Megalomania, a political business

Statue controversy: Post-Independent India saw the rise of personality cults in electoral politics

Human statues for what? A post-modern ‘avatar’ of what Sigmund Freud genially called ‘Totem and Taboo’?

In all probability, such posers would hardly be startling propositions for the steely Bahujan Samaj Party supremo and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, even if faithfully translated into her very own brusque, semi-rustic Hindi.  

As Mayawati surfs a storm over pumping hundreds of crores of Rupees to build grand eloquent memorials for the Dalits’ cultural icon and chief architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr B R Ambedkar and to her political mentor Kanshi Ram, the Freudian sting may be the last thing in her mind. 

The love-hate ambivalence in man may have been historically rooted in tribal societies in “projecting on to others - symbolised by the ‘totem pole -’’, the suppressed or the hated parts” within. No wonder statues of even the tallest leaders in modern times have at times been targets of mass hysteria.

‘Deification’ of political trail blazers, stemming from a combination of adoration and fear of rejection by one’s own constituency if the ritual of ‘objectification’ is not gone through by his/her followers, and the demolition-threat such memorabilia face from the ruling group’s political adversaries, are one of a complex continuum in social relations.

The Supreme Court for now has asked all construction activities at the ‘Kanshi Memorial Sthal’ and other sites in Lucknow be stopped following a Public Interest Litigation questioning the Mayawati Government wasting huge sums of public money on such monuments (her plans to build some 40 memorials in UP has been estimated to cost Rs 2000 crore), besides the installation of statues of various leaders at Noida’s Bhim Rao Ambedkar Park until the Central Government’s environmental clearance was got.

But in Mayawati’s case, it is hardly any action replay of a repressed emotion, as psychoanalysts would like to believe. The tenacious BSP leader’s sculptural odyssey to create new galleries of Dalit leaders in stone, as a dramatic dimension to her social engineering in UP, is out and out political. To twitter on the pioneering concept of the Indian sociologist, M N Srinivas, her big trip may be a case of ‘reverse Sanskritisation’.

‘Reverse Sanskritisation’

Mayawati is not alone in such acts of political megalomania. By her own admission, if the Congress  and other parties of the ‘Third Front’ variety had installed statues of mostly ‘Brahminical’ leaders, now was the time for her regime to honour ‘Dalit Heroes’.
Though her sweeping generalisations will not apply to the universally revered apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, and other mass leaders of the Independence Movement like Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, Mayawati has still a lot of answering to do on the costs of her stunning colossal structures. 

In fact, the deification of the underclass leaders as symbols of ‘reverse Sanskritisation’ is not new. Tamil Nadu, for instance, with a long history of a vigorous ‘Non-Brahmin Movement’, and later the ‘Dravidian Movement’ led by reformist ‘Periyar’ E V Ramasamy Naicker, to oust ‘Brahmin dominance’, had unfurled several emotion charged personality cults.

Thus, by any count, post-Independence, statues of ‘Periyar’, Annadurai, Ambedkar and later those of the highly popular matinee idol-turned leader M G Ramachandran, clearly outnumber the statues of Mahatma Gandhi or the popular Congress leader K Kamaraj. With the powerful OBC ‘Thevars’ in the South making a ‘God’ of their own leader and freedom fighter, Pasumponn Muthuramalinga Thevar, even the slightest damage to a ‘Thevar’ statue or an Ambedkar statue, have led to deadly caste clashes.  

The statue-erection spree in Tamil Nadu got a big official boost under the first DMK regime during the second World Tamil Conference in Chennai in 1968, when it populated the lovely Marina beach sands with a line of statues of great Tamil savants and literary figures.

The DMK Government headed by M Karunanidhi, spent Rs 6.14 crore to erect a 133 feet-tall 7000-tonne statue of the classical Tamil poet-saint Tiruvalluvar in the year 2000, a massive artefact sculpted by the gifted V Ganapathy Sthapathi, atop a small rock off the Kanniyakumari seashore.  

Karunanidhi in 2006 also left no stone unturned to reinstall the statue of ‘Kannagi’, icon of Tamil chastity, on the Marina sands, five years after its pedestal was allegedly bumped off by a speeding trucker during the previous Jayalalithaa regime. Later, the DMK patriarch even dared to take on the Supreme Court, in putting up a brass icon of his childhood buddy and veteran thespian Sivaji Ganesan on the beach road, though many felt it was not in good taste as it tended to veil a statue of Mahatma Gandhi nearby.

Footnotes to history

If such are the passions that drive politics, Mayawati could hardly be faulted, except that her statues budget peaked outlandish limits. She also failed to draw the politically correct lessons from Tamil Nadu’s stone saga, where the images have been diffused across the State and not concentrated at a few massive complexes as in UP. Also, most statues in Tamil Nadu are funded from the kitty of political parties or caste groups and not by the State.

Yet, statues of public persons, inscriptions and memorials are footnotes to history. At least for that reason they need to be left untouched by even bitter ideological battles. To let them be vandalised during violent upheavals as Iraq witnessed after US humbling Saddam Hussein, is erasing our own collective memory at grave peril.


A legacy of British Raj


In the erstwhile Madras Presidency, which comprised almost the entire South India prior to the linguistic reorganisation of the States, erection of statues of famous people in acknowledgement of their public service was a legacy of the British Raj since the 1890s.
There was no obsessive preoccupation with politicians those days, though English monarchs and governors were typical motifs for sculptors, as shown by various chroniclers of Chennai’s history.

Significantly, the general public of Madras had honoured one of the greatest medical practioners of the then Madras Presidency, Dr S Rangachari, by having his life-size statue installed in front of the General Hospital in the city, after he passed away in 1934. The Madras School of Arts was also an important factor in this development, turning out good painters and sculptors.

The whole business of erecting statues was, thus, voluntary, people-centric and decentralised, as even members of several Municipal Councils thought it fit to remember truly great heroes at public squares in their respective small towns. A heritage statue of that era is undoubtedly the legendary Bengal sculptor Devi Prasad Roy Choudhury’s Mahatma Gandhi, on Chennai’s Marina beach sands.

Though post-Independent India saw the rise of personality cults in electoral politics, the catholicism and cosmopolitan outlook of those days, happily, still lingers. The most recent example of a unique cooperation between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka saw the Yeddyurappa Government facilitating installation of the statue of the Tamil poet-saint Thiruvalluvar in Bangalore. It was unveiled by Tamil Nadu CM Karunanidhi on August 9, ending an 18-year-old standoff over this issue.

The DMK Government reciprocated this gesture by organising a grand function in Chennai on August 13, wherein Karnataka CM B S Yeddyurappa unveiled a statue of the 16th century mystic Kannada poet, Sarvajna, in the presence of Karunanidhi.

MRV

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