Opinion » Comment

Updated: November 9, 2013 02:00 IST

The politics of public memorials

A. Srivathsan
Comment (10)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
WHAT ART? The spat between the two national parties reiterates the fact that no matter who had built what or what they are clad with, all memorials are a political spectacle.
WHAT ART? The spat between the two national parties reiterates the fact that no matter who had built what or what they are clad with, all memorials are a political spectacle.

By taking the moral high ground on the Sardar Patel statue issue, the Congress has conveniently forgotten that it was among the earliest to take to statues in a big way.

Art has never been the objective of public statuary in India, but politics is. State-sponsored memorials are unabashed political projects, and no party is an exception to this practice. Hence, it is strange to see the Congress party take the moral high ground and criticise Narendra Modi’s proposal to build the statue of Sardar Patel, to be the tallest public sculpture in the world, as political propaganda. Its own track record is not any different. This episode also lays bare another entrenched prejudice: the commemorative practices of regional parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) are often derided as memorial mania, while that of the national parties are passed off as honourable collective remembering. The Modi-Congress spat reiterates the fact that no matter who had built it or what they are clad with, all memorials are political spectacles.

Portrait figures in temples and other confined spaces were prevalent in pre-colonial India, but installing statues of public figures in civic spaces is largely a colonial legacy. The Congress has conveniently forgotten that, after independence, it was among the earliest political parties to take to statues in a big way. Nehru’s opposition to installing Gandhiji’s statue inside Parliament is often cited as the Congress’s sober approach to memorials. But the lesser known fact is that Nehru was inconsistent in his position and participated in memorial projects. As irony would have it, this became evident in Tamil Nadu, which is often looked down upon as badlands of regional memorials.

Kamaraj statues

In 1961, Kamaraj, a prominent Congress leader and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, consented to the city Corporation installing his statue in Madras. The party and Kamaraj were not perturbed that they are self-sanctioning the statue of a political person in his own lifetime and imposing it on the city. They invited Nehru to sanctify the event and unveil the statue. Nehru inaugurated and tried to justify it. He had come to honour “a dear friend and colleague,” he said. “Kamaraj is a notable example of a real representative of people with extraordinary capacity,” Nehru explained, and implied he deserved a statue. When similar sentiments were echoed by the DMK while unveiling statues of Annadurai, the founder leader, in 1967, it was criticised.

What Nehru could not admit in public was that the influence of the Congress was waning in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, and the meteoric rise of the DMK, founded in 1949, was threatening its political future. The party resorted to inscribing the cityscape with memorials as a part of its political propaganda. When the DMK came to power in 1967, it lined up statues of its own leaders on the same road where Kamaraj had his statue unveiled.

Later, inspired by the series of memorials along the Yamuna river, the DMK expanded its commemorative project along the Marina beachfront, the most popular civic space in the city. This scheme predictably left out Kamaraj and other Congress affiliates. The peeved Congress party had to wait until 1976, when the Emergency was in force, to get another Kamaraj statue installed on Marina beach.

For ‘national’ leaders

The Congress also favours another myth: the commemoration of “national” leaders (read Congress leaders) had the full support of people. But history has a different story to narrate. Efforts to mobilise a memorial fund for Nehru after he died met with poor response. Karan Singh, Secretary of the Nehru Memorial Trust in 1966 admitted that even two years since the proposal was mooted, only Rs.1 crore was collected against the targeted amount of Rs.20 crore. Even in States such as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh where the Congress was a dominant political party, the collection was pathetic. Maharashtra contributed Rs.17 lakh of the targeted Rs.2 crore; Andhra pitched in with only Rs.18 lakh instead of Rs.1.3 crore that was expected of it, and Tamil Nadu contributed a meagre Rs.2 lakh instead of Rs.1.5 crore assigned to it.

This, however, did not stop the Congress from taking up numerous memorial projects for Nehru. When it did, not everyone welcomed it. When Jawahar Jyoti, an eternal flame, was installed in Teen Murti House where Nehru lived, and later converted into a museum, P. Rajeswara Rao, a reader from Eluru wrote in The Hindu that it was a waste of money. Apart from lamenting the frivolous use of precious fuel, he complained about the wasteful employment of four persons to maintain it. He was “surprised and even shocked” to see the manner in which such commemorations were carried out. Similarly, people were critical of converting houses where Congress leaders lived, including that of Nehru and Lal Bahadur Sastri, into a memorial. Writing in The Hindu, in 1969, K. Ramaswamy, a reader from Bombay, disapproved it as unnecessary “hero worship.”

Sriperumbudur memorial

Even as recently as in 1991, when the Congress government proposed a large memorial for Rajiv Gandhi on a 12.19 acre piece of land belonging to a temple in Sriperumbudur, it was met with resistance. The head of the centuries old Vaishnavite Mutt, who was a flight lieutenant with the Indian Air Force, opposed the memorial coming up on temple land. He said that the structure would block the temple’s rituals, while renaming the town, as Rajivpuram, would override local history and religious significance of the place. The site of Rajiv’s “martyrdom” was too important for the party to give up. The Congress, which was once reluctant to acquire Birla House to commemorate Gandhiji’s death, managed the resistance and built the memorial.

In Mumbai

The Congress would try to defend its memorials as modest public gestures and differentiate them from that of the monumental and propagating ones such as the Modi’s statue project. But such arguments would not wash. The Shiv Sena tried a similar strategy. After the Maharashtra government denied it permission to build a memorial for Bal Thackeray in Shivaji Park in Mumbai, it wanted to take over the Mahalaxmi Racecourse for this purpose. It tried hard to disguise its intention as a call for creating public space, but the government called the Shiv Sena’s bluff.

