STATUES ARE POLITICAL IDEALS CAST IN STONE
Statues have been in the news a lot in recent weeks. On October 31, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the 182m tall Statue of Unity, a statue of Congress leader and freedom fighter Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, popularly called India’s Iron Man, and the person widely credited with unifying India after independence by persuading princely states to join the union. Patel was also independent India’s first home minister and hailed from Gujarat, which is also Modi’s home-state; the statue, on the banks of the Narmada in Gujarat, was commissioned when Modi was the state’s chief minister.
On November 7, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath announced the construction of a gigantic Ram statue on the banks of the river Sarayu in Ayodhya, where the Hindu God is believed to have been born. A case on the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi (literally, birthplace of Ram) is pending before the Supreme Court. Adityanath himself has not commented on the height of the statue but reports put it at 151m, with speculation that it will be placed on a base which is itself 50m tall, thereby making God (Ram) taller than man (Patel).
On October 26, a man died in Mumbai in an accident involving a speedboat on its way for the pre-launch pooja of the Shiv Smarak, a statue dedicated to 17th century Maratha king Shivaji who is credited with having found the Maratha empire. The statue, just off the coast of Mumbai on a man-made island will be 126m tall and housed on a 84m tall pedestal. It is expected to be completed in 2021.
And south of the Vindhyas, on October 24, a statue of former Tamil Nadu chief minister, the late J Jayalalithaa arrived at the HQ of her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. It is expected to be unveiled soon, although its dimensions — it is only 8ft tall — are dwarfed by the other statues mentioned here; strangely, the Dravidian obsession with cut-outs, gigantic, two-dimensional woodboard figures of political leaders and film stars doesn’t extend to statues. Tamil Nadu has several, of almost every political leader of note, but no giant ones.
In a newsy fortnight, statues have clearly held their own.
Earlier, in March, statues were in the news again. Across India, statues of Lenin, Syama Prasad Mookherjee, BR Ambedkar, EV Ramasamy (Periyar), and Mahatma Gandhi were defaced (some even had their heads knocked off) as various political and caste groups protested against various others and saw in the statues an opportunity to express themselves with little risk and lots of return (the statues can’t retort in kind, and defaced statues make good TV).
In a country with a shortage of public spaces, statues, and the complexes and parks around them are welcome as long as governments that come after the ones that built these monuments continue to maintain them, and as long as their construction didn’t involve any violation of environmental rules – especially for those located near sanctuaries, on or near river beds, or just off the coast. India doesn’t celebrate its modern history the way many other countries do and aestheticallybuilt memorials whose environmental impact is negligible are worth the price – and sure to pay-off in terms of tourist footfalls.
Statues are always political. This is true of the Statue of Unity just as it is true of the Shiv Smarak, the planned Ram statue, and many other statues built by political leaders over the past several decades. Given recent developments, it’s possible that political leaders across the country could embark on a competitive bout of statue building resulting in giant statues mushrooming around the country. Even the very act of building statues is political. The ambitious park former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati built in Noida — rather unfortunately, right next to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary — was pitched by the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party as a symbol of the resurgence of the Scheduled Castes (SC). It houses 18 gigantic statues of elephants, the symbols of her party, apart from statues of Mayawati herself, the party’s founder and her mentor, the late Kanshi Ram, and BR Ambedkar, the author of the Constitution who is considered a SC-icon. Mayawati also built an Ambedkar Park in Lucknow, once again featuring giant statues of Ambedkar, Shahuji Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule, Kanshi Ram, Sant Kabir Das, Sant Ravidas, and the Buddha. For Mayawati’s core constituency — the Scheduled Castes — these structures were previously unthinkable. Most made do with small Ambedkar statues, usually sporting a blue suit, and carrying a red book (the Constitution) that can be found across rural northern India. The most interesting thing about statues, at least in the short-term, is that they are as much about the subject as they are about the builders and their political objectives and ambitions. In time, though, these objectives and ambitions become irrelevant, leaving only the statues which is why they need to be built to last.
THE MOST INTERESTING THING ABOUT STATUES, AT LEAST IN THE SHORTTERM, IS THAT THEY ARE AS MUCH ABOUT THE SUBJECT AS THEY
ARE ABOUT THE BUILDERS AND
THEIR POLITICAL OBJECTIVES