Art & Entertainment

Shadows Of Our Forgotten Ancestors

Public art in India, especially of statues, focuses inordinately on political figures, and almost completely ignores figures from the arts and culture

Artists often tend to be forgotten over time
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A quick Google search of Antonio Figueiredo reveals all sorts of results — from neurosurgeon to digital strategist. Only at the bottom of the search page does a link appear to the life and works of a musician by that name — a Goan violinist who was in fact India’s first Western classical orchestra conductor. Born somewhere near Loutolim village in South Goa, which was once known as Portuguese India, Figueiredo is an important but rarely talked or written about figure in Goa's cultural history.

The artiste was immortalised a few years ago in a colourful mural on a street wall in Panjim, depicting Figueiredo in the middle of a performance, waving his baton as he read from the sheet music. The mural by Israel-born artist Solomon Souza (grandson of renowned modernist painter F.N. Souza) was among a dozen such murals painted all across the state, as part of the Mundo Goa project (during the Serendipity Arts Festival of 2019) curated by Vivek Menezes.

The project, Menezes wrote in his curatorial note, “...highlights the infinitely varied ways of being and belonging that artists, writers, intellectuals—and everyone else who seeks to belong to it—can derive from the unique cultural scenario of this blessed slice of Konkan coastline…”

In a country as vast and diverse as India, culture and identity are not mutually exclusive, and our artistes—painters and sculptors, poets and writers, dancers and musicians—have been the chroniclers and custodians of this heritage for as long as one can remember. Whether it was Sadat Hasan Manto’s heart-wrenching stories of Partitition, Munshi Premchand’s tales of caste-based oppression, Amrita Sher-Gil’s visual retellings of quaint rural Indian life, Jhumpa Lahiri’s introspective novels capturing the internal conflicts of contemporary times, or Ranveer Singh’s embodiment of an underprivileged rapper from Mumbai's underbelly, our artistes have been relentlessly documenting our past and present, for posterity’s sake. 

Their role in the building of Indian society as we see it today, has been as critical as that of political figures and rulers. And yet, their commemoration, particularly in terms of public statues or murals, is infinitesimal compared to that of politicians. According to Shukla Sawant, an associate professor at JNU’s School of Arts and Aesthetics, the decisions to erect statues or public art celebrating personalities is largely driven by electoral politics. 

“There is a tendency to valorise political figures because of electioneering, to ensure that a certain kind of political imagination concentrates in the public space,” the professor says. “This is more or less about trying to gain visual control over political ideological expression.”

The “feudal mentality” of Indian society might also be to blame for its dismissive attitude towards artistes and their contributions, says historian and documentary filmmaker Sohail Hashmi. “Musicians, singers, dancers were referred to as ‘bhand marasi’. They are not considered people worth honouring,” he says.

Contrary to the West, where entire cities and airports are dedicated to artistes, the number of memorable statues or iconography of people from the world of arts in India can be counted on the tips of our fingers. The Thiruvalluvar statue in Kanyakumari, adjacent to the Vivekananda rock, immediately comes to mind. The 133 ft-tall stone sculpture of the Tamil poet and philosopher who is best known for writing Tirukkural, an ancient Tamil text comprising three books, one each on virtue, wealth and love. The 38 ft-high base of the statue is believed to be representative of the book on virtue, while the statue of the poet is symbolic of the other two values. It is said that the statue's design is meant to encourage people to achieve wealth and love based on a strong set of virtues. Each foot of the statue’s height represents the 133 chapters in the text. Commissioned by former Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, the statue, created by sculptor V. Ganapati, was unveiled in 2000 and reportedly cost over Rs 6 crore at the time. It has become a major tourist attraction since.  

Albeit not in the same scale, Bengal boasts of multiple statues of poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata as well as in Santiniketan, where the Nobel laureate lived and taught for a large part of his life. The tallest statue of the poet, however, is in Jamshedpur. The over 11 ft-tall bronze sculpture captures one of the most popular poses Tagore was spotted in—standing tall with his arms folded behind his back, and staring into open space with a seemingly omniscient gaze. The statue wears the poet’s quintessential ‘chapkan’ (long coat) that combined elements of both Hindu and Muslim sartorial styles of the time. Costing nearly Rs 13 lakh, it was executed by sculptor Niranjan Pradhan, and was erected by the Tagore Society, a cultural group in the city.

