History in Stone and Metal

Photo by Bhanu Pratap Singh / Round Table India

A prominent Dalit academic once told me that when a Dalit entered the seminar room, the rest of them should feel uncomfortable. Given the monumental oppression Dalits face, this should be the least consequence of Dalits getting a voice.

I am reminded of this when I think of Mayawati’s gigantic Dalit memorials that have changed Lucknow’s landscape.

When Mayawati first came to power in 1995, she began building an Ambedkar memorial that was heavily criticised for wasteful expenditure. When other parties interrupted her three successive stints in power, they simply ignore the Ambedkar memorials, and built memorials of their own. When the people of Uttar Pradesh gave her a rare majority in 2007, they did so despite knowing she will make large monuments to Dalits. It is as if Mayawati wanted to say, ‘You are comfortable now about the Ambedkar memorial? Let me give you this. Ten new memorials, with statues including my own!’

Mayawati’s monuments would not serve their purpose if they did not cause us discomfort. Question is: what would happen to them when she goes out of power? Mulayam Singh of rival Samajwadi Party, seen as antithetical to Dalit interests, said in 2009 that he would demolish these monuments when he becomes chief minister again. But he won’t become CM again, said the BSP smugly, and warned of “law and order problems” if any demolition took place. Digvijay Singh said the Congress was not in favour of “this culture” of demolition of monuments erected by an elected government. The BJP, too, said they didn’t believe in bulldozers.

There were those who compared her statues to those of the Communists, and of dictators such as Saddam Hussein, which the people brought down. This, they said, is what will happen to Mayawati’s statues, her own and those of Dalit icons from north and south she has put up. In response to such fears the Mayawati government has raised a special force to protect the monuments. The force will obviously be disbanded by whoever succeeds her.

Mayawati’s monuments are all in stone, and the statues all in bronze. Bronze will last the longest, said her advisors. At least 300 years. Mayawati wants to produce a history.

What could such a history be like, and what could these monuments do to history? I got a hint of the answer when I recently visited the Lucknow zoo. The Uttar Pradesh State Museum is inside the zoo. For decades, twenty odd statues and a few busts lay out in the open. It was only in 2006 that a large display room was built for the statues. The room is called “Foreign Sculptural Art Gallery”. They are large, awe-inspiring majestic statues carved in marble. Ten of them are of Queen Victoria, once the Empress of India. In one of them, the nose is missing. She always has a globe in her hand, a cross over the globe. The sun never sets on the Empire! Three are of George V. The rest are of English officers or governor-generals. Some are missing – perhaps Sotheby’s knows where they are.

At the entrance of the “Foreign Sculptural Art Gallery” is an apologetic note in impossibly shuddh Hindi. It begins by saying that Indian culture has always been appreciative of art, be it Romani (Roman) or Unani (Greek). It goes on about this at some length – appreciating art without discrimination and so on. Then it comes to the point, acknowledging that displaying these statues is not a good idea from a nationalist point of view, but we can ‘appreciate’ them for their art and history.

Most were placed in public squares in Lucknow, but some in Gorakhpur and Allahabad. It was only in 1955 – eight years after independence – that they were removed to protect them from the Lohiaite socialites who wanted to destroy them as part of the anti-Hindi movement. Colonial statues in Delhi, too, were removed and placed at ‘Coronation Park’. They changed Calcutta to Kolkata but Victoria’s statue is still there at the Victoria Memorial. King Edward’s statue in Lahore was taken to the museum, replaced at a public square by a copy of the Qu’ran.

So think whatever you want to of Mayawati’s statues and monuments, whether you want them demolished or not, removed or not, placed in a museum or a park – a board will one day tell you to appreciate them for their art and history. Already, the UP government plans to promote them as a tourist attraction. That’s how history is made, cast in stone and metal.

(Appears in this morning’s Economic Times.)

My earlier articles on Mayawati’s statues and monuments:
2007: In Praise of Idol Worship
2009: The Edifice Complex


19 thoughts on “History in Stone and Metal”

  1. While one certainly appreciates what Mayawati’s efforts in preserving Dalit history in stone and metal, it is difficult to commend the large number of trees that have been cut in NOIDA in making these efforts. Perhaps, Mayawati could think of replanting or planting trees as a symbol of Dalit silence and suffering that has marked Indian History for centuries before they asserted themselves.


  2. You’re endorsing the same history that sacralizes (itself through) public statues and monuments.
    As it so happens, bronze is actually the most malleable medium in the hands of power. It gives the impression of permanence, but is the simplest to melt and be recast into someone else’s image. The stone monuments that you talk about, on the other hand, already seem to be modeled on ruins. So it’s obviously not the permanence of those sculptures or longevity of those monuments that concerns us. Rather, it’s the gesture of (re)claiming historical presence. But this historical presence need not so simply be conflated with iconophilia.
    Either, we can acknowledge those gestures by commemorating Mayawati’s sculptures and monuments. Or, we can invoke that presence as something much too real, that will (among other ways) continue to unfold through iconoclastic impulses against many such gestures, whether or not these sculptures find their way under the dimming light of state museums.


