The plan to put up a statue to honour the 17th-century Hindu warrior Shivaji has divided Indians. History always divides Indians because it is something felt in the present, a tangible force that rouses strong emotions – and nothing is more controversial than the question of which famous Hindu or Muslim figures from the past should be honoured in street names and statues.
For opponents of the $500 million (Dh$1.8bn) project – it will be twice as high as the Statue of Liberty and positioned off the coast of Mumbai in the Arabian Sea – the Shivaji statue is merely part of a cultural campaign by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It aims to promote Hindu icons and historical figures who it feels have been belittled or neglected by the westernised and “deracinated” elite since independence in 1947.
For the BJP and people in Mumbai and Maharashtra, where Shivaji lived, he is very important for having fought the Mughals – the Muslim emperors who ruled India for centuries before the British came – to create his own kingdom. Critics have also pointed out, predictably, the folly of spending so much money on a statue when the same money could be spent on irrigation, schools, hospitals or clean drinking water. But if every country had waited until all its citizens were well fed, housed, educated and set up with broadband internet before creating public art, we would have nothing in the way of monuments or great public buildings.
We know that man does not live by bread alone. Nations sometimes need to embark on mammoth buildings or statues to instil pride in their citizens or give expression to the soul of the nation. One great monument can put a city and country on the map, creating national pride and generating income from tourists.
Think of the Burj Khalifa and the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. Or Sydney’s Opera House. Or the London Eye. All are instantly recognisable symbols. Of course, India has the Taj Mahal but sadly its architecture since independence has been a sad affair.
Apart from the quite beautiful Lotus Temple in New Delhi, built in 1986, little or nothing of note has been added to the country’s admittedly fabulous heritage, including the rich tradition of sculpture. Nations cannot keep feeding off the past. They need new symbols for new generations. Even something as prosaic as the Delhi Metro made citizens of the Indian capital feel proud. It was the first time they had a world-class facility that was theirs.
My problem with the Shivaji statue is that a bunch of politicians have decided that it is a good idea. Well, they would, because they are not creative. A bronze statue, that’s all they could think of. The model of the statue made by the sculptors commissioned for the project is actually rather handsome – Shivaji astride a majestic horse with a sword in his hand – but that’s not the point. Why a statue? Why be so 18th century? So predictable?
And then the size of it. So typical of politicians that the statue should be twice the size of the Statue of Liberty to get media attention and, no doubt, the de rigueur entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.
State-promoted public art is usually dull. It is art made by a committee. Look at all the busts and statues of Lenin that dot Russia, made to order by the communist regime. Look at the public park built in Lucknow by India’s top Dalit politician, Mayawati. She told her sculptors to adorn the parks with giant stone elephants simply because the elephant is her party’s election symbol. So much for originality.
The Shivaji project might have proved worthwhile if the politicians had stayed out of it and held a national competition with a panel of artists judging the suggestions. Politicians have tunnel vision. They are by nature conservative. In India, they are also aesthetically challenged.
A competition could have tapped people’s creativity and yielded original ideas. Imagine the explosion of creativity that the idea of a monument in the sea could have sparked off. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change the skyline of Mumbai.
As the famous New Delhi-based sculptor Shakti Maira remarked to me: “Spending this huge sum of money and changing the Mumbai skyline could be done for a work that has a bigger and more inspiring vision than dear old Shivaji. What big idea might we want to think about as we see the sun set in Mumbai?”
Whatever that idea might be, we are not going to see it. We are going to get a man on a horse when we could have had something breathtakingly audacious.
Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in New Dehli