In recent years, statues seem to have come up at great pace across the country—each vying with the other in being the tallest and most majestic. 2018 saw the unveiling of the Statue of Unity in Kevadia, Gujarat—a 182m-tall depiction of the statesman Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the tallest statue in the world. Bengaluru got a larger-than-life statue of the city’s founder-architect, Kempegowda, in 2022; the 108ft-tall Statue Of Prosperity is at the international airport. The latest entrant to this list is the 125ft-high representation of the Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar, unveiled earlier this year by Telangana’s chief minister, K. Chandrashekhar Rao, on the banks of the Hussain Sagar lake.
Besides these colossal creations, there are statues—big, small and quaint—that one passes by regularly in parks, at road crossings and public institutions. You might have seen statues of deities under flyovers and of football heroes during your travels through a village in Kerala. Or of a war hero in a remote snow-clad hamlet in the Himalaya.
Statues are more than just public art. They are commemorative of the history of a neighbourhood, city, state or nation. They embody a certain political or sociocultural stance. When Mayawati, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, erected statues of herself and of other Dalit leaders, those became an assertion of identity.
The pulling down of statues, too, is a political act. Take, for instance, the demolition of a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Belonia, Tripura, when the communist government was dislodged in 2018, after 25 years. In fact, statues across the world seem to be falling at the same rapid pace as they are being erected. In 2020, Black Lives Matter protesters tore down a statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, UK. The act divided critics—some who stood against all that Colston embodied and others who felt this was an erasure of history.
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Given that statues are such deeply contested subjects—and have been through history—it comes as a surprise that there hasn’t been any formal survey of the number and nature of statuary across the country. Now a new project in Bengaluru hopes to change that for the city—one neighbourhood at a time. Over the past 14 months, urban researcher Salila Vanka, artist Ravikumar Kashi and architect Madhuri Rao have been documenting the city’s statues.
As of now, 700-plus statues and public sculptures have been documented—and at least another 200 might still be found.“At the heart of the project was the premise that public statues and sculptures are not just visual statements of public adulation and aspirations, but they also reflect the city’s social, cultural, political and spatial milieu,” states the project note.
Titled Narratives Of Visual Culture And Spatial Politics: A Study Of Public Statues And Sculptures In Post-1990s Bangalore, the initiative is being implemented by the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) and supported by the Sony Pictures Entertainment Fund.The photo-documentation and analysis were presented last month as part of a three-day exhibition, On A Pedestal: A Study Of Public Statuary In Bengaluru, at Belaku Gallery, Rangoli Metro Art Center, on MG Road.
“One of the things that has fascinated me about the city of Bengaluru is the proliferation of public statues and sculptures that are our local favourites. As part of Project 560: the Bangalore city initiative at IFA, this project has been special in that it engaged residents to share photographs of public sculptures from across neighbourhoods of the city and was able to map the socio political antecedents and representations of these statues; and how we experience them in the city,” says Menaka Rodriguez, executive director, IFA.
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Their findings make a strong case for a closer look at statuary in the urban planning context. They also show the glaring gender disparity in statuary and shockingly, how surprisingly little is known of the artists who sculpted these.
The researchers’ efforts haven’t ended with the show—they are working on a publication on their findings. So far, the documented statuary has been categorised on the basis of criteria such as location, context and site specificity, sociopolitical context, patronage and maintenance, as well as physical attributes such as type, material, scale and dimensions.
Kashi, whose practice spans painting, sculpture, photography and installation, has been documenting the visual culture of the city—banners, posters, images on vehicles—for more than a decade. However, this personal interest took on a more organised form when he met fellow researchers Rao and Vanka at the RV College of Architecture, Bengaluru, where the three are faculty members. “Salila was working on a presentation about the politics of public spaces. We entered into a discussion about it and Madhuri joined in. That’s when we thought of doing a bigger survey and applied for the IFA grant,” he says.
They focused on the period from the 1990s, when Bengaluru witnessed significant changes such as the information technology sector boom and a resurgence in Kannadiga identity. Between them, they worked on specific neighbourhoods and put out social media posts to crowdsource photographs and details of the statuary and public sculptures around them.
An interesting finding is the rise in number of statues of the actor Rajkumar. “Out of 700, nearly 100 are of him. He was not just an actor but also part of the state-wide movement in favour of Kannada as an administrative and educational language. He became a mascot for that and hence transcended his movie-star persona,” explains Kashi. “You will find his statues in largely Kannada-speaking areas.”
