The imposing white statue of Lenin was being dismantled on the laptop screen, placed against a tree in the wilderness. All those watching it in the middle of the night were located a few continents away from the events onscreen. The events were not even real. It was in a movie, Ulysses’s Gaze, set in east Europe. And yet, the Maoist guerrillas could barely conceal their emotions. It was February, 2014. I was in a Maoist camp in the Abujhmad forests of central India. The area had no electricity or phone signals, but they had managed a solar battery for my laptop. Every night they gave me a pen-drive containing videos of their attacks on security forces. One night, I decided to introduce a little cinema to the guerrillas. They knew several communist regimes had collapsed since the 1990s, but watching the fall of their hero—face, hand, body parts being removed—left them muted.
The political and metaphorical significance of dismantling a statue is far more than that of erecting it. The construction symbolises hope, the dismantling marks death. Perhaps, therefore, when Lenin’s statue was demolished in Tripura in March 2018 soon after the BJP ended the Left’s prolonged rule in the state, it became an emotional issue. Few knew when the statue was erected, few outside Tripura knew about its existence, but the dismantling sparked an outrage.
In the last few decades, however, India has seen unprecedented politics over the construction of statues. Call it the appropriation of political spaces or the assertion of repressed identities, but statues are now a firm marker of India’s politics. BSP president Mayawati, when she was Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, erected her statues as well as of other Dalit icons in several parts of the state.
Hero Worship PM Modi at the statue of Birsa Munda in Delhi. Photograph by Getty Images
The BJP has been trying to accommodate several leaders through a similar mode, be it Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s towering statue in Gujarat, or Subhas Chandra Bose’s statue at India Gate. Never mind that Patel had banned the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, the RSS, soon after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. But it fits the BJP’s scheme of bringing Patel, the man behind the merger of several princely states, and Bose, the leader who sought fascist Germany’s help, into its fold. In fact, the BJP has been trying to embrace Ambedkar as well. PM Narendra Modi inaugurated an Ambedkar Memorial in London in 2015 at a place where the Dalit leader lived as a student, and then, in 2018, another in Delhi where he had lived and died.
A statue has an inherent commemorative value. Erected to revive or construct a memory, a real or imagined past, politics is integral to such statues. These statues are never ‘art for art’s sake’. The recent installations can also be seen as an inevitable consequence of the weakening of the Congress. As long as the Congress dominated the country’s politics, the icons of its first family towered over public spaces. With the Congress ceding ground, other parties with different identities and icons staked their claim.
When Mayawati was inaugurating several parks with her statues, I once asked her close aide about the purpose of spending public money on monuments of someone who’s still alive. His reply: “It may not make any sense to you right now, but coming generations of Dalits will forever remember these and feel proud of her achievements.” The lasting impact of such monuments is undeniable. Ambedkar’s statues are perhaps the most conspicuous across the country—farmlands, circles, parks. In Budaun, there’s even a small statue which looks like Ambedkar in his childhood or adolescence. His iconography is always accompanied by the holy book of the Republic, an affirmation about his role in the framing of the Constitution.
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Almost all statues are about the dead, about infusing a sense of pride. There are very few that symbolise the futility of life, that narrate the darkness of death, that write a script of death. The Maoist land is strewn with such statues. The police, the Maoists, villagers, Salwa Judum leaders—everyone records their deaths in brick and stone. Around a dozen statues of uniformed police personnel killed in a Maoist attack stand in a row near Errabore police station in Sukma, Chhattisgarh. Each of them is holding a rifle. Their faces are alike. Does death occur only once, merely repeating itself subsequently? All the statues have watches on their wrists. The needles of all the watches are stationed at an identical hour. Is it the hour of death? Or does death not discriminate in choosing its hour?
To preserve death through statues is a tradition in Bastar. The Adivasis erect memory stones for their dead, draw colourful pictures on them that depict the life of the deceased. The faces of these drawings often look alike. You can find memory stones for two men at a distance of 250 km, but their faces may appear similar. Can the ‘death painter’ of Bastar draw only one face? Does he find every face alike? Or does death have only one face, which is merely repeated and reproduced elsewhere?
Sculpting is one of the 64 arts mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts. Dr Lakshmi Shankar Nigam, art historian and vice chancellor of Shankaracharya University, underlines a fine distinction between the two connotations of the word statue in Sanskrit—murti and pratima. “The word pratima is derived from pratiroop, a true representation. A faithful representation of an image is pratima. A sculptor of a pratima is bound by certain classical rules, whereas the sculptor of a murti has greater freedom,” he says. In other words, the political statues of our times that tend to exaggerate certain traits and subdue some others for political gains indicate a murti than a pratima. And since bodily features are manipulated, the message also comes contrived.
