plant, one of SAIL's most profitable plants, meeting workers, picking up pieces of scrap metal and thinking of an appropriate artistic form.

“It was the first time I had worked with steel, I was like a child in a toy shop,” said Mr. Das, explaining that he was involved in each step of the process starting with the selection of the site. “There were all these advertising hoardings around the roundabout, but they removed them at my request. The aesthetics of the whole place were changed,” Mr. Das said. The installation was first called “Bird in Flight,” but was re-titled “Flight of Steel” at the suggestion of the poet Dom Moraes, a friend of the artist.

In February this year, Mr. Das emailed the chairman of the Bhilai Steel Plant, informing him that he was coming to Chhattisgarh on an unrelated visit and hoped to see his sculpture. “I hadn't gone back since it was put up,” Mr. Das said, but there was no response from the chairman's office, so he decided to go by himself. “When I went to the location, there was nothing,” he said. A cigarette seller near the site handed him a newspaper clipping which said officials had cut down the sculpture and would reinstall it at the Bhilai zoo, an action that Mr. Das has described as “vandalism.”

Yet artists in Delhi say that “Flight of Steel” is only one among a fast disappearing number of commissioned art works.

In the late 1970s, muralist Mohinder Puri made a large ceramic tile (12 feet by 8 feet) mural on the façade of the Priya Cinema Hall in Basant Lok in New Delhi. “It was an eye with the iris depicted as an aperture, with dancing figures on the sides and the faces of the crowds on the borders,” Mr. Puri said. “But it was removed when the cinema hall was renovated.

“One of Satish Gujaral's first and best murals was a ceramic he did for the front of Odeon cinema, which was removed when the hall was refurbished. Balbir Singh Katt did an abstract sculpture which was removed and replaced by the Dandi March sculpture,” said Mr. Puri, explaining that art works across the country were being removed without informing the artists and with little attempts to preserve the work. “Even government buildings sometimes paint over their murals,” Mr. Puri said, citing the instance of the Subrata Kundu mural on the Post office on Parliament Street that has since been removed.

“If art is meant for the public, then the public should have a say,” said Pooja Sood, Curator and Director of Khoj, an independent art space in Khirkee village in Delhi, suggesting that the conversation could be steered towards how public art works are installed and commissioned in a city like Delhi. “We need a more participatory and engaged approach, with temporary works which allow people to engage with the art, think about it and decide if they want to keep it or not,” she said.