Hashmi believes the disregard for culture and those practising it is not necessarily a nation-wide phenomenon, but more of a “North Indian malice”. “If you were to go to Chennai, Hyderabad, Trivandrum or Cochin, the statues of their greatest writers and poets are on their major streets,” he says.

His claim is vindicated in Subramania Bharati’s statue in the heart of a park in Pondicherry, also named after the Tamil writer. Believed to be one of the pioneers of modern Tamil literature, Bharati’s writing style was progressive. Many of his songs also made their way into Tamil cinema. It is then-French-ruled Pondicherry that “Mahakavi” Bharati escaped to while fleeing the British, after the media house he wrote for was charged with sedition.

On Marina Beach in Chennai stands a statue of Avaiyyar, which according to Abidhana Chintamani (an encyclopaedia of Tamil literature) is representative of three female poets who lived during different times of Tamil literature. The statue is seen holding a cane in one hand and palm leaves with her writings in the other. It was erected in 1968 alongside the statue of another female poet, Bharathidasan, and four other statues. Bharathidasan, a Tamil poet, was named after Subramania Bharati, and was a disciple of the Mahakavi. Both Avaiyyar and Bharathidasan challenged traditional gender norms that prevented women from reading and writing, and established themselves as great litterateurs of their times. 

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However, North India, says Hashmi largely does not celebrate “anybody except politicians”.

There are a few exceptions, however. Varanasi, which was the birthplace of both Hindi writer Premchand and 16th century Sufi saint Kabir, is also home to their sculptures. A half bust of the Hindi writer is housed at the Munshi Premchand Memorial in Lamhi. Several bronze sculptures of the Sufi saint engaged in simple daily chores find place in Kabir Math, the resting place of the saint. 

In Delhi, there’s a statue of Mirza Ghalib within the precincts of Jamia Milia Islamia University. Lying unattended and often unnoticed, but nevertheless a city landmark, is the statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin at Mandi House. Said to have been “a gift from the Russians”, the statue was inaugurated during the visit of Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988.

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The dearth of statues dedicated to cultural icons can also be attributed to a faulty political approach towards education system of the country, feels Hashmi. “Education flows from the kind of politics of people who run this country, and they are not interested in culture,” he says. Because the onus of imparting education lies with the government, it is imperative for the people in power to have a  “culturally sensitive mindset”. “The government that decides to erect a statue of Sardar Patel, can also decide to erect statues and memorials of great creative figures,” the historian says.

One might argue that an artiste lives on through their works, but the almost immediate impact on public memory through a visual in the form of statues and murals is difficult to overlook. Erecting statues, besides the prolonged governmental procedures involved, is conspicuously expensive.

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Hence, several artists in the country have taken up the responsibility of filling in the gaps with street art. They are creating public memorabilia of cultural icons of the country on the city walls. Like the Delhi Street Art Initiative that has painted walls, particularly school facades, in various cities including Delhi, Allahabad and Lucknow, with portraits of famous personalities from the arts world. On Pusa Road near Karol Bagh, they recently took over a few walls that now bear colourful images of cultural icons like Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Amrita Sher-Gill, Jamini Roy,  Jagjit Singh, R.D. Burman, Kishore Kumar, Uday Shankar and Raja Ravi Varma. The portraits evoke obvious curiosity about these personalities. Even if one if familiar with the names, they tend  to slow down their pace to interact with the artworks, and a new name is bound to lead to a quick Google search. It encourages passersby to find out more about these personalities, says Yogesh Saini of Delhi Street Art.

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A mural of Dadasaheb Phalke came up on a wall in Mumbai in 2014, as part of another public art project by St+Art India led by Hanif Kureshi. Painted on the exterior of an MTNL building in Bandra by artist Ranjit Dahiya, the artwork had become an integral part of the cityscape until it was painted over a few years back following natural degradation. The larger-than-life painting showed the father of Indian Cinema against a bright yellow backdrop, carefully observing a film reel.

Kureshi feels having a public iconography of cultural icons, be it in the form of statues or murals, helps start a conversation about people who have contributed immensely to the heritage of the country, but are often rendered faceless and eventually forgotten in public memory. “A lot of people within and around the industry did not know of the struggles of Phalke. “But when we put up the mural, at least people started to understand who this man was,” he says.

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In a similar upcoming project, St+art India will be painting a mural of Oscar winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray later this month near the Tollygunge metro station in Kolkata. It will be painted by Chennai-based artist A-Kill.

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