It was the mid-1970s. A young Jasuben Shilpi had received a sculpting assignment with the Rajkot Municipal Corporation.
The Ahmedabad resident could have easily taken a bus or train to cover the long journey. Instead, she set out on her scooter alone and drove 250 km to reach Rajkot.
Popularly known as the “Bronze woman of India,” Jasuben Shilpi was hardly someone who adhered to societal norms. Almost always seen in her characteristic denim dungarees with sculpting tools in hand, this feisty artist broke into the male bastion at a time when women sculptors were a rarity.
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In a career spanning nearly four decades, Jasuben had made 225 life-size statues and 525 busts in bronze.
“But there was more to her. She was not simply an award-winning sculptor, she was a businesswoman and a doting mother—a true versatile genius,” shares her son Dhruv, an accomplished sculptor himself.
Always a rebel
Born a year after Independence, Jasuben had nurtured an inclination towards arts and aesthetics since childhood, and this landed her in the CN College Of Fine Arts, making her one of the only five women in her class.
While she displayed equal expertise in almost all aspects of art, she preferred sculpture—specifically in the mediums of bronze, metal and stone—and decided to turn it into her profession.
After her marriage to fellow sculptor Manhar Shilpi, Jasumati came to be recognised as Jasuben Shilpi or Jasu Shilpi.
“Their marriage itself was a rebellious act. My father was an orphan from a poor background, and my family was against the match. But, my mother stood firm on her decision and got married to him,” shares Dhruv.
The period following their wedding presented Jasuben with a series of struggles. To make ends meet, she forsook her passion for a while and taught at a school as an art teacher.
The days of struggle
Dhruv Shilpi attributes his mother’s remarkable zeal and hard work for turning her passion into a fortune. He is Jasuben’s firstborn child, after whose birth she purchased a plot of land thinking about the future of the family. However, she had resorted to loaning substantial amounts for buying the land, and the debts now had to be repaid.
While Manhar preferred working from the comfort of his studio, Jasuben went from place to place doing a lot of mural work across cities and towns.
Almost every day, she would set out in her scooter for distant locations and work on massive murals from dawn till dusk. In addition to this, she was also at the forefront of their sculpture studio and managed all the business transactions for her and Manhar’s work.
In the early years of the eighties, Jasuben slowly started gaining popularity and earning a decent income. Little did she know that life had another blow in store for her.
“In 1984, my father was diagnosed with cancer. My mother now had to devote time additionally to take care of him while being the family’s sole breadwinner. My sister and I were young; little did we realise the insane amount of hard work she did daily.”
Manhar passed away in 1989, leaving a vast void in Jasuben’s life. She lost her closest companion, but found solace in art and continued to shine in her vocation.
Her immortal creations
Jasuben’s largest creation is a 28-feet-tall Hanuman statue, which clinched the world record of being the tallest bronze statue created by a woman. It is now stationed at Sumerpur in Rajasthan.
Her other notable works include four statues of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, at different locations in India, Rani Chenamma statue in Karnataka, and statues of Swami Vivekananda, and Mahatma Gandhi.
Each one of these statues evokes awe with their precise perfection and sheer elegance. The magic of her hands has infused life into these metal figurines.
Jasuben Shilpi’s works have made it to the Miracles World Record Certificate as well as the Limca Book of Records. The Lincoln Centre of USA awarded her with Abraham Lincoln Artist Award. International Publishing House had chosen her for the Best Citizen of India Award. She gained a steady admirer base in international quarters as well.
The veteran artist passed away on 15th January 2013, while working on her dream project of a museum of bronze statues, on the lines of Madame Tussauds.
While that dream could not be realised, her children, sculptors Dhruv and Dhara Shilpi, have now started the Jasu Shilpi Art Foundation in her name, which aims to protect her legacy by supporting and uplifting more sculptors across India.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)