The biggest of them all

In recent times, works of public art in India have been large in size and expenditure, short on imagination

Written by Kavas Kapadia | Published:April 15, 2017 12:24 am
shivaji memorial, shivaji statue, chhatrapati shivaji, bombay high court, noida dalit prarthna sthal, mayawati, indian express The immaculate sculpture of the traditional temples of India has not contributed to lifting the level of art appreciation for the public to any appreciable level. Illustration: Subrata Dhar.

Does size really matter? Looking at the recently commissioned works of public art and memorials for our heroes, it sure does. States seem to be competing to combat a strange sense of insecurity by commissioning public works of art that have little to offer by way of the established norms of architectural aesthetics governing space, form and colour, and instead opt for the overriding criterion of size. Is this a covert way to gain public confidence or popularity?

Who or what is responsible for keeping public tastes so abysmally low while distracting the people with non-consequential issues? This question needs to be examined in the context of a noticeable culture of feudal control in our social, cultural and political landscape that has seen a blatant resurgence in recent years. For a country clearly short on taste in public art, India is dotted with statues of heroes, mainly politicians, saints and a few sportsmen, writers and scholars. Invariably a steel stair, incorporating a landing, terminating near the head of the idol, dilutes the spatial dominance of the statue by its ugly presence. The steel structure is a contraption to reach up to garland the “neta” on auspicious occasions and to be seen doing the same.

According to reports, the government of Maharashtra is asking for an additional budgetary allocation, over the Rs 3,600 crore already sanctioned, to increase the height of the proposed Shivaji statue up from 192 metres. The only people pessimistically concerned were the fishermen around the proposed site who see this as an unwarranted intrusion in their fishing territory and income. Some individuals and groups raised objections over a project which is large on public expenditure and short on imagination. These and other voices of dissent seem to carry little weight.

Close on the heels of this venture is the proposed statue of Sardar Patel in the Narmada region which will soar to a height of 182 metres. This “statue of unity” will cost nearly Rs 3,000 crore and shall be fabricated in China, based on an Indian design. These two mortals, Shivaji and Sardar Patel, leave behind their nearest rivals with an established global presence, the Statue of Liberty at 93 metres and Christ the Redeemer at a mere 38 m. These larger-than-life Indian commissions are just a further step in the direction of the large statues of lord Hanuman and Shiva that have sprung up in several locations in recent times.

The immaculate sculpture of the traditional temples of India has not contributed to lifting the level of art appreciation for the public to any appreciable level. In fact, over time, the sense of public aesthetics has descended seamlessly into kitsch of the lowest common denomination. The Lingaraj temple complex at Puri demonstrates this ugly aesthetic side of religious autonomy, where age-old walls and sculptures have been painted and a mish-mash of unsightly steel stirrups condescendingly “support” the world -amous stone kalasha atop the main temple. So much for religious men showing concern towards heritage conservation.

This hierarchical, feudal system reflects, also, in the spatial geometry of the city. A community fed on the tragic traditions of “mai baap” and “ji hazoor” has been led somewhere along the line to believe that “big” is beautiful. Not that the public has much to choose from. Acceptable levels of the public good have continued to plummet to immeasurable depths while the political tricks department keeps the public from noticing garbage, filth, dirty roads, parks, polluted rivers and water bodies and falling public norms. We are surrounded by ugliness of all shades and hues. The role of artists and architects in shaping public taste has been painfully slow and inadequate.

The monuments and parks created by Mayawati are worth a mention here. The Noida Dalit Prerna Sthal, a Rs 685 crore venture, is a paradoxical contradiction. A park in the name of Dalit inspiration is a highly compromised version of the landmark Indo Saracenic style of architecture introduced by the British in India. The Indian habit of lionising political heroes, to such an extent that the idea that a large project can be dedicated to a theme or concept other than a person, and that too a political figure, is quite unthinkable, is on show here. The Ambedkar park in Lucknow is similarly an exercise in self-aggrandisement. The flip side of these parks is that howsoever you may disagree with the aesthetic content of these, they do provide much-needed breathing space in the city. The 43 acres in Lucknow and the 82 acres in Delhi are a permanent asset for the future of the city. Statues of political figures in stiff and rigid postures have made us oblivious to the fact that there is another side to sculptured beauty, appropriately set and modulated in space. This attitude of complete aesthetic detachment has prevented us from creating works of significance in the public domain that match momentous global landmarks such as the Manneken Pis in Brussels and the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago, also referred to as “the bean” because its shape resembles one, is a 13 m-tall sculpture of shining seamless steel polished to reflect the surroundings as a trick mirror. It is a sculpture designed, in the words of the creator, as “a space that bridges the gap between the sky and the viewer”. Tiny in size in comparison to many sculptures, it has been an instant hit after inauguration. Another memorial, the Vietnam Veterans creation in Washington D.C., by Maya Lin, was actually designed to be invisible at ground level. A series of black granite slabs fixed below ground level, with the names of soldiers and officers, lends dignity and gravity to the monument.

It is not that India is deprived of things beautiful and that we cannot appreciate good things when we are given an opportunity. The architectural marvels, such as the step wells, the forts and palaces, the most intricate jalis and carvings on Hindu as well as Islamic buildings, the stone carvings from Buddhist times to the British Raj era, are scattered across for us to see. But post-Independence, we seem to have succumbed to the systemic sycophancy of spatial dominance by a self-serving elite class, in keeping with our hierarchical social order.

Though we have not had the fortune of the Italian towns or other European cities who had the services of great masters in shaping public tastes in art and architecture, we can hope that some recent works of significance that have been taken up as open competitions in the field of art and architecture will throw up some world-class works to make us proud.

The writer is former Dean of Studies and Professor and Head, Department of Urban Planning, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi

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