The city also has around 70 statues of Ambedkar. He is present not just in government institutions but also at the entrances to neighbourhoods, where the locals have erected his statue as a marker of Dalit identity, a talisman of sorts. “It is interesting how a statue becomes a manifestation of a certain desire to be seen and heard,” adds Kashi.
While most of the statuary in the city is of political, cultural or religious figures, there are rare instances of the common person being feted as well. Take, for instance, the statue of head constable Marichikaiah Thimmaiah, at the crossing of Vidhan Soudha and Raj Bhavan Road. He sacrificed his life, saving a mother-daughter duo from a speeding vehicle in a year. His statue stands at that very spot.
The survey also shows the engagement of the public with these figures. According to Rao, the maximum interaction is with religious figures, especially when families in the neighbourhood have been entrusted with the daily upkeep. “There is a different kind of interaction when it comes to a politically sensitive statue,” she says, adding that the statue of the poet Thiruvalluvar, for instance, was not allowed to be unveiled in Bengaluru’s Tamil-dominated area of Ulsoor till a statue of the Kannada poet Sarvajña was opened to the public in the Kannadiga-dominated neighbourhood of Chennai as a reciprocal gesture.
The project clears certain misconceptions as well—for one, that statues are generally to be found only in large public spaces such as parks, crossings and institutions. For, very often, they may surprise you in narrow alleys, on sidewalks and in low-income housing societies.
Certainly, it makes a case for a closer look at statuary in urban planning. The bigger statues, located in bigger spaces, become markers for the people who frequent them. Take, for instance, the statues of Queen Victoria and Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, which have very visible placement. “The idea is for them to be seen. Hence the more planned statues will appear in parks, prominent traffic roundabouts, or at the entrance of public structures that the government has commissioned. In the context of urban design and planning, there is a reason they are there,” explains Vanka.
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The statues on street corners, near water pumps and sidewalks, too are commissioned works—commissioned by community groups and fan clubs, as in the case of actors Rajkumar and Vishnu Vardhan. “These are officially permitted but not officially commissioned. They end up becoming markers in the cityscape as well, without having started out with the intention of being part of a bigger scheme. Thus, they too become an urban design feature,” adds Vanka.
The one aspect evident across the country is the gender disparity in representation.Out of the 700 statues surveyed in public spaces in Bengaluru so far, only 13 are of women—including three of Goddess Kaveriamma, two of Lakshmi Devi, daughter-in-law of Kempegowda, one of former prime minister Indira Gandhi and two of Mother Teresa. “The absence of women was a big revelation. You see only a clutch of historic figures but none from the contemporary milieu,” says Vanka.
In a 2022 article in Outlook magazine, Statues Of Women In India And The Male Gaze, Lachmi Deb Roy writes about the link between misogynistic politics and public statues depicting women. “Most contemporary statues of women in the public space are of political leaders. These are by nature reverential and hence, don’t pander to the ‘male gaze’. Pointing at ancient statues, author Kiran Manral says, ‘Ancient statues have been depicted as full-bodied and sensual. The most powerful statue of a woman in India, I would think, is the 30-ft Yakshi in Kerala. It was made by a man, but is a statue that unapologetically owns the sensuality of its body,” states the piece. Sadly, such depictions are few and far between in public spaces in modern-day India.
Given that statues are such an integral part of public art, it’s surprising that so little is known of the artists behind them. In recent years, the name of Ram V. Sutar has come to prominence for having designed the Statue of Unity and the recent Ambedkar statue in Telangana. But that’s about it. In the survey undertaken by Kashi, Rao and Vanka too, only 20 of the 700 statues feature the names of the artists. “Interestingly, we know the artists behind all the colonial statues. However, most of the contemporary statues feature all sorts of details—who commissioned them, who inaugurated them and when—but the artist is never acknowledged. It’s almost as if they are not seen as equal contributors to this process,” says Rao.
It’s only now that some old-school artists, such as Venkatachalapathi, have started signing on the sculptures at the back so that the name is not visible. “But a younger artist like B.C. Shivakumar has started signing in the front so that people can see and commission more,” says Rao. “Statues backed by corporate patronage are different,” she adds. A lot more thought goes into the planning and execution, with artists being thought of as stakeholders in the process as well.
The subject of statuary continues to be a complex one, with the iconography and placement being dominated by factors greater than just aesthetics. While the project by Rao, Kashi and Vanka is currently one of a kind in the country—barring a few efforts to document Ambedkar statues—it remains to be seen if its findings will prompt more people to research the history of the figure on the pedestal.