Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

16 Apr, 2018

ICON-IC India and her Feat of Clay – By Mark Deane

AKA: Our national fascination with busts and grand erections 

“Now stiff on a pillar with a phallic air,

Nelson stylites in Trafalgar Square.

Reminds the British what once they were,

Aboard the Victory, Victory O.”

(Borrowed from “A Ballad of the Good Lord Nelson” by Lawrence Durrell)

Ours is an ancient land, steeped in history, redolent with lore. Anyone in this country, as yet unaware of this fact simply needs to take a casual saunter through his or her town or village, and delight in the sight of statues, busts and monuments that unerringly bring this to their notice at crossroads, market places, government buildings, schools and university campuses. We have for millennia justly taken pride in our heritage – proud descendants of illustrious ancestors.

Not without reason, have we evolved into great craftsmen, sculptors, painters, and metal workers. We do not forget easily and revel in sharing our public space with the legends of the past, and delight in recalling their heroic deeds. As a people we have this constant need to remember, relive, ruminate over, recreate past achievements – and edify them. There is an abiding fear that without tangible likenesses wrought in stone and metal of the secular and godly movers and shakers of our past, we would be lost and directionless, insecure and bereft of buoys to cling to in the turmoil of an uncertain world. Faith alone does not seem to suffice. For where would we otherwise be, minus our lynchpins, our stanchions – our pedestals?

While certainly not unique to India alone, a realisation thousands of years ago gave rise to a unique form of gainful mass employment – that beings of interest, both god and man, could be perpetuated through graven images of stone or by the smelting, moulding and beating of iron, bronze, gold and silver. A skill set developed with an insatiable demand for its talent. The market expanded, with well-heeled clients ranging from prelates to politicians, rulers to rowdies, academics to actors, governing bodies to governments – often funded by the hapless, ignorant taxpayer or a belaboured exchequer. As any politician will gleefully tell you, public memory is notoriously short and recording the mortal landmarks of our colourful past is a perpetual work in progress with immense collateral benefits to the commissioner of the project.

Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, Persia, the Incas and famously, the golden age of the European Renaissance, all contributed by the quarry load to the stony history of mankind. India stands tall among this company. Indeed, while others have fallen by the wayside and the craft of image construction slowly wound down, to be replaced by the new-fangled art of image consulting, we continue to praise and remember ever more loftily. Size does matter in the scheme of things and the bigger the icon, the better.

Strolling one morning through the quiet roads of the well wooded, university campus in my neighbourhood, I come upon yet another statue set to take that “giant leap for mankind” onto a vast pedestal fit for an emperor’s throne. Like RK Laxman’s immortal Common Man I pause, hands behind my back, to take in the scene. The crane, the sling, the many helping hands and straining shoulders are all in place for that final step. An orderly chaos prevails as instructions – often to the contrary – are shouted to perspiring labourers and a harried crane operator. Finally, the vastly larger-than-life likeness of the great man is safely swung up to its final resting place, much to the relief of all assembled. After much inspection and review, the pedestal and its occupant are draped in a vast sheet of pristine white cloth to await the official unveiling ceremony.

The vast campus, like much of the rest of the city, is already dotted with the often less than accurate renderings of a multitude of those worthies who, before they – to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “shuffle off this mortal coil” – clearly made a contribution to mankind, fit enough to meet the criteria for achieving granite faced immortality. It is a different matter that these “dead” investments often find far greater favour among the powers that be than projects for the benefit of the living and that vast tracts of precious land are permanently swallowed up to commemorate these bygone stalwarts. In a testament to our fervent tryst with the past, even the sea is no longer immune as our iconic sentinels proceed to challenge that roiling element – kept afloat no doubt by the commercial hope that alien visitors to our land will also pay for the privilege of viewing rights.

On a more solemn note, akin to England’s great admiral Lord Horatio Nelson proudly aloft in London’s Trafalgar Square and serving as a reminder to a glorious chapter of Britain’s history, this symbolism has a greater purpose. It hardly needs a behavioural scientist or psychologist to explain that these acts of enshrinement help us the people to momentarily forget the dust and daily grind of our struggle for existence. They shield us from the unwelcome, unvarnished truths of our present, replete with such mundane issues as unemployment, inflation, unfair taxes, overpriced fuel, grubby housing, bad air, poor water supply and indifferent sanitation, while transporting us in spirit to apparently happier, more statuesque times.

In today’s politically charged conditions, the proprietary interest of factions and groupings on caste, ideological, religious and party lines appears to be taking a firmer grip on the hearts and minds of their partisan followings. Efforts continue apace to capture the moral, social, spiritual and political high ground by attaching themselves like limpets to one or the other such personage. The feet of clay of the objects of deification are overlooked in the legends that continue to weave themselves around them, rendering them larger than life, far detached from the facts of a now hazy past. History, they say, is written by the victor. One may add that it is also rewritten by the appropriator.

The backs of millions of trucks, buses, and oil tankers rumbling along the dimpled, often cratered landscape of our country’s roads testify to this fact proudly stating “Mera Bharat Mahan” – “India is great”. But the message, like a mirage, vanishes into the distance with the next reminder on wheels still to trundle into view. Reassured however, by the rock solid presence of our ancient icons, we continue to venerate the idea in the hope of a better time to come.

On the appointed day, I return to the university campus. I witness how the staff and students have been pressganged, North Korean style, into attending the tedious unveiling ceremony – with limited access to the loo. Protocol and the pecking order reign supreme. The chief guest and the guest of honour (what’s the difference really?) tentatively ascend the creaky, hastily assembled stage along with other lesser gentry.

Occasional blurbs of gallows humour find their way into the proceedings as muttered asides from the more frivolous members of the captive audience wager on the chances of some ancient dignitary making an ignominious exit through a loose slat of the stage – minus the unyielding brake of a noose. Speeches dripping with faint, contrived praise are made. Old crone like dignitaries hobble up in turn to practically swallow the microphone in the process of spewing out often incoherent strings of words cobbled together by faceless speechwriters, now off duty and quietly swilling well blown cups of oversweet tea in some nearby canteen. With much fanfare, the column of white cloth shrouding the noble form is tugged aside by the chief guest. And another monolith joins the ranks of India’s immortals for all time to come.

We, as a nation, have certainly come of monumental age.

(Mark Deane, a former banker, is now with a Pune-based university).