Art History

While we have to come to think of the modern urban civic statue as a broadly generic form, reproducing itself through modern cities across the globe, this essay is an invitation to also reflect on the way each city, large or small, European or Indian, presents its own distinctive landscape, history and politics of statuary. My focus is on the city of Calcutta and the specific history of the shifting cast and sites of its colonial and postcolonial statues over the 19th and 20th centuries. My concerns in this study, though, is less about who (among our galaxy of great men, and only occasionally women) gets to become statues, nor so much about where and by whose demands these come to be erected, as has been the main thrust of much of the recent work in India on the past and present politics of statue making and breaking. Statues and busts, as these studies show, have been at the crux of turbulent identity politics of caste, language and ethnicities of post-Independence India. They are seen to play a critical, persistent role not only in the official rituals of commemoration and veneration, but equally in the claims over public spaces and assertion of rights of various marginalized or contending communities, especially in the contemporary representational politics of Dalits across Indian cities. And in recent times, a spate of assaults on statues across India - from the toppling and vandalization of Lenin’s statue at Tripura in the immediate aftermath of the BJP’s victory in the state in 2018, to the (almost reactive) attack on Shyamaprasad Mukerjee’s bust in Kolkata, to sudden threats to Periyar and Gandhi statues in Chennai that brought them under cordons and police protection - have brought the object of the statue back to the centre stage of contemporary politics. This line of analysis of the politics and the political lives of statuary takes, as given, that the object of contention - the statue - functions as the stand-in for the person itself. In this essay, I will be looking more closely at the form and materiality of these objects, and at the work of representation and embodiment that they perform. How may we think through the notions of death and animation though this genre of statuary, and how do we recover the many stories of travels, transfers and relocations that lie behind these apparently immovable figures?

“There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument…They are no doubt erected to be seen - indeed to attract attention. But at the same time, they are impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment…

Monuments ought really try a little harder, as we must all do nowadays…Why doesn’t our bronze hero at least resort to gimmick, long since outdated elsewhere, of tapping with his finger on a plane of glass? Why don’t the figures in a marble group turn, as those better-made figures in show windows do, or at least blink their eyes open and shut?...Unfortunately our sculptures won’t have any of this. They do not, it seems, comprehend our age of noise and movement.” [1]

This oft-cited quotation by Robert Musil leads us to think about how, despite their largeness and privileged locations, urban public statuary are usually rendered the least visible and most ignored objects of public spectatorship, consigned to a liminal status of being neither ‘art’ nor ‘icon, of fully belonging to neither ‘high’ nor ‘popular’ visual culture. Compared to the seductive visual charge of other popular iconographies in the contemporary “image-saturated landscapes” of our cities, this corpus of civic statues stand curiously emptied of animation and affect, springing to public attention only through the brief moments of their consecration or through the passing spectacular acts of their vandalization and destruction. In her recent work on the competing politics of monumental religious and Dalit statues in contemporary North India, Kajri Jain moves away from the trajectory of Robert Musil’s pronouncements on the fate of monumental statuary in city spaces to argue that the kinds of giant sculpted figures she is studying are indeed “trying harder” to keep up with their times of the city, to fight oblivion and hegemonize the visual and sensory landscapes of the sites of their inhabitation. [2] My study of the shifting sculptural iconography of colonial and postcolonial Calcutta will pull in a different direction, and pose a different set of questions. In what ways can we conceive of the personhood of these sculpted figures? Why does their commemorative purpose routinely exceed their representational or mimetic functions? And what are the difficulties that stand in the way of our sustained emotional and affective engagement with these objects?

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