Tuesday, Jul 05, 2022

How Statue Wars Became A Prominent Feature Of Indian Political Landscape

An exclusive extract from Kajri Jain’s book, ‘Gods In The Time Of Democracy’

Idol worship Photographs: Kajri Jain, Naresh Kumar Varma

Prime Minister Modi’s Statue of Unity, a 597-ft. tall statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on an island in the Narmada River overlooking the controversial Sardar Sarovar megadam, is the secular apotheosis of the assemblage of icons and developmental infrastructures described in the previous chapter. If, for Nehru, dams alone sufficed to embody theologico-political power, the Statue of Unity revitalises the use of figurative public sculpture to perform the “magic of the state”. This magic, like that of religious icons, is woven and maintained through spectacular ceremonial rituals such as inaugurations and annual celebrations. But it is also simultaneously dispelled and reanimated through dramatic desecrations, such as the famous toppling of the Vendôme column and statues of Stalin, Lenin, and Saddam Hussein. As with the state’s symbolic uses of infrastructure, the use of statues and monuments is not confined to imperial, totalitarian, autocratic, or non–First World regimes. Indeed, one of the most intense periods of state statue building—its critics called it “statuomania”—was from 1900 to 1918, when about two hundred monuments were raised in Third Republic Paris, with its political scandals and debates over the nature and formation of the polity. There, as in the present account of monumental statues in India, political, social, and symbolic upheavals manifested themselves as claims over public space and visibility. Statues and monuments are not characteristic features of any particular type of regime, but are revitalised at times of intensified political competition and change. This chapter traces some of the trans­formations in the basis of power that crystallise in the monumental statue form in post-liberalisation India.

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