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India: Politics of gigantism - A tall statue of Sardar Patel does little to convey that great man’s stature, wastes public monies | Gautam Bhatia

14 January 2014

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The Times of India

GAUTAM BHATIA | Jan 14, 2014, 12.04 AM IST

When LK Advani announced in all seriousness that the proposed Sardar Patel statue in Gujarat will be the tallest in the world, he sounded like a Dubai sheikh taking credit for the highest building, the biggest island, the largest aquarium. Something not for public good but for the Guinness Book of Records.

Once complete, this 600-foot statue, Narendra Modi’s brainchild, made of iron and concrete with a bronze outer layer, will shine in the afternoon light as it faces the Narmada Dam. But while a public commemoration of Patel as the architect of the Indian republic could hardly be underplayed, a display of such heedless gigantism does little to convey the man’s stature.

Since its estimated cost is a gigantic Rs 2,500 crore, many people argue that such money should instead go to public health, education and a tireless battle against poverty. Unfortunately, against the onslaught of wily political craft and expediency, they are fated to cry till hoarse.

To assuage its own feelings of guilt, Gujarat government wants to assemble the statue from iron scrap contributed by the poor. This is an old devious strategy to strike at the moral Hindu heart. Like the Ram inscriptions on bricks planned for an Ayodhya temple, it seeks to present Patel’s statue as a people’s demand.

A door-to-door campaign to canvass for necessary metal is being waged by an NGO called Citizens for Accountable Government. Almost two lakh collection boxes have been set up throughout India, and marathons called Run for Unity are being organised. Awarding the construction work to a company that engineered the world’s highest tower in Dubai — the Burj Khalifa — signals seriousness of the intention.

To give additional weight to Gujarat’s biggest venture in public art, the statue will house a memorial, visitors’ centre, hotel, convention facilities, amusement park and research institute — all the usual paraphernalia inserted when no serious usage is available. An open lift alongside the Sardar will carry tourists up to his head for a panoramic view.

Despite its monumental size, this is timid art. A failure of the imagination, it dwarfs and cheapens the surrounding landscape and is a poor replacement for the real Sardar. For a man so decisive, his pose conveys both discomfort and tentativeness. Then there is the expressionless, mildly embarrassed face, as if caught at a road junction waiting for the traffic light to change. The utter silliness of this artistic approach is compounded by the misuse of materials, human skills and engineering to petty purpose. Its gullible acceptance is merely the result of political imposition, a tacit agreement between political zeal and trumped-up public expectation.

Of course the idea of public deification is a familiar one and colossal statuary is nothing new to India. But in recent years, religious trusts emboldened by new technology and excess funds have gone on an especially conspicuous building spree. The 58-foot Buddha in Hyderabad is dwarfed by the proposed Maitreya Buddha in Bodh Gaya at 150 feet, equivalent in height to the concrete Hanuman also coming up near Hyderabada¦

Such figurative statuary oscillates between the sublime to the ridiculous. Besides Lucknow’s numerous Mayawatis and Ambedkars, some years back the Maharashtra government came up with a giant commemoration of Shivaji, a 310-foot-high statue set a mile into the Arabian Sea, a project now given an environmental nod. Is Kolkata then likely to ask for a 700-foot-high Mother Teresa in the Bay of Bengal? Will Tamil Nadu propose a 900-foot-high MGR along the coastline? Or Kerala a 1,000-foot Vasco da Gama? It is just a matter of time.

Unfortunately, the equivalent of a 60-storey building rising out of the Narmada and towering over the countryside casts a long shadow on politicians’ claim to art. Government coercion to make the public believe in the symbolic benefits of a 600-foot Sardar Patel, and in its own good intentions, should not worry exchequers as much as artists and environmentalists. Leaving aside the sheer audacity of public expenditure and the grotesque misuse of political power to electoral ends, the statue’s conception raises questions of ecological malpractice and the visual des-truction of landscape, not to mention those concerning the public’s view of politics as art.

The place of public sculpture will always be controversial in a country that still regards statues of political figures, living and dead, as the only form of public art. Without an informed choice in which the public selects its own art, how is the Patel statue any different from those of Lenin in Soviet Russia? If, however, even a small fraction of the budget for stone-faced political heroes were to be diverted into a more liberal — and liberating — form of public art, Indian cities and landscapes may become more engaging places.

So as the sun goes down on the low hills around the Narmada dam, and as tour buses head home, Sardar Patel, bronzed and glinting in the evening light, will one day soon gaze desolately into the night, a great man reduced by human folly to an inert piece of stone, stranded forever on a small island in eastern Gujarat.

The writer is an architect.


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