Prithvijit MitraPrithvijit Mitra | TNN, Sep 1, 2011, 02.32AM IST
KOLKATA: He chips away listlessly at a block of marble, often stopping abruptly to stare at his chisel. Then he gets up and steps out into the balcony, pacing up and down before he returns to settle down once again. The chipping starts, but sculptor Gopal Prasad Mandal looks rattled and out of sorts. He has reason to be. Three weeks ago, Mandal, a retired teacher of the Government College of Art whose works have been exhibited around the globe, was allegedly assaulted and driven out of his studio in Behala. The reason: Mandal refused to give in to threats from a group of locals who had been demanding money.
On August 12, as he was entering his studio at Behala's Parui Kancha Road, Mandal was hit on the back with a hammer by one of the labourers appointed by him to construct the studio. The bleeding artist rushed to the local Behala police station to lodge an FIR, but was allegedly asked to get a witness. Mandal was forced to register a general complaint. Shaken by the sudden assault and persistent threats, he left the studio where he had been staying for the last three months and has since been confined to his Salt Lake residence. More than 80 of his sculptures, including a series of terracotta figurines that he was working on, are lying at the Behala studio. Mandal fears these could be stolen by labourers who still occupy a portion of the two-storey house.
"A group of local youths, who claimed they were Trinamool Congress members, started asking for money ever since I started renovating the house in Behala which I bought in 2009. My plan was to create a sculpting studio on the ground floor and another one on the first floor which I intended to use for painting. Immediately after I appointed labourers, the youths came and asked for Rs 5,000. When I refused, they told me that I must buy construction material from them. I agreed, for there seemed to be no other option. But the demand for money continued and they started threatening me," said Mandal.
In July, the youths came to the studio and threatened the labourers who had been staying on the ground floor. "Next morning, the labourers started heckling me for payments though it was not due. The group was led by Ismail Sheikh, whom I had allowed to stay at the studio till the construction was completed. I asked him to move out but he refused, saying he needed a week to make an alternative arrangement. He never left my studio," alleged Mandal, a disciple of legendary sculptor Chintamani Kar.
As he was returning from the local market on August 12, Tohid Sheikh - a labourer who had been residing at the studio - allegedly charged at him with a hammer. Mandal ducked and the hammer landed on his back, creating two deep gashes under the shoulder. He had to be taken to Vidyasagar Hospital. "I was taken aback, for I had no problem with the labourers, least of all with Tohid whom I hardly ever interacted with. I suspect he was paid by the local toughs to attack me. They obviously wanted to teach me a lesson for refusing to pay up," he said. Tohid was later arrested and released on bail.
Mandal kept receiving calls for money from the labourers. Last week, Ismail Sheikh asked for Rs 30,000 as part payment for the construction job. Mandal took his son along to the studio and made the payment. One of the local youths immediately took away Rs 5,000 and asked Mandal to pay an equal amount to Sheikh. "I told them I did not have the money and will not make any further payment. But I am scared to visit my studio now. They might try to kill me," said Mandal.
The sculptor claimed he has lodged a complaint with the SP of South 24-Parganas, though the latter said he was yet to receive it. "The matter would be looked into once I receive the complaint," said SP (South 24-Parganas) L N Meena.
Mandal, however, fears that it could be too late by the time police take action. "Almost half of my life's works are there at the studio. It would be a big loss for me if they are stolen. All I want is to be able to return to my studio and resume work. I can't work at my home for there's hardly any space," Mandal said.
Mayor Sovan Chatterjee said he couldn't act till he received a complaint. "I can't keep track of what's happening in the lanes and bylanes of Behala. I will look into the matter once I receive a complaint," Chatterjee said.