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An artist brings back Mother India

  • Ten years after he presented a virtual projection of Mother India, artist Vishal K. Dar is working on an Augmented Reality version
  • 'My interests are not in creating expensive and environmentally intrusive artworks or projects,' he says.

Dar’s plans for the ghost-statue projection titled ‘Mother India/I Am A Monument’. Photo:Vishal K Dar
Dar’s plans for the ghost-statue projection titled ‘Mother India/I Am A Monument’. Photo:Vishal K Dar

Months after the Statue of Unity, a colossal statue of the late statesman Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, was inaugurated in Gujarat as the world’s tallest statue, and as conversations about the Ram statue in Ayodhya and the Shivaji Smarak in Mumbai peak, Delhi-based artist and architect Vishal K. Dar is back to the drawing board.

Dar first presented the idea of a virtual statue of Mother India in 2009, developing it as part of a Khoj artists’ residency programme. The artwork itself was a blueprint depicting a towering Mother India figure reclaiming the space between India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan. His plan pinned the precise location on Google Earth where the statue of a woman with a plough, posed in a march, would stand. Mother India/I am A Monument (2009), part of Dar’s long-term BROWNation series, was a mythic overture. It was deeply rooted in the landscape of the country, where the agrarian-citizen remains a dominant player.

“I believe that this ghost-statue will stay relevant as long as Mehboob Khan’s Mother India stays relevant," says Dar. In this defining 1957 film, the idea of a new nation is reflected through the film’s protagonist, Radha (played by the late Nargis), a peasant woman who is determined to withstand social and personal adversity. Seen in the context of Dar’s oeuvre—spanning farmer suicides and Republic Day weaponry—there is more to this project than cloying surface sentiment.

Ten years later, with Dar set to work on an Augmented Reality version, Lounge revisits his provocations in the context of the country’s statue-building spree. Edited excerpts from email exchanges:

Tell us more about the logistics of ‘Mother India/I Am A Monument’. Can it realistically ever be executed? Is the cost of producing a hologram of that size prohibitively expensive? Are there repercussions to bird-life or the environment?

I am making an Augmented Reality version of the statue that will be accessible and mediated through mobile devices. I find the ephemerality of the digital boundless space far more provocative. No, it cannot be executed. Holographic projection technology for such outdoor scales does not exist at this point in time. And my interests are not in creating expensive and environmentally intrusive artworks or projects.

Did you have a long-list before you settled on ‘Mother India’?

There was no other image in my mind at that time. But later in 2012, as a continuation of my BROWNation series, I revisited the India Gate site and made a video work titled Girl On A Swing, where, quite literally, a video of a girl on a swing was superimposed inside the archway of India Gate. The work revisits the question of what is a public space—only this time around its expression is that of an internet meme.

And, in 2014, I made a doll-like version of Shah Rukh Khan’s (SRK’s) Baazigar head transposed on the body of the Statue of David, titled BADSHAH. This statue was meant to express the idea of the omnipresence of icons: a secular Indian icon posed as Michelangelo’s David, a statue that represents the shepherd-boy’s victory over a giant. It was interesting that the following year, SRK (along with Aamir Khan) came under fire and was accused of being “unpatriotic" after suggesting that (a section of) India was becoming more intolerant.

Inspired by Shah Rukh Khan and Michelangelo’s ‘David’.
Inspired by Shah Rukh Khan and Michelangelo’s ‘David’.

Do you believe a mythical icon is our best (and most idealistic) bet at the moment?

I’m not entirely certain about what’s our best bet at the moment. But I do believe that there is a certain credence to mythic iconography and symbolism. Clearly, mythical icons have an emblematic purpose that has been passed down through centuries.

Would you call the political and religious statues under construction in India at the moment “public art"?

Firstly, we must ask ourselves to develop an understanding of “what is public art"and how it differs from “art for public". By probing the issue of what is public space, we reach a much more disturbing question—how does one identify public space? “Public art" and “public space" are phrases often expressed in absolute incognizance. “Space" is defined through strict rules of ownership. Private ownership is quite clear in its status, the problem is with land that is in the state’s safekeeping.

Despite all the fuss, little of this is really about the statues. At the end, these are history wars, a battle of ideas opening up new chapters in political struggles. The statues serve as the focus, not the issue, under the guise of public art. In our case, we are noticing how certain symbology is being employed to further very precise political causes, a disruptive and damaging condition for any democratic system.

I would like to bring to attention British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga’s observations on public statues. “Historians spend their days engaged in the literally endless task of reshaping and expanding our view of the past, while statues are fixed and inflexible."

Artist Vishal K. Dar. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Artist Vishal K. Dar. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

You’ve created many large-scale installations over the last decade, including at the Shanghai Biennale in 2016. As an artist and architect with an interest in public art, what role do you see statues playing?

First, we must ask ourselves: Are these statues historical or political symbols?

I must add that it is important not to confuse myth with history. As people of South Asia, we have oral organic histories that don’t always fit into strict categories and timelines. But since we have to compete with other contemporary cultures with robust archived histories, we feel pressured into inventing tales of the past, particularly where historical figures are concerned. For example, under no circumstance can the Statue of Unity be what the French historian Pierre Nora called a “Site of Memory", and since it is not about memory, it cannot be about history. It can only be about power. The same power that erased the Hall of Nations (another symbol of power) in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, and maybe wants us to forget that Sardar Patel was a key member of the Indian National Congress. Such acts of destruction/reconstruction can and do function as propaganda. And propaganda built around individuals can be misleading.

“Making sculptures into public monuments conveys the idea that history is made by individuals. We have a very individualized sense of personal agency and activism today," said Lucia Allais, a Princeton historian who has written a book about the destruction and preservation of monuments in the 20th century. In contrast to the towering Argonath-like Statue of Unity, Mayawati’s Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal in Noida evokes historical sites through “lateral spread", further laying emphasis on on-ground power.

A screenshot from the video work ‘Girl On A Swing'
A screenshot from the video work ‘Girl On A Swing'

Which is the most powerful statue in the world today according to you; one that serves an aesthetic and political function?

I personally do not like statues. The whole point of the Mother India/I Am A Monument intervention was to subvert the notion of statues and build a dialogue around the politics of public space. But if I were to pick one, it would be the Statue of Liberty. It is, both aesthetically and politically speaking, a radical image that expresses ideas both transformational and sinister.

In the year 1886, the Statue of Liberty took its place in New York Harbour, funded by both American and French donations, a monument to European-American cooperation. It’s important to note that it was a private initiative (as Grover Cleveland, then governor of New York, opposed a legislative proposal to help pay for the statue), reminding us that global cooperation is sometimes more powerful than local politics. The statue does not possess any of the traditional American symbols such as the national flag or the bald eagle, instead we see the Lady holding the Declaration of Independence. The gender of the statue is clearly expressed, but the hypocrisy is that at that time in America, women had no voting rights in federal elections.

Francesca Lidia Viano, in her book Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins Of The Statue Of Liberty, notes that the statue expressed an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty" before crossing the border, a recurring concept found in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia. It does seem that to the immigrants who came to America by sea, the statue promoted “a transformational and indeed partially mystical interpretation of assimilation".

I would like to close with Percy B. Shelley’s poem Ozymandias (1818). The irony in Ozymandias is that the king’s statue was intended to project his greatness, and when the traveller sees it ages later, it is not only shattered, but it lies in the midst of a wasteland. Today, the shattered statue in a wasteland could be crushed dreams in a failed state, a stark reminder that however much people in power may wish to think that their power is immortal, they are only deceiving themselves.

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