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What's in a statue? A look into the where, how and why of statuary in India

Long before the tallest statue in the world sees the light of the day, it has sparked off a controversy proportional to its size. At 192 metres, the sculpture of Shivaji atop a horse will be the chief attraction of a memorial that will come up on a rocky outcrop in the Arabian Sea. It’s going to cost the Maharashtra exchequer at least Rs 3,600 crore. ‘At least’ because, typically, the principal features of government initiatives are delays and cost escalations.

The original, modest budget of Rs 100 crore in 2004 during the Congress-led Democratic Front government, has only seen upward revisions of Rs 700 crore in 2009, Rs 1,400 crore in 2013 and Rs 3,600 crore in 2016 in keeping with the growing ambitions of scale and grandeur.

The generous financial allocations — which could have been utilised by a cash-strapped state government for welfare and infrastructural projects — coupled with the inevitable environmental costs, have triggered protests and debates in several quarters. But the BJP-Shiv Sena government is bent on paying a colossal tribute to the medieval king whose following in the state is matched by his many statues scattered all over Maharashtra.

Education minister Vinod Tawde has told the media that issues like budget and political rivalry won’t pose hurdles for the mammoth undertaking. During his visit to Mumbai on December 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone. The state government has now set a 2019 deadline for the memorial.

To be fair, all political parties in Maharashtra have tried to feed off Shivaji’s legend, first revived by the eminent Congress leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak in the pre-Independence era, then appropriated by the Socialists in the 1960s and later usurped by the saffron brigade for whom the assiduously crafted image of Shivaji as a powerful Hindu king was tailor-made for its agenda.

In a telling way, sub-nationalism has towered over national politics. The Statue of Unity project of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat, launched by the then chief minister Modi in 2010 and touted as the tallest till a year ago, has been upstaged by the Maratha warrior.

Since Independence, statues have been at the forefront of partisan politics. At the national level, the Congress and the BJP have been engaged in bitter fights over the legacies of Sardar Patel and Dalit icon Dr Bhimrao ‘Babasaheb’ Ambedkar. In a not-so-unusual move, the BJP constructed a memorial for the former Prime Minister of India and Congressman, PV Narasimha Rao, at the national capital in 2016. Rao had virtually been disowned by his own party. Political observers feel that Rao has been accorded special status by the NDA government as part of the latter’s strategy to dilute the focus on the Nehru-Gandhi legacy.

Standing for different values

According to social scientist Shiv Visvanathan, statues of historical and political figures in India can be classified into the following categories: “The World War I statues, which the British installed, are part of the colonial legacy. Then comes the stereotyped set — the sculptures of Shivaji and Rana Pratap, striking a particular pose. The statues of Gandhi belong to the third category; they can vary a bit in terms of style but are supposed to create a certain kind of sacred space.”

Then there are regional models. “I have often wondered why so many statues in Tamil Nadu are coated in gold paint; basically, it’s a way of covering up the lack of aesthetics. The Babasaheb Ambedkar statues, which are miniatures of the man, form a distinct category. And, finally, we have the egotistical statues — those of Shivaji and Patel, one coming out of the sea, and the other coming out of land,” he says.

Each category, says Visvanathan, evokes something unique. The colonial statues trigger blank memories. Barring a handful, nobody knows who Queen Victoria or King George were. Several of them have been dumped in one corner of the urban system. Some of the sites where these statues once stood are vacant, the emptiness signifying victory over colonialism. “The sculptures of great leaders like Shivaji, Rana Pratap and Lakshmibai, combining myth and history, are intended to create pride in the nation. The kshatriya value is thus imposed as the national value,” he says. Regrettably the memorials of Nehru and Gandhi are trapped in the ambit of adjectives — like Chacha Nehru or Mahatma Gandhi — and fail to elicit the range of emotions that these iconic figures had once inspired, he adds. They are reduced to mere landmarks, Visvanathan says. The countless memorials of Ambedkar all over India, which have a special status in today’s politics, reveal a new iconography.

When it comes to propaganda politics, regional statues play a significant role, says Visvanathan. The statues of DMK and AIADMK leaders in Tamil Nadu were erected to inspire party loyalty. In a state where fans of filmstars and political leaders go to extreme lengths to prove their allegiance — several people immolated themselves in protest against the late chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s 2014 conviction in a disproportionate assets case; Amma — or Mother, as she was popularly known — fans also went on indefinite fasts for her speedy recovery; extravagant gestures of faithfulness and admiration, in the form of temples and shrines, are commonplace.

Political shadows

Uttar Pradesh, with its larger-than-life statues of Mayawati, her mentor Kanshi Ram and the Bahujan Samaj Party symbol, the elephant, offers an interesting case study. Estimates suggest that each statue of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati cost Rs 6.65 crore. Each elephant statue cost more than Rs 70 lakh. Her political adversary, the Samajwadi Party, alleged that the building spree had drained the exchequer of nearly Rs 40,000 crore. The staggering expenditure was the BSP supremo’s way of trying to create a lasting political legacy. The state has turned into a gigantic complex of monumentality, memory and identity. “These hundreds of sculptures, taken as a whole, had become the evocation of a people, the Dalits, and perpetuated the myth surrounding Mayawati,” says Visvanathan.

While many would call Mayawati a megalomaniac, Dr Preeti Chopra, Professor of Architecture, Urban History and Visual Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the US, is willing to cast the Dalit leader in a more positive light. “That a low caste leader, and a woman at that, had challenged the existing dynamics of caste politics and created public spaces for all, which she also utilised to project Dalit leaders and the aspirations of her people, should not be overlooked.” Dr Chopra feels that unlike many historical figures who used architecture to construct false genealogies of origins in order to enhance their caste and/or social status, Mayawati and her followers have been proud of their Dalit identity.

Statues of distinguished personalities at the local and state levels can also become the focal point of muscle flexing. Last week, the statue of Marathi playwright Ram Ganesh Gadkari was vandalised and removed from a park in Pune by the Sambhaji Brigade. The right-wing group was miffed with Gadkari for writing a play nearly 100 years ago, which, it thought, was critical of Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji. Three years earlier, in November 2013, a statue of former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu was found vandalised in Howrah district in West Bengal, triggering outrage from the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In Tamil Nadu politics, aggravation in caste tensions prompted followers of Ambedkar and CN Annadurai, the first Dravidian chief minister to build cages around their statues to protect them from rival parties’ hooliganism. Last January, the father of the nation too had fallen victim to hooliganism when a bunch of miscreants defaced his statue.

Remember these times

In her book Memorial Mania, author Erika Doss explains why memorials of all kinds are flourishing in the US today. “Their omnipresence can be explained by an obsession with issues of memory and history and an urgent desire to express and claim those issues in visibly public contexts. The growing numbers of memorials represent heightened anxieties about who and what should be remembered in America. The passionate debates in which they are often embroiled represent efforts to harness those anxieties and particular narratives about the nation and its publics.”

A similar phenomenon is at work in India, too, especially in today’s highly fraught political climate. But India’s conflicting relations with public statuary — with love paving the way for indifference — is also cause for concern.

The irony is, after the inauguration fanfare, most statues in India become symbols of neglect, covered as they are in layers of dust and bird-droppings. Only the fortunate ones are scrubbed clean on birth or death anniversaries. The near absence of artistic merit coupled with visible signs of decay has turned these memorials into eyesores. Restoration is a far cry since both state governments and the Centre do not seem enthused about giving them a new lease of life.

Perhaps Shivaji and Sardar Patel will meet with a better fate since thousands of crores of rupees are at stake. They also represent India’s seemingly giant ego and its craving for dominance in global politics.