The statue game

Shifting signifiers of stationary figuration

By The Thin EdgeRuchir Joshi
  • Published 13.03.18

Something there is that doesn't love a statue. Specifically, all statues of kings, queens, leaders and political figures are installed and stay erected at least partly against something, against an idea or against a group of people; and for all the motivation behind the installation of this sort of statue there is also the implication of a counter-force, an opposition, and the statue is also the symbol of the vanquishing of this opposition, of the victory over the countervailing idea or ideology; every statue of a political figure is surrounded by the invisible presence of the obstacles and rivals the figure overcame in his or her lifetime. So, to start with a simple equation: a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte reminds us of the man's victories against the great armies of Europe that were ranged against him, while a statue of Wellington can never quite shake off the ghost of Napoleon who he was most famous for defeating; a statue of Queen Victoria lauds the idea of the British Empire whereas a statue of Gandhi or Nehru alludes to the dismantling of that Empire; statues of Garibaldi, Bismarck and Lenin mark not only the formation of three nation-states, of Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union respectively, but also the defeat of the forces that opposed the formation of those states.

At some point, however, things in the statue-game start to get complicated. The title of the story by the Bangla avant-garde writer, Subimal Mishra, "The Corpse of Haaraan Majhi's Widow or the Golden Gandhi Statue", is a bitter satire on the condition of the poor living under the gaze of a golden statue of Gandhi. The idea of a statue of Gandhi, an imaginary, obscenely opulent golden one, challenges what we are told MKG stood for, that is, simplicity, truth, non-violence, and it also skewers the hypocrites who have used the symbol of Gandhi to maintain the status quo in the country and shore up the huge, violently iniquitous gap between the rich and the vast majority of the poor. Gandhi and his legacy have also been challenged by the hundreds of thousands of statues of his sharpest critic, Bhimrao Ambedkar, that have been put up across the country. From another direction, Gandhi's memory has been undercut by the statues and portraits of the men who murdered him or who instigated his murder. Every bust of Nathuram Godse, every portrait or statue of Vinayak Savarkar is testimony to the fact that these men who hated Gandhi and his ideology are revered heroes for a small group of powerful people in this country. History has a habit of playing the cheapest of tricks and so it's unsurprising that these people, who have always hated Gandhi and Ambedkar, now want to have their cake and eat it too, or, to use another old saying 'want a bit of bacon on their beef'; therefore we have the naked effrontery of some political leaders garlanding a statue of Gandhi one day, one of Ambedkar the next and one of Savarkar on the third. When they have spare time, these leaders also manage to include Bhagat Singh (an atheist and an admirer of Lenin) as a garlanding target.

Statuary semiotics, or, if you like, the shifting signifiers of stationary figuration, pose all sorts of challenges in changing contexts. I, for instance, grew up in this city where Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao were openly worshipped as deities from the time I was a small boy. Yet, one strong memory I have from that time is going through a book of photographs of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Among the grainy black and white photos of young people protesting on the streets and confronting the Red Army's T-34 tanks, of feet trampling smashed portraits of the then recently dead Stalin, were also images of a huge metal statue of Lenin being brought down. It was a whole sequence of images, ropes being tied around the statue, the ropes being pulled, the figure rupturing from around the ankles and then people standing on the feet-less figure. I understood then that both Stalin and Lenin had become symbols of grotesque oppression, of the subjugation of Hungary by the Soviets, and something in me actually exulted at the fact that people could actually take matters into their own hands and collectively act to destroy such symbols of power. Later down the years we were to see images and footage of many Stalins and Lenins bite the dust, along with the still living Ceausescus and Jaruzelskis. In 2003, we would also see footage of Saddam statues being torn down in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. While all these provided a certain satisfaction, the most satisfying moment had to be when, during mass protests in London, someone climbed on to the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square and placed a lurid green mohawk wig on the old white supremacist's bald head, turning him into an ageing thuggish skinhead. I wondered then, whether it might not be a better idea to leave offending statues in place and do something to them rather than disappear them altogether.

Of course such foolish considerations cannot compete with the visceral urge to destroy the visual representation of an ideology or a rival for power. This urge actually goes back a long way beyond modern history. As we know, in older times, kings relished the thought of destroying other kings' deities and temples. This led to Hindu kings destroying innumerable Buddhist and Jain temples and shrines, and also to Hindu kings paying their mercenary Muslim soldiers to destroy the rival Hindu king's temples complete with the gods and goddesses inside. The Muslim kings who destroyed Hindu temples didn't invent the idea, they were merely following this barbaric tradition. From those times to today, some base instincts have remained unchanged and yet other ideas have come into play. The statues of the odious British Empire were removed from New Delhi and planted in a park where coming generations could examine them as artefacts of another age. In Berlin, a lot of the Sovietique monuments and architecture and even some of the Nazi stuff has been kept intact, again, so that it can come under the scrutiny of history. On the other hand, when the CPI(M) rule finally ended here in Bengal, one could completely understand the glee with which the hammer and sickle symbols were painted over on the streets; that was not akin to the destruction of the enemy's statuary, it was more like 'your vandalism of these walls will now be taken over by our vandalism'.

You can say that behind every statue of Lenin is the hand of its sculptor, Stalin. You can point out that the whole worship-cult of Lenin (along with the erasure of Trotsky) was instituted by Stalin as part of strengthening his grip on power. In certain contexts you can argue that if wiping out Stalin's evil works means the odd statue of Lenin is also toppled then it can be put down to the genuine progress of the Revolution. And yet, in another context, as in Tripura, the pulling down of a Lenin statue can and should cause outrage. Because it is not so much the Left ideology (which has actually benefited Tripura) that is being ripped up as it is the idea of tolerating Opposition, any Opposition, that is being uprooted. Even as the powers that be spend criminally obscene amounts constructing 'golden' (read massive) statues of Shivaji (him with the Muslim generals) and Vallabh Patel (the implacable enemy of the RSS), even as they garland the portrait of Savarkar in the gallery of the Lok Sabha, they should remember history, its habit of playing nasty tricks and the way it can shift the ground from under solid-looking symbols.