Ram Sutar always wanted to make large-sized sculptures. When he graduated from the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, he got a job with the department of archaeology and joined the team that was working on restoring the sculptures at Ajanta and Ellora. This was where he first met Jawaharlal Nehru. “He used to bring a lot of foreign dignitaries and very proudly show off India’s art heritage," Sutar says. The young restorer was introduced to Nehru during one of the prime minister’s visits and he was stunned by Nehru’s understanding and appreciation of art.

Idolized: Nine of Sutar’s Nehru statues have been installed at public places. Sudhanshu Malhotra / Mint

After four years in the department and a short stint at the Directorate of Audio-Visual Publicity, Sutar quit his job in 1959 to work as a freelance sculptor. His first big assignment was to make a memorial at the Gandhi Sagar Dam in Chambal. The sculpture was commissioned by the Madhya Pradesh government. “When I went to the site, I heard the story that when the dam was commissioned, the Rajasthan government was not allowing for its foundation to be laid in their state. Apparently, it took two years for the two state governments to reach a consensus and it was decided that the dam would be shared by them," he recalls. The person in charge of the project was a strong believer in the presiding deity of the Chambal river. “So he told me to make a sculpture of Chambal devi. But I thought of the story and I designed a sculpture of Chambal devi with two boys on either side. These were brothers and they depicted Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh," he says.

The statue, named, Brotherhood, was 45ft tall. When Nehru came to inaugurate it in 1960, its craftsmanship and size impressed him. Sutar was introduced again, this time as the man behind the sculpture, and Nehru had good words for him. When the Bhakra Nangal dam was inaugurated in 1963, Nehru felt it too should have a monument—this time, commemorating the labourers. Artists were invited to submit their proposals.

As it happened, Sutar’s neighbour was a personal assistant to Nehru. He talked to him about the difficulties in getting anyone to see his designs for the project and the neighbour suggested he fix an appointment and visit Nehru.

With the neighbour’s help, Sutar walked into Teen Murti Bhavan and was granted an audience with Nehru. He told him about his difficulties. “Nehruji said, ‘Your work is very good, you can go ahead’," Sutar recalls. The main activities that labourers in the dam project were involved in were drilling and concreting. So Sutar designed his sculpture accordingly; an inspiring sardar flanked by a driller and a concrete mixer. Nehru personally saw and approved the design.

Wanting it to be bigger than the Chambal sculpture, Sutar pegged its size at 50ft. It was to be cast in bronze. When asked for a price estimate, he made some rough calculations and quoted Rs15 lakh. The committee was stunned by what was a very high price at the time, so they sent the costing to Lalit Kala Akademi. “They were perhaps not told about the size of the sculpture or the fact that it was going to be in bronze, so they replied saying this price was fantastic," Sutar says. He soon received a letter saying that the proposal for the sculpture had been shelved due to paucity of funds. Sutar tried to meet Nehru again but could not—Nehru died soon after.

Sutar (third from left) showing Nehru a portfolio of his designs during a meeting at Teen Murti Bhavan in 1963.

In the early 1980s, he went to meet Indira Gandhi, carrying a bust of Nehru with him as a gift. In the course of the conversation, Gandhi mentioned that there were no good sculptures of Nehru. Sutar jumped at the opportunity and volunteered to create one. Gandhi commissioned the project—a 12ft-high bronze statue to be installed in Jaipur. Sutar worked on it, cast it and went to Jaipur. The pedestal was made and the statue placed on it. Gandhi was to inaugurate the statue a few days later, so Sutar returned to Delhi—only to hear that she had been assassinated.

Sutar, who is now busy making scultpures for Mayawati, has installations of Nehru statues in places such as Lucknow and Mauritius. In 1995, he finally did get to install a statue at the Bhakra dam—an 18ft bronze Nehru now stands at the same spot where the ambitious labourer statue would have been.

“Meeting Nehru was inspirational," Sutar says. “He had such a high appreciation of art and artists. Despite being the prime minister of the country, he always had time to discuss, commission and admire works of art."