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Mumbai free of statue politics, but what of its messages?

Of those in South Mumbai, there are three that unfailingly fascinate me, for their poignancy and/or relevance of message, whether waning or rising.

mumbai Updated: Mar 09, 2018 01:05 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
Vladmir Lenin’s statues were destroyed in Tripura by supporters of the BJP after the Left government fell in the recent elections.(PTI)

Statues and monuments abound in Mumbai. Even a casual stroll around SoBo – say from VT to Colaba – will reveal some amazing works. For those short on time, there’s always `Mr Wikipedia’ and `Dr Google’ to consult.

Though there have been several additions in the past two decades, most sculptures date back to the days when Mumbai was Bombay, capturing the rich and cosmopolitan history and culture of the metropolis as it grew into national and international eminence.

Fundamentally, statues are no more than public art. They could be representative of a dominant force or ideology – social, political, religious – in a certain milieu, but could also be just a monument of love, remembrance and achievement.

However those with socio-political import can easily become deeply emotive issues in a volatile environment as seen in the case of Vladmir Lenin’s statues being destroyed in Tripura by supporters of the BJP after the Left government fell in the recent elections.

This was by no means isolated. In Charlottesville (USA) and Oxford (England) statues of racist and colonial forces have been under attack recently. Not too long back, Saddam Hussein’s giant statue was pulled down in Iraq. A trip down history of mankind gives a constant reminder of heritage being destroyed everywhere.

Nevertheless such acts are unedifying, and give credence to the thinking that statues which bespeak triumphalism are unnecessary, pointless, and avoidable as they instigate conflict. The shelf life of such expression, in terms of human history, is limited. Sadly, so is human understanding.

That said, Mumbai has been by and large free of `statue politics’, though there have been several political and social upheavals since Independence. This represents the quintessential `live and let live’ temperament of the people of the city, the occasional serious blips notwithstanding.

Which is not to say that all statues and monuments have been well preserved. For instance, what happened to the Piloo Pochkhanawala sculpture that was at the Haji Ali Circle (when there still was a circle) is something only the BMC can tell us: if it knows!

Mumbai also has Kala Ghoda, but the horse is not the same as the one it was named for. And Flora Fountain has become Hutatma Chowk. In both instances, it is large artworks that determine the name and the purpose, the statues defining the areas even if they have lost their own definition!

Then we have a Khada Parsi, aka Seth Cursetjee Manockjee, an anglophile determined on English education for Indian girls and founder of Alexandra Girls Institution. Few remember who he was and why he’s languishing between two flyovers at Byculla, unkempt and uncared for even after being resurrected in 2014?

By and large, though, statues in Mumbai have been safe, if not all in their original places. Many have found refuge (and are thankfully under expert attention) in the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai Museum situated in Veer Jijamata Bhosle Udyan (formerly Victoria Zoo).

But many, as mentioned at the beginning, are still where they were installed. Of those in South Mumbai, there are three that unfailingly fascinate me, for their poignancy and/or relevance of message, whether waning or rising.

One is of Mahatma Gandhi, opposite the Sachivalaya barracks. Not very long back it would have visitors in large numbers. Gandhi stands a forlorn figure these days, reflecting the erosion in his message and understanding his contribution to the India we live in. Sadly, in these turbulent times.

At the Gateway of India concourse is Shivaji Maharaj in all his power and glory, mounted on a horse, brandishing his sword. Diametrically opposite stands Swami Vivekanand defiantly, unflinching, unfazed.

Taken together, these two statues seem to represent the dialectical dilemma that has haunted philosophers, historians, social scientists, everybody, since time immemorial: Is the pen mightier or the sword? The debate continues unabated.

My favourite statues, though, are of R K Laxman’s common man at Worli Sea Face. These are recent, having been installed there less than five years back, but carry a timeless, universal missive that should become increasingly pertinent.

Laxman’s common man wears an expression of bemusement as he watches the world go by. But it is also one of indomitable courage and acute understanding of life, its myriad topsy-turvy cycles, its secrets.

It is because of him that the mighty and powerful come into existence. Yet the common man knows that these are passing phenomena and that finally, it is only he – nameless, faceless – who survives.

That is real power if you ask me.

First Published: Mar 09, 2018 00:51 IST