In the grey: Statue & sovereign

Drive past this statue in Bengaluru and zoom into a king’s life — caricatured, critiqued and lauded

Some of Edward VII’s (L) nicknames were Bertie, Edward the Caresser and Uncle of Europe. The statue of King Edward VII in Cubbon Park. (R)

The statue of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales King, Edward VII, near Minsk Square at the north-eastern edge of Cubbon Park, turns 100 on November 28. The yearly flowering of the surrounding pink-coloured tabebuia rosea masks the fascinating history behind both the statue and the man. 

As a tablet on the statue’s pedestal states, the statue was unveiled by Frederic John Napier Baron Chelmsford, the then Viceroy and Governor-General of India.

Credit where it’s due

It had been just a year since the Armistice had brought the Great War to an end; a war in which the Princely State of Mysore had contributed tremendously in both men and materials. This goaded the British into recognising and holding the Princely State in some esteem.

The viceroy’s address to the gathering that Friday morning echoes that sentiment:

“This assemblage at the point of junction of [the] British and Mysore jurisdiction is typical of the unity of the Indian States and British India — a unity which I hope to see cemented even more firmly by the ties of common interests and common aspirations.”

The statue had been designed and sculpted by Leonard Jennings, who later taught at the Calcutta School of Art (today the Government College of Art & Craft), and who had a number of statues of British monarchs commissioned and erected across India.

However, as four inscriptions — in English, Kannada, Tamil and Urdu — around the pedestal says, its unveiling could not have been possible without the generous contributions of public subscriptions, led in particular by Krishnaraja Wodeyar Bahadur IV, the Maharaja of Mysore and Rao Bahadur Annaswami Mudaliar “to whose energy and personal service must in a large measure be ascribed the result which has been achieved.” 

The viceroy concluded thus:

“Representing as we do all classes and creeds of the Mysore State and of British India, officials and non-officials, British and Indians, we are assembled here to-day to do honour to the pious memory of His late Imperial Majesty and in honouring him we honour too those ideals with which his memory is indissolubly associated….[the] time too is in consonance with the thoughts which have inspired your contributions, and with the character of the benevolent Sovereign whom we have met to honour and commemorate.”

So, who, really, is this “benevolent Sovereign” depicted?  

I, for one, have always wondered driving past Queen’s Park — bordered by the rectangular walking path opposite the cricket stadium and connecting the twin statues of Queen Victoria (at the M G Road end) and King Edward VII (at the junction of Cubbon Park with Queen’s Road) — why this first-born son and heir to the British crown somehow looks in a melancholy manner at his mother, the great Queen Victoria, whose statue, unveiled in February 1906, is turned away from him.  

Whether or not the planners knew, the fact is that the mother seems to nonchalantly stare away from her son, who seems to be calling out to her.

It’s a metaphor that marked, and some would say marred, the relationship between these two successive British monarchs.  

Born in November 1841 to Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha, Albert Edward — ‘Bertie’ to the Royal family — acquired in his youth the swashbuckling image of a playboy prince and philanderer.

As one writer notes, “the word libertine could have been created specifically to describe Queen Victoria’s eldest son…Edward, known to some as the ‘Caresser’.”  

Two incidents are worth mentioning.The Mordaunt Affair of 1870 had Bertie appear as a witness in a divorce suit with allegations of adultery; and in 1890 came the Royal Baccarat Scandal, where the future king came close to being identified as a criminal in an illegal card game, and had to, again, stand in the witness box in a libel suit.  

The Prince of Wales’ reputation mired in these nefarious events was damaged indelibly when a cartoon gained popularity, showing the emblem of his office with the motto ‘Ich dien’ (I serve), replaced by ‘Ich deal’. 

Wartime-peacetime

All of these events soured the relationship the future monarch had with his stentorian mother.

As the movie Victoria & Abdul depicts, Queen Victoria had a low opinion of her heir apparent, even writing in her diary: “The poor country, with such a terribly unfit, totally unreflecting successor! Oh! That is awful. He does nothing!...Bertie (I grieve to say) shows more and more how totally unfit he is for ever becoming King.”

Yet, somehow history tells us that when he gained the throne himself in 1901, his brief reign of nine years lead to the final flowering and the zenith of peace of the late-Victorian era, ending in the Edwardian one; indeed, the new king proved a far greater success than anyone had ever expected.  

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how the ‘Edwardian’ decade marks the great chasm of peace and contentment in Europe, separating it from the carnage and devastation of the terrible war that followed.  

So, when you next go past the statue of King Edward VII in Cubbon Park in Bengaluru, do remember: that its unveiling a hundred years ago was a hark back to a quieter, more peaceful age, and perhaps pause for a moment to honour the “end of a struggle against the forces of greed and tyranny and, if the Almighty so wills, the beginning of an era of peace of freedom,”

Until, that is, history repeats itself.

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