It has been standing for 173 years, watching over the changing topography of Madras that is Chennai. It is the oldest statue standing in the open in our city. Legend has it that the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey, upon realising that he had created an equestrian statue sans saddle or stirrups, committed suicide. But that is just a myth for Chantrey died of a heart disease. There are, however, several other interesting facts about this statue.
Though Munro died in 1827 and the sculptor was commissioned to execute the statue immediately thereafter, it was only in 1838 that it was completed and shipped. It was erected in 1839.
Chantrey found sculpting statues with animals a challenge and so took his time in identifying a suitable model for the horse. It was finally one from King George IV’s stable that finally fitted the bill. It was to be used for equestrian statues of the King and also the Duke of Wellington, thereby becoming the most modelled horse in history.
The only reference of how Munro looked was a three-quarter profile portrait and so Chantrey had to imagine the other side of Munro’s face and go ahead. He was however commended for achieving a remarkable likeness.
The statue was initially moulded in plaster of Paris and later cast in bronze. The casting was done in five separate pieces — the horse, its tail, the rider, stirrup and the sword. They were later joined together to make a statue of six tonnes.
When shipped out in The Asia, it was the largest consignment to be ever received off the coast of Madras, which incidentally did not have a harbour. The statue was therefore offloaded using primitive cranes onto rafts. There are some reports that the horse and the rider were brought to shore as separate pieces. If so, records are silent on how they were joined together.
Madras had to wait till 1855 for a heavier consignment when steam railway engines of 13 tonnes each were offloaded. The Mount Road-based architects and stonemason firm of Ostheider sculpted the base for the pedestal locally. The Ostheiders were an old family of Madras, some of them prominent in freemasonry as well.
The foundation is ten feet below ground level. The height from the base to tip is 40 feet. A public holiday was declared on the day of the unveiling of the statue, which was by the then Governor of Madras, Lord Elphinstone.
The statue was originally to be located opposite the present University buildings. It was Elphinstone who decided that the present location was a better spot.
Locals were however shocked that such a worthy person as Munro was depicted without a protective canopy. Some felt it was an insult that he should be at the receiving end of bird droppings. The community of rice traders felt it was divine justice for Munro had come down heavily on them for hoarding grain.