Statues of police personnel killed by Maoists in Chhattisgarh. Photograph: Ashutosh Bhardwaj
Compare this with the Indian tradition of kings getting their portraits and statues made. “In several kingdoms, when kings built a temple, they would get their statues erected at the entrance. The statue often had the king depicted with folded hands. The kings believed themselves to be the representative of god, and the statue was erected as a mark of their responsibility to their kingdom and people,” veteran archaeologist Rahul Kumar Singh says. “As late as in the 20th century, Bastar’s king Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo called himself the Adivasi god. However, these days our rulers have assumed only the representation, but not the responsibility.”
Since the present political iconography is mostly about scoring a point over opponents, one often witnesses farcical debates. In the last few decades there have been passionate arguments over Bhagat Singh’s statues in several parts of the country—whether to lend him a hat or a turban. In 2014, the municipal corporation of Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur vigorously debated for months the headgear of his proposed statue, with Sikhs advocating a turban and the other group insisting on a hat. In 2016, the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee wrote a letter to the Delhi government objecting to the hat over Singh’s statue in the state assembly. It was then seen as a political ploy by the Sikh body ahead of Punjab elections. Fast forward to January 2022. Ahead of assembly elections in Punjab, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has declared his love for Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh and announced that all government offices in Delhi would house photos of only the two icons.
Iconography Bhagat Singh’s bust being readied for installation.
Hardly amused, Bhagat Singh’s scholars advise caution. “We have repeatedly said that the attire of revolutionary martyrs must not be manipulated. People have taken so much liberty with their iconography. Both the Punjab and Central governments release advertisements on Bhagat Singh’s birth and death anniversary, but both use the wrong image,” says Chaman Lal, honorary advisor to the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre. He notes that “only one image of Bhagat Singh was used from 1929 to 1979, the one with a hat, and that was the authentic one”. “Ever since the advent of identity politics, politicians began distorting his images. Same is the case with Udham Singh and Kartar Singh. We have been protesting against the distortion of martyrs’ images,” he says.
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The irony with political iconography reaches distant places. Historian Ramachandra Guha cites a delightful anecdote in his essay on China. During a visit to Tulou, the traditional residences of the Hakka community in South China, Guha found wooden statues of uniformed Red Guards at the entrance to a temple, amid various gods and fairies. What were these statues doing at the temple, a place the Chinese communists would have wanted to destroy? It emerged that the local residents had pre-emptively installed these statues as a ploy to protect their holy place from the destructive Red Guards’ armies. And it did work as well.
Perhaps, the most contentious iconography is related to the representation of the female body. Take these two instances in Europe, considered to be the most advanced and equal society. Last year, in a town in Italy, several male politicians unveiled a statue of a woman in a transparent dress, triggering allegations of sexism by women politicians. The statue was said to be a tribute to the protagonist of an 1857 poem, The Gleaner of Sapri. As the male leaders defended the ‘aesthetics’ of the statue, I recalled the statue of Molly Malone I had seen in Dublin in 2018. Molly Malone, whose historical origins are yet to be established, was a fishwife who’s been immortalised in a song that is now the unofficial anthem of Dublin. Her statue, with half of her chest uncovered, was unveiled in 1988. The breasts have been touched and fondled to such an extent that within a few decades the bronze has burnished. Before landing in Dublin to read a paper at a South Asia conference, the only statue I wanted to see was of the man who wrote perhaps the most intractable novel of the twentieth century; but here I was, ashamed and saddened, before a statue that had already gained the tag of ‘the world’s most-touched breasts’.
Sardar Patel’s Statue of Unity. Photograph by PTI
Indian temples are full of such statues as well, and there’s enough discourse on them. But there is a little-known but very prominently inscribed statue of a woman enjoying herself with a dog at Konark’s Sun Temple. It leaves you stunned before you try to recreate its construction. It couldn’t be the secret design of a sole sculptor. A large number of sculptors worked under the supervision of several masters who reported to the king’s court and Vedic priests, and eventually to the king. In other words, every single person of the thousands involved in the construction of the temple had known about it, and must have approved it. The sexual act that’s perhaps still not found any legitimacy was inscribed on a massive temple a thousand years ago. I leave it to the reader to interrogate the cultural and political message this statue intended to carry.
A sarpanch in Chhattisgarh garlands the statue of an ITBP jawan slain in the line of duty. Photograph: Shutterstock
Let me end this essay with an anecdote from the Vishnudharmottara Purana. The king Vajra asks the sage Markandeya to teach him the art of iconography (Pratima Shashtra). The sage responds that you can’t learn icon-making without having learnt painting and sculpture. The king now requests to be taught painting, and then the sage says that it is impossible to learn painting without mastering the art of dance. The king and the sage then go on, through instrumental music, to singing, to poetry, prose and grammar, before it emerges that you can’t learn an art form without mastering other arts.
Does this tale hold for our times? Iconography, both as a form of art and as a political tool, is expected to arrive with a deep sense of responsibility. If only India’s rulers who swear by Indian tradition take note of the ancient texts before trying their luck with statues. But they have not spared even our gods. Always benign and adorable, Hanuman and Rama now look furious and outraged in the new political imagery. Our gods have deserted their pratima. And we are left with the soulless statues.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Speaking Stones")