The transformation of Ashoka from the victor of the Kalinga massacre into the humane monarch we know replaced Chandragupta's rule by force with a gentle religious policy – that of Buddhism. On accession Ashoka pursued his conquests and indulged in the hunt until 261 BC when he annexed Kalinga, modern Orissa. The sight of death and destruction so affected him that he decided to follow the path of the Enlightened One. Ashoka's conversion to Buddhism was a fact of great significance for it led to the writing and publication of his great edicts inscribed on rocks and pillars.
Emperor Ashoka has been treated as a legend and rightly so; and many historians and scholars have written extensively on him, eulogising his work and his kingship qualities. But very few have studied the enigmatic quality of his personality. When Maurya commissioned Meera Mukherjee to do a sculpture on Ashoka, she focused on Ashoka's gradual transformation from being a warrior to becoming a philosopher statesman.
This is a bronze sculpture - a mammoth structure towering to a height of some twelve feet, it depicts him both with qualities of a monumental king along with a vulnerable, calm serenity registering on the face of the sculpture.
It is altogether an unsettling and disquiet image. The face, tilted upwards to the sky, glows with illumination while the torso seems heavy and passive, with a sense of unreleased energy. One hand still grips the sword of power while the other grows limp with cold realisation in the aftermath of the battle.
Meera Mukherjee (1925-1998) initially trained in Delhi Polytechnic and subsequently trained in Munich, Germany came back to India and started researching in folk metal casting techniques as well as the casting techniques of classical Indian sculpture.
Mukherjee used the circ perdu or the lost wax process for her sculptures. Deeply influenced by the Dhokra sculptors of Bastar in Madhya Pradesh, she perfected a technique in bronze. And she created an iconography that was very special. Her work chiefly dominated the spirit of human dignity yet her work also had a deep sense of whimsy and playfulness when she drew inspiration from ordinary people.
When she was asked to work on this particular project this is what she had to say:
"I did not straightaway find the subject. What I had decided was that it was to be a work which was not only big in size, but also embodied a great idea.
I thought of a strong person - a hero in fact, but not only a hero.
Curiously, the sketch of this big figure which was to reach a height of 11 feet was minute; it was drawn on a used, empty cigarette packet.
Yet in this little sketch, the hero-to-be was recognised. Who is a greater hero than the conqueror who, after winning a glorious victory, perceived the horror and devastation it had wrought? He was my hero of all heroes, at Kalinga, at the moment of his spiritual transformation."