For the past few years I have got into the routine of falling asleep listening to podcasts. The podcast topics are usually restricted to either photography or the art and history of India, and often this ritual is so effective that it can take me over a week to fully listen to a single podcast that lasts for just one hour.
But do I also give myself the freedom to listen without falling asleep. If the subject matter grabs my attention sufficiently I can end up listening for a couple of hours, which is an incredibly relaxing way to conclude a day.
One such podcast was entitled “Art of Akbar & The Red Fort – Part II“, which was one of a series of renowned Arts of Asia lectures given by Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker of the Society for Asian Art based in San Francisco. The series comprises of 28 lectures in total, all of which are available iTunes and include the accompanying slide presentations as well as the recorded audio from 1998.
Whilst listening to the podcast, Mary-Ann included quite a lengthy section about the monuments at Fatehpur Sikri. This immediately caught my attention as I had only just returned and blogged about visiting the site for the second time. She then proceeded to talk about Akbar’s famous pillar within the Diwan-i-Khas, with the varied theories as to what exactly the purpose of this unique structure was, much of which I had already researched only a few days earlier. What happened next took me completely by surprise…
Mary-Ann proceeded to present a photograph which she took herself in the late 1990s of what appeared to be an almost identical pillar in the grounds of the ASI headquarters in Delhi.
I knew at this point that any chance of sleeping was unlikely to happen. Every reference to the Diwan-i-Khas pillar mentions that it is completely unique, there is no other example in existence. And yet here is what appears to be companion pillar in the very grounds of the ASI offices ! Stylistically it’s almost impossible to separate them, and the example in the photograph also appears to have been made with the same red sandstone that can be sourced from around the Jumna River in places like Delhi, Agra, or Fatehpur Sikri.
In the lecture recording Mary-Ann proceeds to speculate on the provenance of this pillar – it is clearly associated with the pillar at Fatehpur Sikri, but did it come from another building at that site or another location from Akbar’s time ? And what was it doing in the grounds of the ASI headquarters in the late 1990s ? Had it been removed from its original location and temporarily placed here ? Mary Ann mentions that at the time nobody in the ASI offices was able to give her any information on the pillar in their garden, so for the next 20 years it remained an unsolved mystery.
I decided this was worthy of a little investigative work, although I thought the chances of discovering a long lost sister-pillar was somewhat unlikely as this was literally right under the noses of ASI staff in Delhi on a daily basis. I contacted Mary Ann to get a copy of the photograph, and did a little bit of editing to bring out some of the shadow detail. A side by side comparison of her photograph and one I had taken only a few weeks earlier at Fatehpur Sikri (see top of the page) led me to conclude that they were essentially identical. So it was time to start doing some research…
For once, Google searches completely failed me. There is no reference to this pillar that I could find and no comparable image on Google images either, other than the example at Fatehpur Sikri of course. So I ended up contacting a number of people who are associated with the ASI. Some of these individuals are Facebook friends, others are contacts I was able to find that I thought may be able to help me get to the bottom of this mystery.
Despite my background in IT, it never ceases to amaze me just how quickly you can do this research now and come up with the answers, something Mary-Ann wouldn’t have been able to do back in the late 1990s when she originally spotted and photographed this pillar. After a series of exchanges with a number or people I am at least able to piece together it’s origins, and potentially where it is now, although there is some work still needed to fully complete my quest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the pillar is a copy. It was part of a series of famous objects that were reproduced in the late 1950s to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the ASI in 1961. Whilst that may come as a slight disappointment, the surprising element is that (allegedly) the man behind its creation is Ram Sutar.
For readers based in India, Ram Sutar needs no introduction. For those who are unaware who he is, he is an Indian sculptor who has created more than 200 monumental sculptures in the last 60 years. Most recently he has received a lot of press exposure for being the designer of the Statue of Unity, the world’s tallest statue at a whopping 182m tall.
At first I wasn’t convinced of this claim, but reading his own website I came to discover that he served in the Department of Archaeology from 1954 to 1958 as a modeller, and was responsible for the restoration work of sculptures at Ellora and Ajanta Caves. So his own timeline and the proposed reason for the creation of this copy closely align. One of my sources also claims that the pillar was not sculpted but made from moulds, which would tie up nicely with Ram Sutar being a modeller at the time. This also explains why the pillar appears to be an exact copy, as I expect the moulds were created from the very pillar in the Diwan-i-Khas at Fatehpur Sikri. I have tried contacting Ram Sutar and his son Anil to get confirmation of this, but I have not received any reply thus far.
If the pillar is a modelled creation and not a sculpture it doesn’t explain why in the photograph it appears to be made from that distinctive red sandstone. I don’t confess to know anything about the process of creating a copy like this, but whatever techniques were deployed have certainly resulted in an appearance that closely matches what one would expect. In my opinion it’s a work on art in it’s own right.
So what happened to the pillar and where is it now ? Back in the late 1990s when the pillar caught her attention, Mary-Ann photographed it in the grounds of the ASI offices at Janpath in Delhi. The ASI have since moved to new premises at 24 Tilak Marg, and the old premises is now owned by the adjacent National Museum who have plans to expand into the site.
As far as I’m aware the pillar still stands in the exact same location where Mary-Ann took that photograph 20 years ago. One hopes that it may ultimately be incorporated into the museum proper in some way, I expect many tourists never get to see the original at Fatehpur Sikri and so having a carbon copy on formal display would be quite an impressive attraction. I have tried reaching out to numerous people who work for the museum to determine if it is indeed still there and what plans may exist for it, but thus far I have received no reply from anyone.
This is as far as my research has taken to me. I have still to confirm it is indeed the work of Ram Sutar and that it still resides in the grounds of the newly acquired site by the National Museum at Janpath. I have also yet to determine what plans, if any, the museum has for it.
If any of my readers are able to add any more information regarding the pillar, I would welcome your comments below. I remain hopeful that a more fitting home will be found for what is an impressive piece, the only carbon copy of what still remains a unique piece of architecture.
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