Looming issues

The first giant statue in history we know is that of the sun god Helios on the Greek island of Rhodes. But the Greek word colossus, meaning a statue much larger than life, was coined by Herodotus, the historian who lived and wrote about 400 years before Christ, for other statues. 

Herodotus describes in great detail the Pyramids of Giza (he had visited them) and also the statues of the gods that he called colossi. 

The Rhodes giant, which came about 150 years after Herodotus, is not well described by contemporary historians and we don’t really know what it looked like and how big it was. It was apparently on a plinth and stood to welcome ships coming into Rhodes, which is just off the coast of Turkey. The statue existed only for a few years before being felled in an earthquake. But for some reason it has become famous and synonymous with large statues, and even thought of as a “wonder of the world” along with the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is older, more spectacular and, of course, still around. 

The second famous historical statue is in New York. Lady Liberty, as she is called, came a century after the great actions in favour of liberty that united France and the United States. One was the French Revolution against the monarchy and the House of Bourbon, and the second was the American Revolution against the British monarchy and the House of Hanover just a few years before that. 

The late 1800s, when the statue was erected, was also the time of mass European migration into an America that was welcoming to them. There is a reference on the plinth to that: 

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat, which opened to the public this week

It is instructive to re-read it today in the time of Trump. The other famous statue in America (the continent) is that of Jesus in the form of Christ the Redeemer, in Rio de Janeiro. This was built a little less than a century ago and is about 100 metres tall.

There are two large modern statues that are not as famous globally but are significant to the place where they stand and to the nations they represent. One is The Motherland Calls, in Volgograd, the city that used to be called Stalingrad. 

It commemorates the turning point of the Second World War when Hitler’s 6th Army surrendered to the Russians after the most savage siege in history. The second statue is in Germany. It was erected around the same time as the Statue of Liberty and it is called the Hermann Monument. I did not know of its existence, till I researched a man in a couple of books I read a few years ago. The books are by Tacitus, and in one he describes the German nation as a race of freedom-loving savages, and the other is his description of a famous battle between the Romans and the Germans. The Romans had in their army some Germans who had been Romanised. One of them, whom Tacitus refers to as Arminius, is the man the Germans know as Hermann. He turned on the Romans and massacred two legions (10,000 men) in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. The statue commemorates this act. 

Statues generally unify and push a powerful nationalism, as can be seen from most of the examples above. Jawaharlal Nehru was a builder of institutions. Buildings don’t seem to have meant much to him, which is in some ways unfortunate because he had a very good eye and was an aesthete. Possibly he thought it was a waste of India’s limited resources to erect big things of no use. Of course, he saw the same beauty in such things as dams as people see in monuments. 

The Indian leader we see as being most obsessed with statues in our times is Mayawati, who put up the park in Lucknow. I went there a few years ago and was astonished at how magnificent it was. My astonishment came mainly from the fact that it was only spoken about with derision but it is actually a charming place, and it doesn’t at all have the focus on Mayawati that most people think it does.

Almost nobody was there when I went. This is a shame because it is quite special and deserves to be seen, especially the statue of Ambedkar inside, in which he is enthroned, like Lincoln in that famous statue in Washington DC.

Let us look at the two enormous statues, both of historical figures, India is putting up. The Statue of Unity was opened to the world this week and there was some work that was happening also on the second, which is called Shiv Smarak. It is being built off Marine Drive. The question is: why South Mumbai and why in that particular place? The fact is that Chhatrapati Shivaji is an Indian hero, but he is also the symbol of Marathi nationalism, which has always tried to resist the appropriation of the city of Mumbai by outsiders. 

The city of Bombay, as it was then called, was peopled by the British by bringing in traders from south Gujarat, mostly Surat. The port was very good and after it went to Charles II, it became the default port on the west coast, eclipsing Surat. 

B R Ambedkar wrote in an essay when the states were being reorganised linguistically that the Gujaratis had insisted on many rights, including free land to settle, when they relocated. He wrote it because there was a strong — and, in my opinion, totally unjustified — demand from Mumbai’s Gujarati community that the city be part of Gujarat. Though this is not forgotten history for others, Marathis probably remember it well. That is perhaps one reason why the Shiv Smarak is where it is, surrounded by the neighbourhoods that were taken by the Gujaratis.

To end with, let us look at the name of the Sardar colossus, which is the Statue of Unity. The question is: unity of what? The answer is that it is the geographical union of India, not the unity of people, which to many of us is true unity and can only be achieved in a liberal and freedom-loving atmosphere. The sort of space that we seem rapidly to be losing in India today.

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