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Re-imagining India’s iconography

"We need to go deep into our collective memory and identify both the good and the bad as we build our memory map." File photo: Sandeep Saxena

"We need to go deep into our collective memory and identify both the good and the bad as we build our memory map." File photo: Sandeep Saxena  

A diverse nation needs a diverse iconography. Let us not fall into a trap of narrow-mindedness and sectarianism while scripting our nation’s autobiography and commemorating important events and cultural icons

A map of central Paris can be read as a proud display of the iconography of the > French nation. There are roads named after writers such as Voltaire, Andre Malraux, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. Catholic saints such as St. Michel have public squares to honour them as does the Republic. The site where King Louis XVI and Robespierre was guillotined, Concorde, is a major memorial, and the Pantheon, where the great figures of French intellectual, cultural and political life are interred, is a special attraction. Art has a special place in this iconographic display with many museums devoted to it across the city. There is even a cemetery where Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison are buried. A country needs an iconography of its own, to imagine itself and build into that imagination great events, figures, artefacts and memories. A people need such memorialisation to believe in their nation. It makes a nation’s autobiography.

Peter Ronald deSouza


After Independence we took to this task with some earnestness. Every major city got a > Mahatma Gandhi road. In the early decades after Independence, Delhi announced itself as a leading city of the new politics of humanism in a decolonising world when it named many of its roads after political leaders such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Josip Broz Tito, and Olof Palme. Having locations such as an Africa Avenue and a Max Mueller Marg, as well as a Lodhi Garden and a Bengali Market, showed the cosmopolitanism of the new nation.

Forgotten struggles

There were many more events to be celebrated, leaders to be honoured, struggles to be remembered, and sites to be named as we set about this urgent task of crafting an iconography for the new nation. An inspired leadership and a philosophy of broad-mindedness were what were needed. In the last ten years, unfortunately, that has been found sorely wanting. A kind of smallness has dominated our iconographic imagination.

For example, there can be nothing more arrogant than renaming Escola Médico-Cirúrgica de (Nova) college in Goa — set up in 1842 and one of the oldest medical colleges in Asia — as Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Medical College and hospital. It could have instead been named after Dr. > Francisco Luis Gomes — an illustrious son of Goa and an alumnus of the college. Dr. Gomes was a physician, a writer, an economist and a polyglot who became the institution’s chief surgeon in 1860. However, sycophancy and arrogance led to its being named after Rajiv Gandhi. An airport, an education city, a zoological park, roads and buildings, apart from a host of welfare schemes, have been given Rajiv Gandhi’s name and it is not necessary to rename a medical college after him. Surely we have many other icons who deserve to be remembered? However, the last ten years have been marked by a certain level of narrow-mindedness when one family was given preference and hence disservice was done to our plural nation. This must not be repeated.

The new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-era, I fear, will see as much narrow-mindedness. We will have to live with an uninspiring iconography that gives importance to ‘heroes’ of Hindutva like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and M.S. GolwalkarThere will be no space for Chandra Shekhar Azad or the Ali brothers — Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali. Neither will there be any presence of heroes like the Goan nationalist T.B. Cunha and the Marathi writer and Dalit activist Namdeo Dhasal.

An example concerning Goa serves as an illustration of this form of disrespect for an entire people and their history. Goa is a geographically small place with an unusual history, one that bears the marks of a different colonialism. Francisco Luis Gomes’s life was testimony to that. Yet, he has been completely overlooked. Instead, the National Institute of Watersports (NIWS), set up in Goa in 1990, has been renamed after Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, a development many seem to have forgotten as the Institute’s website does not mention it, nor does that of the Ministry of Tourism. Only a dilapidated signboard at the entrance serves as a reminder.



This is not merely about the neglect shown to our memorials but about the philosophy behind our memorialisation practices.



For a maritime society such as Goa, a more inspiring name would have been that of Gopakapattana, an ancient seaport that serves as a glowing reminder of Goa’s centuries-old maritime tradition. Mukherjee, in contrast, has no connection to Goa though he seems to have had something to do with watersports as there is a swimming pool in Delhi named after him.

Rename, rethink

To avoid such sectarianism and return to a more-inclusive humanism, to be sensitive both to the memory of regions and that of social groups, let us seek a new iconography for this plural nation. Let us begin by considering renaming the Nehru Park, where all the great music concerts in Delhi take place, as the Amir Khusro Park, after the great musician and poet. Nehru, I am sure, would have not have objected to ceding memorial space to someone like > Amir Khusro. Further, let us decide to rename Race Course Road as Birsa Munda Marg so that the Prime Minister’s official residence is called 7, Birsa Munda Marg.

It will remind not just the Indian PM but all the foreign dignitaries visiting him of the tribal leader. We can rename the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) as Mother Teresa AIIMS, a reminder to the nation of what the ethic of caring really means. We can also consider renaming New Delhi Railway station after Xuanzang (also known as Hiuen Tsang), the Chinese traveller; the science museum after Aryabhata; and the Mandi locality, where all the arts academies are located, after Abhinavagupta. Let us build a grand natural history museum, in place of the pathetic one at FICCI, and name it after the great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

I could go on dreaming of such possibilities, of naming and renaming, to give Delhi a cultural memory map that would rival that of Paris, but it would be very arbitrary. To avoid such whimsicality, therefore, let me propose a framework of both an inclusive and an imaginative policy.

We need to prepare lists at three levels. The first is at the national level where we honour and remember national events, icons, struggles, and their creative contributions. So a Gandhi Smriti, a Jawaharlal Nehru University, a Dhyan Chand Stadium, a Lodhi Garden or a Deendayal Upadhyaya Marg make sense but not an S.P. Mukherjee Swimming Pool, an Ambedkar Bus Terminal, or even a Mother Teresa crescent. When we have memorials, let them befit the stature of the person being honoured — we can have Music Academy named after M.S. Subbulakshmi and the Chief Justice of India’s chamber after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

The second level is the regional one. Here, we can build memorials commemorating important events and movements like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the Self-respect Movement. We also need memorials for important struggles against injustice like the > Narmada Bachao Andolan.

The third level is local. Honouring a local sportsperson, a musician or a social justice campaigner will help us create an iconography for the region.

Let us involve the public in making these lists. This will serve the dual purpose of making them inclusive and initiating a public debate . It would also do justice to India’s plurality.

We need to go deep into our collective memory and identify both the good and the bad as we build our memory map. Let the government not be narrow-minded while zeroing in on the contours of the map. Plural India requires it. A diverse nation needs a diverse iconography. Remember amnesia is a debilitating ailment for a nation.

( Peter Ronald deSouza holds the Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan Chair of the Rajya Sabha and is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi)

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Printable version | Jul 9, 2020 11:10:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/reimagining-indias-iconography/article7536199.ece

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