  3. 160 million dalits have excused the hindus and their Adi shankracharya who had demolished the buddhist monuments and killed million of monks in India .If mulayam and his brigrade will try to demolish the Dalit icons statue means Yadav and their people will get back with intrest.I can rememeber exactly ,once Kanshi ram told the Rao government that you might be having your officers in armed forces but majority of people belongs to dalits and Bhaujans.Hindus had tried their level best but were not able to annhilate the buddhism and their people ,only changes occured,Buddhists become untouchables.Dr Ambedkar had put the hindu gin in coffins and mayawati has put the last nail in the coffin of hinduism and dalits are getting ready put the coffins in incernation.those who are dreaming to put the statue in museums means they are living in dream land.


  4. except for the buddha’s statues which are like this one made and in a traditional style known to our folk sculptors, the rest are in a bad imitation of victorian memorial sculpture and are quite ugly and misshapen. plus which, though ambedkar and phule have made real contributions to indian society, kanshi ram and mayawati will not be remembered 20 years down the line. just like the enormous statue of charan singh standing forlornly near the jamuna in okhla. does anyone remember who charan singh was? so what is to stop people from carting off mayawati and kanshi ram statues and putting them in a junkyard a few decades in the future? so what if they are of marble and bronze? remember what happened to statues of the shah of iran, saddam hussein and stalin?


    1. I would agree about mayawati statue that was mistakes on part of Mayawati and I think she accepted her mistakes.as for as kanshi Ram is concened he had given fresh air to dalit lives and chnage the political sccenerio in cow land.This is the Kanshi Ram who brought Dr Ambedkar alive in India other hand congress who is trying to garland Dr Ambedkar statue now did not allow their member to say they know Dr Ambedkar.Kanshi ram did not write thousand of books but he gave wepon to fight hindu bloodleshly.I think ,people who are sitting other side of fence donot know what kanshi Ram.Kanshi Ram is not any mugul emperor or Shah of Iran .He was born dalits and died dalits and served the dalit samaj till his death.time is not faraway when American universities will start PHD on Kanshi Ram works in India.People started reading Gandhi in America, and proposal has been passed in mitchigan University to remove Mr Gandhi statue from university campus.America has stop trusting hindu toilet papers and their people.


  5. Shama Zaidi.I think you are living in mugul period where all shansha of mugul were having one dream how to screw women and enjoy the life but kanshi ram had changed the life of dalits who are ready to sacrifiece their life for Buddha and Ambedkar .for your kind information ,Kanshi Ram is not.. charan singh who was anti dalits and anti women like their god Rama so Please donot compare kanshi Ram with charan singh .I think ,you must know the back ground of Shah of Iran and saddam Hussain befoer commenting on Kanshi Ram and Mayawati.160 million dalits did not born with golden spoon like Shah of Iran and Saddam hussain and kanshi ram and mayawati born as simple dalit who had changed the Political scenerio of India.


  6. EM: Thanks to legal intervention, the Mayawati government has pledged that 75% of the Noida monument will be green, trees will be planted.

    Geet: The picture is from one of the Lucknow monuments, I think the main Ambedkar Memorial. You can find some more pictures by the same photographer here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=179477&id=363073034916 I deliberately chose this picture to emphasise that these are monuments, not merely statues we are talking about.

    Sabih: My article was for a newspaper with a 730 words limit. If I had more space I would have been able to elaborate. I didn’t mean my Museum idea to be taken literally. We are on the same page here. Even if you melt the bronze statues, it will be history. All I’m saying is, do whatever with these monuments, history has been made. I’ll only add to what you’re saying: political architecture is used to make sure memory is not easily erased.

    Shama ji: Whether or not Kanshi Ram and Mayawati will be remembered 20 years down the line, let’s see 20 years down the line. They may already not matter to you and me, but Kanshi Ram and Mayawati were/are not your leaders or mine. Have you seen any of the monuments? If you did you would not say that the statues are Victorian imitations, because they are not, and the statues of others, such as Narayan Guru or Shahuji Maharaj: these are icons of the Dalit movement who don’t need to be turned into statues. It is the people who need to remember them and take inspiration from. With these statues and monuments, one of the things the BSP is trying to do is to tell Dalits, ‘Look, you’ve had great heroes and leaders. It is no only the upper castes who have heroes, saints, leaders. You have them too and you are thus no less than any upper caste human being’. You and I will never know, and perhaps never try to know, what this means to around 15% of India’s population.


  7. I have behaved like a good journalist in getting a small fact wrong in the article above.

    I write:

    King Edward’s statue in Lahore was taken to the museum, replaced at a public square by a copy of the Qu’ran.

    That was the same old Queen Victoria, not King Edward :(


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