APJ ABDUL KALAM LIVES ON
Abdul Ghani and APS Shreethar have made sure that the people’s President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam is remembered with the same dignity he led his life with even after his demise
Some people never die even after their departure from this world, like our President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. So, Abdul Ghani and APS Shreethar have made sure that he is remembered with dignity. See how…
Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, better known as APJ Abdul Kalam, one of the most loved erstwhile Presidents of India, lived a life dedicated to the nation and its youth. Dr Kalam stood tall, thanks to his simplicity and humane ways. The Indian scientist turned statesman, hailing from the small town of Rameshwaram, went on to become a scientist and
science administrator at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). At the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), he was a part of India’s civilian space programme and military missile development efforts and came to be known as the Missile Man of India for his work and his organisational, technical, and political role in India’s Pokhran-II nuclear tests. His humility and achievements endeared him to the youth of the nation like never before. He even died doing what he loved most, addressing the students at the Indian Institute of Management Shillong in 2015, setting a landmark even in his demise. The nation bid a formal and heartfelt adieu to this iconic personality with state honours, and Dr Kalam’s mortal remains were laid to rest in his home town, Rameshwaram. Almost everyone knows this part of the story. But the information that neither the citizens nor the people in power kept track of was how the memorial in honour of Dr Kalam that was to come up immediately after his demise was abandoned unceremoniously. Two men from Chennai took up the responsibility to raise the memorial and it became a reality almost two years after the former president was laid to rest—Abdul Ghani, the man who mobilised public demand for the memorial, and AP Shreethar, who took charge to put together a state-of-the-art museum and memorial. Abdul Ghani is a well-known environmentalist, a proverbial ‘ common man’ from a middle class family with a clarion call to serve humanity and mother earth. An ex-employee of a bank, he stumbled upon the purpose of his life accidentally while trying to solve a messy situation he found himself in at work. Ghani either had the option to quit or make it tick. He chose the latter. He was then consumed passionately with the mission, ‘save the earth’. He recapitulates, “There was an issue with garbage disposal in the bank when the audit survey blew up the matter. Though it is a lengthy story, I solved the problem by involving rag pickers in it. The garbage was turned into a green waste bin. This became big news as it started a new trend in recycling garbage. The corporation awarded this initiative, and I even got appreciation from London based groups.”
Ghani’s initiative helped rag pickers to earn about Rs 50,000 and his idea was implemented by other branches of the bank. “This gave me an impetus to consider expanding the formula at the city level and I got approval for a project following the idea of how a garbage dump yard was turned into a green mountain in the US. For this, I had to visit the dump yard and what I saw there deeply affected me. Every day, about 200 people gathered to have their breakfast out of the morning garbage dump, fighting with dogs and pigs to grab their piece of bread,” Ghani talks about his experience. So, Ghani bought food packets for them, spending his own limited resources and thus began his glorious saga in social activism. His friends began to contribute for the cause and the act began to gain momentum. Ghani discovered the expertise of the rag pickers in handling waste and began to depute them to generate waste management as self-help groups. Exnora’s chief, Nirmal, helped Ghani put together 2,000 environmental events. When the news reached Dr Kalam, who was still teaching at Anna University then, he wanted to meet Ghani.
“When actor Vivek and I went to meet him, Kalam sir indicated he wanted us to work towards planting trees to save the environment,” Ghani remembers. This meeting triggered an ongoing relationship with Dr Kalam and Ghani was even invited to stay at the Raj Bhavan in a room adjacent to the then President Kalam’s. Ghani has literally seen the President in pyjamas, in his personal space, at the dining table, in the library, and spent many hours listening to inspirational thoughts of Dr Kalam on a cross section of topics. Dr Kalam assigned Abdul Ghani and Vivek with the mission of planting 10 lakh trees in schools with a promise to visit when the mission was accomplished. All along, Dr Kalam kept close tabs on the progress “just like a teacher.” Ghani says he would demand photo proofs of the saplings being nurtured. He had a living interest in it spite of his varied engagements. Ghani adds, “He suggested Kadalur as the final destination for this project as he felt the region was corroded by major natural calamities way too often. He kept his promise and visited the town. There, he re-assigned us with a bigger task of planting one crore trees and this initiative was called Green Kalam.” However, unfortunately, even before this mission got to its half-way mark, Dr Kalam passed away. Ghani says, in a world that is fraught with self-centred beings, here was a man who lived and died in service to the nation and a year and a quarter had rolled by and all that was there to remember him by was a mound of grave with a thin sheet upon it on the shores of Rameshwaram, unattended and unsung.
