Discovering Bengaluru's rich cultural tapestry through its public statues

A research project has charted the stories of 700 monuments across the city

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Strolling around the Indian city of Bengaluru, visitors may be surprised by the volume of statues scattered across its public spaces – particularly the sheer number devoted to the beloved Kannadiga actor and politician Rajkumar.

Ravi Kumar Kashi, an artist who has spent years documenting these works, says the statues largely emerged in the 1990s. As Bengaluru developed from the Garden City into a tech capital, dubbed India's very own Silicon Valley, it led to a “huge influx of non-Kannada speakers moving to Bengaluru from other cities across India, like Mumbai and Delhi," he says.

“This resulted in Kannada people asserting their identity with markers, like installing Kannada flag poles and putting up statues of people like Rajkumar, an actor and politician who demanded primacy for the Kannada people in government and education."

But the spate of statues in Bengaluru were not just representative of a Kannada identity, they were also an expression of caste identity, says journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju.

“Several oppressed and lower castes that till then did not claim cultural capital had slowly begun to build their own independent trajectories or think of one. They blended their caste assertion with a larger Kannada identity," she says. "However, in some cases where the Kannada identity did not figure, they staked claim to larger historical happenings.”

After receiving a grant from the India Foundation of the Arts, Kashi and two fellow RV College of Architecture faculty – Salila Vanka and Madhuri Rao – embarked on a mission to document these monuments.

The researchers divided up the areas between themselves, with photographer and artist Kashi covering the older parts of the city such as Malleswaram and Gandhi Nagar.

“When we embarked on the project we thought we would find around 200 statues, but to our surprise we found 700 across the city,” says Kashi. “There may even be 200 or 300 more that we don’t know about.” A large portion of these, around 15 per cent, were identified by members of the public through social media.

As they discovered more statues, the trio documented their locations, designs, installation dates and details on who erected them – which can now be plotted on Google Maps. The statues appear in an array of unexpected locations – with many seemingly placed at random along small lanes, narrow alleys, low income neighbourhoods and on sidewalks.

Aside from the sheer number, the use of materials was also of note to the team. “Many are made of fibreglass nowadays, as it’s most cost-effective and also durable. Some are made of cement and stone and others, like the ones around places like the Vidhana Soudha (legislative building), are made from bronze," Kashi explains.

While many statues are accompanied by a plaque bearing information on their patrons, curiously only 20 reveal the names of the artists responsible. “The artist remains relatively independent, anonymous and detached from the process unlike the statues’ many stakeholders and collaborators," Rao says.

Many of the statues were funded by fan associations of popular movie stars or leaders and community groups, though some of the larger ones were financed by corporations.

“Out of 700 statues, we found 100 of the popular Kannada film actor Rajkumar, who is a cult figure in the state. Besides being an actor, he is also part of driving Kannada as the administrative language. The second highest number of statues were of the Dalit leader, B R Ambedkar.”

Another, rather more unpleasant, finding was a severe inequality in representation, with only 13 of the 700 statues depicting women. Among these, they either tend to depict mythical figures, goddesses or prominent figures such as former prime minister Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa.

The team also visited statue makers at their studios to get a glimpse into how they work. “Most of them use ready-to-use moulds – they may have 15 moulds for Rajkumar for example. Many people who put up these statues don’t necessarily look for originality, but more for the identity of being part of a fan club or group,” explains Kashi.

Every statue has a story to tell. Among them is a monument to Thiruvalluvar, the Tamil poet in Ulsoor, a Tamil-dominant area of the city. At the General Post Office traffic signal on Ambedkar Veedhi road, there is also a bust of a traffic policeman with a long bushy moustache called Thimmaiah, who served from 1976 to 1995. Thimmaiah was run over trying to save the life of a mother and some schoolchildren.

Another statue, by a corporation on MG Road, depicts the DNA structure, created by artist Yusuf Arakkal.

Kashi says the pedestals that the statues are installed on vary in height and design. Sometimes the works have an overhead umbrella or a mandapa constructed over them, while others are built like temples. A statue of former president and aerospace scientist A P J Abdul Kalam was created with rockets surrounding him.

The association that installed each statue is usually responsible for its upkeep, cleaning and adding garlands on special days or anniversaries.

Many of the statues are linked to caste equations or the demographics of a particular area. In places like the legislative assembly, the statues and pedestals are all the same height so that there is no perceived difference in hierarchy.

The research team also noted a trend of “appropriation of the fine art of sculptures by socio-economic and political forces”. They say there is a noted evolution in representations of particular people over time, such as the city’s founder, Nadaprabhu Kempegowda, who is depicted at several sites in the city, including the gargantuan Statue of Prosperity at the city's travel hub – Kempegowda International Airport.

“As far back as 1609, he was shown as a humble devotee, with folded hands, but nowadays he is shown as a tall, sword-wielding warrior,” says Kashi.

“Sadly the public does not appreciate creative or abstract sculptures and statues, that’s why most of the statues are of film stars and political leaders, or concrete shapes like a bull or a cow. It’s these statues that people like to take selfies with and society is not yet ready to appreciate artistic statues."

Updated: August 22, 2023, 3:02 AM