If there was any difference in commemorative practices, it would be, as Erika Doss, the author of the book Memorial Mania, points out, only materialistic: temporary or permanent. Otherwise, they are all in political service.

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As far as I know BJP is not commemorating any leader of theirs. They are just having a statue of national leader and particularly a famous gujrati in Gujrat. Even through all this there is hardly any plans or statues named after any BJP leader over the years even though they are ruling states for many years and even govt for 5 years.

from:  Harsh vs
Posted on: Nov 11, 2013 at 14:35 IST

Only beneficiaries of statues are the birds as can be seen from the excreta coating the
statues. It is perhaps the birds telling us what the memorials are worth. Tamilnadu may take
the cake when it comes to propaganda with statues and memorials. They are converting
a pristine seashore into a graveyard for politicians.

from:  Sekar
Posted on: Nov 10, 2013 at 19:59 IST

I agree with D. Darwin Albert Raj's comment on this article. Plus, there has never been a dispute about whether statues "are all in political service" or not--as the article's author suggests. Everybody knows that. However, the kind of one-upmanship that Modi has tried to demonstrate by having the "tallest" statue in the world for Patel is peculiar indeed. Esp. since Patel was a Congressman anyway. In short, the bitterness is not even about statues, per se, but about precisely what political rhetoric is behind one--as different from another.

from:  Alka
Posted on: Nov 10, 2013 at 19:34 IST

Nice incisive piece!

from:  Ravindran Chellappa
Posted on: Nov 10, 2013 at 08:36 IST

I am reminded of a cartoon in Ananda Vikatan of yore in which a pilot
who had lost his bearings is being told, look for a forest of stone
statutes and that, my dear is Chennai the capital of the chauvinsts of
the DMK variety.

from:  subbanarasu Divakaran
Posted on: Nov 10, 2013 at 01:48 IST

Public memorials in the form of statues,airports,museums,parks,ships,universities,islands etc
are reflections of gratitude of a grateful nation to its popular leaders.It is not an Indian
phenomena rather it is a global phenomena.Abraham Lincoln Memorial,Ford
Foundation,Kennedy Memorials,Mandela Square etc are a few examples where the nations
gratitude is reflected on living and departed leaders.In India Gandhi and Nehru families have
countless memorials in the form of statues,bridges,hospitals,public roads,airports and
sometimes the whole national welfare schemes are named after them.Anything when
overdone becomes repulsive and rather serves a negative purpose.As a revenge to higher
castes who found prestige in statues,Mayavati when in power transformed the ambience and
scenery of Lucknow with statues of elephants-symbol of BSP-and Ambeker and Kansi
Ram,her mentor.Parliament House is adorned by pictures of former Presidents and Prime
Ministers.What concerns me is not the establishment

from:  Dr K V Peter
Posted on: Nov 9, 2013 at 22:03 IST

I do not understand why are we kept busy all the time in discussing,
debating about statues and memorials. We hardly get any inspiration
out of such mere symbolism. As article rightly points out, it serves
only political interests. All states, parties and people therein are
alike. UP has marble-granite parks, without decent public toilets!
Maharashtra is busy building Shivaji statue as if all other issues are
taken care of. Gujarat can spend crores of rupees on tallest statue of
world without bothering about widest polar societies being created
therein. It is as if largest statues and renaming of places infuse
patriotism, honesty, courage, morality, fraternity in our society
including crorepati politicians.When are we going to stop such non-
sense?That is the reason majority people voted against The Hindu poll
for bringing Gandhi memorabilia to India. Enough of Vyakti-pooja.Be it
Gandhi, Shivaji, Patel, Nehru, Tendulkar and what not.

from:  Vikram Rajapure
Posted on: Nov 9, 2013 at 10:22 IST

When the author agrees that installing statues is improper, which I
think every right thinking Indian citizen will support, he has turned
his ire mostly on the Congress party. He points out the the congress
tries to escape by saying that 'they are modest public gestures' while
those by BSP and BJP and to some extent those by DMK are big projects.
It may be true that the seed for the'statue culture' was sown by
congress; but now it has grown into a big menace threatening to
demolish the structure of democracy. I personally feel that, while the
projects by congress are unnecessary those by BSP and BJP are mere
waste of public money. If any party wants to put up a statue it should
be from their own private funds (not extracted by coercion from
public) and on private land. I would have appreciated the author
had emphasised this part more.

from:  D. Darwin Albert Raj
Posted on: Nov 9, 2013 at 08:59 IST

It is not unusual for any country to commemorate her heroes. Statues are one of those
expressions. The problem starts when it becomes political and communal as well as go
overboard with it wasting the nation's resources. There needs to be a popular consensus in
determining who's statue is eructed using the State's money, which belongs to all. Private
people and religious groups may want to 'waste' the money on statues, but it is their
business. At times, the Government funds are given to institutions with an implicit
understanding that the receiver will name the new entity with the name of a political hero of
the ruling party! That is shear coercion and an unacceptable corruption in governance. It is
time someone takes an audit of all these malpractices and publish it for people to see.
Statues serve some egos but generally serve as a perching and defecating place for some

from:  Saratchandran
Posted on: Nov 9, 2013 at 06:31 IST

Thank you for calling spade a spade and providing a historical perspective.

from:  V Gupta
Posted on: Nov 9, 2013 at 05:50 IST
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