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View: Statues have become less about history, and more about politics

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By Gautam Bhatia

After the death of American George Floyd, the recent mass protests against racism sparked a vicious backlash against historical figures whose statues were mauled, desecrated, beheaded, demolished, dragged down roads, and dumped into rivers. By destroying evidence of racism and racist history, the destructive rage did everything to physically erase these symbols from memory, but nothing to bring their misdeeds to public notice. Such a form of rewriting appears both churlish and entirely ineffective in making critical points about slave-owning, colonialism, bigotry and the place of black and brown people in history.

Indian statuary comes with similar historical burdens of enslavement under colonial rule. Indian toppling of inconvenient truths has however come with government endorsements. A government that found colonial symbols offensive removed the offending statuary to distant and inaccessible Coronation Park in North Delhi; a government that couldn’t care less for Muslim heritage allowed the toppling of a historic mosque, though ironically maintaining the Taj Mahal as the country’s most revered monument. When physical demolition or relocation wasn’t possible, names were changed. Victoria Terminus in Bombay became Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai. Delhi’s Viceroy House, the most hateful symbol of colonial rule remained unblemished but was renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan. Indian toppling and rechristening — like much of its politics — has been entirely impulsive and thoughtless.

When did the fine art of sculpture turn into a shameless masquerade of political statuary? In 1498 Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt the Pieta, Mary’s contemplation of the body of Jesus. The artist was free to interpret the subject any way he liked. It took Michelangelo two years to finely chisel the marble composition that sits in St Peters Basilica in Rome. In 2002, Mayawati similarly commissioned the artist Prajapati to make a larger than life-size statue of her in bronze; the work came with explicit instructions to show the BSP leader in favourable light — with an elongated neck, holding a hand bag and gazing — like Abraham Lincoln — with a look of deep political empathy. Prajapati, made many statues of Mayawati, and over 4000 Ambedkar statues as well. The Mayawati statues — like the cardboard cutouts of Jayalalitha — were forgotten as soon as the sculptor received his payment, and again, when Mayawati was no longer in power. The Pieta is visited by seven million tourists a year, and centuries later, is still considered a masterpiece of Renaissance art.

The easy recklessness with which statues are commissioned, made, removed, replaced and magnified in India, gives them the air of a changeable Bollywood set. Especially so when the position the subject occupies in political history is debatable. To offset any fear of impermanence, sculpture is now accorded the monumentalism of architecture. With its sheer physical weight, scale and size, any future disagreement with Sardar Patel’s political stance is unlikely to trouble people enough to try and topple a statue that weighs 35,000 tonnes and is grouted into the earth with the foundation strength of a 60-storey skyscraper.

What then are the sane ways of dealing with history and historic figures? Is an inclusive view more effective? Sometime ago, along with a Civil Rights Museum, a life-size figure of Arthur Ashe, the black tennis legend, was placed in Richmond Virginia, among statues of Confederate slave owners like General Lee and Jefferson Davis. The change on the city’s Memorial Drive was suddenly self-evident: the supremely white-centric view of history was balanced by the inclusion of an African American in the mix. Does then, the tossing of offending white statues into the river serve the cause of racism, or would the placement of remarkable black Americans like Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin and others, on parallel pedestals next to slave traders serve the cause better?

One of the more disturbing trends in India is the unfortunate politicisation of art, where artists are asked to paint murals in Parliament, writers commissioned to do biographies of living leaders, and architects drawn into designing legislative buildings — all to prevailing political desires. The shameless misuse of history for private or political gain is as demeaning to the art as to the artist.

Sadly, when history can be so easily manipulated, the battle for statues of relevance will continue forever. If Sardar Patel was crucial to Prime Minister Modi, Ambedkar and Mayawati to Dalit leaders, new generations will perhaps be informed by less parochial and decidedly apolitical concerns. It may not be long before some long-standing historic icon is replaced by Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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