On Ghani’s birthday, accompanied by Dr Kalam’s grandnephew Salim, he visited the tomb to seek blessings from the departed Kalam. “As we got off the auto rickshaw and walked down the mound, we witnessed the most distressing sight of a dog urinating on his grave. There was cow dung all over the unkept surroundings. My heart was wrenched on seeing the disgraceful
spectacle. Here I was, reaching out to rag pickers for whom I gave up my profession, and to see the nation’s most spiritual and selfless statesman laying buried amidst filth and grime was a shattering experience,” recalls the pained Ghani. Frankly, it was not about blaming anyone for such a sorry state of affairs, he says and continues, “Since Kalam sir was associated with the National Defence, the DRDO had staked claim to build a memorial in his honour. But, the rest of the nation conveniently forgets anything to be done for South India, and this too was put on cold storage. I was so disturbed that right then, I decided to do something about it. So, I walked up to a shop and bought 10 bricks, stood in front of the grave and got myself clicked with the bricks.” Ghani posted the picture on Facebook with the message, ‘People will now build a memorial and not wait for the government to do so. Anyone who wishes to contribute a brick each, please contact. Within one hour, I received 40 lakh registrations to contribute a brick,” he says. That kicked up a great fervour to mobilise people’s participation to build a memorial for the monumental person that Dr Kalam was. Within a week, the entire national media picked up a debate whether the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) was to be accused of the neglect because it wasn’t clear if the state government was in charge of the task or the central government. Parliament couldn’t have been far behind to rake the debate and an embarrassed central government picked up the threads, and within a week, the memorial work was set rolling by the DRDO. “Even as common men, we tend to lose track of certain aspects when caught up with mainstream activities. My intention was not to blame the central government, but only to initiate action to build a memorial,” justifies Ghani.
Ghani is privileged to be an integral part of the Dr Kalam’s family. He even offered his shoulder to carry Kalam’s mortal remains and was a part of the family in performing his last rites. Destiny seems to have chosen Ghani to help build the memorial, and Ghani, along with Kalam’s grandnephews Saleem, Dawood and Mohiuddin, even met the Prime Minister to invite him over to inaugurate the grand memorial that became a reality within six months of his initiative. “I feel the purpose of my life has been fulfilled,” says Ghani. The most daunting task though was that of making the memorial one of its kind, and who better suited to do it than the most illustrious artist of our time, AP Shreethar— the man who recently put up India’s first 3D Museum in Chennai? He created the Clickart Gallery in 19 cities, including Chennai, Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Kolkata, besides Singapore, Malaysia and the US. APS, as he is fondly referred to, is a genius of sorts, who began as a photographer and went on to travel the world perfecting and even inventing the art of portrait making, digitisation of art and silicon creations of world famous personalities on the lines of Madame Tussauds. “Madame Tussauds, the 250-yearold organisation has 24 wax museums worldwide. I visited many of these displays and noticed that the wax was quite perceptible in many of the figurines. Moreover for the Indian climate, a wax figure would be subject to distortion over a period of time. That’s when I remembered the silicon museum in Lebanon where they tried making the silicon figurines talk, but that project was a failure. I wanted to try my hand at it. I created nine statues, that of Mona Lisa, Michael Jackson, Mother Teresa, Amitabh Bachchan, Charlie Chaplin, Shirdi Sai Baba and Jackie Chan, etc, and launched a museum recently,” he says. This became a sensation and led to the late Dr Jeppiar’s daughters Regeena and Maria Zeena assigning APS the task of creating a silicon statue of their legendary father.
This inspired Ghani, and members of Dr Kalam’s family to request Shreethar to create art works for the memorial. The DRDO allocated the task of embellishing Dr Kalam’s memorial as a
homage on an international scale to APS. “I began by creating 50 versions of Abdul Kalam’s dreams and desires of his lifetime. It’s 50 different paintings in one frame, showing him from his early days to the very end. His wish to be a scholar, a pilot, him playing the veena and his love for planting trees. People want something different, so I created interactive art, where one could take pictures as though one was handing over Dr Kalam a bouquet, or as if he was handing over a green plant and the like. I wanted to give a vintage feel and so created the art in sepia,” avers Shreethar. Apart from a coffee table book on the art works on Dr Kalam to be released, 3D silicon statues of the former President seated in his office and 95 portraits were created by APS. This included a museum in the ‘House of Kalam’ in Rameshwaram. It was inaugurated by the chairman of ISRO, Kiran Kumar. The art works include Kalam with world dignitaries and some landmark moments of Kalam’s life time. “Kalam sir’s grandnephew gave me all the videos and photographs that the family possessed for reference that helped me create all this and also the two silicon statues, a sitting and a standing one. Visitors could click photographs posing with him,” says APS. Two mammoth murals on either side of the memorial walls are classic in nature. Today, at least 30,000 visitors visit the memorial of Dr Kalam. Most certainly, it is the result of the diligent efforts on the part of Abdul Ghani and AP Shreethar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who inaugurated the memorial recently, lauded their initiative in making a landmark monument possible in this part of the country! Kudos to the two determined men.
AP Shreethar PHOTOGRAPHS: RAJ KUMAR/ARCHIVES OF AP SHREETHAR AND ABDUL GHANI
Abdul Ghani with Narendra Modi and Kalam’s grand nephews
Abdul Ghani with Kalam’s family
AP Shreethar with Kalam Statue
Ghani takes a sele with Dr Kalam