On a scorching Friday afternoon, 64-year-old social worker Ramesh Asmar is among several visitors to the National Salt Satyagraha Memorial in Dandi, Gujarat. But Asmar has a special connection with the memorial, which stands at the site where Gandhi concluded the historical salt march in 1930.
“My grandfather Motiram Asmar was a staunch Gandhian. He joined Bapu on the march from Navsari to Dandi,” says Asmar. He still has the China clay jar in which his grandfather brought back salt. “I was curious to see if my grandfather had been captured in any of the archival photographs at the memorial.”
The memorial is striking, but still in the making. Its hasty inauguration, in January this year, by the Prime Minister has upset many involved in the project. Some are unhappy with what they feel is shoddy civil work. But that hasn’t stopped people like Asmar from visiting. The memorial has seen a remarkable increase in footfall since it opened, sometimes going up to 30,000 on weekends.
I walk along a pathway with 24 murals that depict the important interactions that Gandhi had at the 24 halts in the march. It leads to an area where life-size statues of the 80 marchers stand tall. At the centre is Gandhi, five metres tall, overlooking a lake. The statue stands between two giant pillars, 40 metres high, that hold up an illuminated glass cube. The 2-tonne cube symbolises a single salt crystal while the V-shaped pillars symbolise Gandhi’s hands. And after sunset, the salt crystal comes alive with laser lights.
Walking out, I find myself on a pathway lined with solar panels shaped like trees. It leads to an area where visitors can make their own salt and carry it back as a souvenir. “The experience is incomplete without making the salt,” says Tushar Gandhi, member of the High-Level Dandi Memorial Committee (HLDMC).
Essentially, a visitor to the memorial relives history. On March 12, 1930, Gandhi set out on a 241 mile journey along with 80 satyagrahis. He concluded the 24-day march in Dandi village, and on April 6, picked up a handful of salt, thus breaking the salt law. The simple act shook the British Empire and sowed the seeds for the freedom struggle.
“It’s a unique memorial, created with people’s participation. IIT-Bombay was appointed as a nodal agency for design and technology for the first time,” says Gandhi, a great-grandson of the Mahatma.
Juzer Vasi is a professor in IIT-B’s electrical engineering department. He tells me that IIT-B was invited to solarise the memorial based on Gandhi’s ethos of self-sufficiency. “As things developed, IIT-B got more and more involved, and we were designated the ‘design co-ordinating agency’ in 2011”.
The 40 solar ‘trees’ — each with 12 panels — sustain the entire memorial and even generate 25% surplus electricity. Vasi credits the conceptualisation of the installations to Kirti Trivedi, former professor from IIT’s Industrial Design Centre. “Prof. Tridevi made major contributions to the design, including the light pyramid, the salt cube, the lake, the main Gandhi statue, the sculptures of the 80 marchers, and the 24 murals.”
Gandhi’s statue was made by well-known sculptor Sadashiv Sathe, while the others were sculpted by 40 artists from India, Austria, Bulgaria, Burma, Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, U.K. and the U.S. “Some statues were created by master sculptors to give a broad idea of how the marchers should look,” says Raja Mohanty, professor, Industrial Design Centre. There were photographs and video footage for reference as well.
The 24 narrative murals made of clay and cast in silicon-bronze were created by a team of sculptors from Hyderabad’s Jawaharlal Nehru Architecture and Fine Arts University. “We travelled the original route with a team of sculptors to get a feel of the vegetation and terrain,” says Mohanty.
One of the murals narrates the story of how labourers were hired to carry lights so that the marchers could see the path ahead. The extravagance made Gandhi say “turn the searchlight inward”. Another mural depicts how teenage students were sent ahead on bicycles to gather information for the marchers. They were called ‘ arun tukdi ’.
Spread over 15 acres and built at a cost of over ₹70 crore, the memorial is ambitious. But flawed. I can’t help but notice some disproportionate murals, some broken tiles. Trivedi doesn’t hide his vexation. “Raw, roughly cut stones have been used to mount the murals, with no attempt to cut them into the right shapes. The mounting is tilted in most cases,” he says.
“The cube on the top of the tower symbolising a salt crystal was supposed to be transparent with reflectors inside so that it would glitter in the day and glow at night when the lights are switched on. What we have is an opaque cube, thus negating the whole concept. The shoddy work should be rejected; corrections must be made so that the monument is built as originally conceived,” he says.
Gandhi agrees that there was a rush to inaugurate the memorial. The salt making units don’t yet function, the landscaping is incomplete, the souvenir shop and an audio-visual room are yet to be readied. “At least now, the project’s completion must be prioritised,” he says.