Statues: Art or Political Symbols

Statues, like coinage, were a form of political communication - the forerunners of newspapers, radio and television as ways of ''projecting an image”.

By Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

A photo series which captures the essence of what was once an established norm around the country.

Photographer Gireesh GV captures these mute concrete figures that dot most parts of the country, serving as testimonials of a bygone era. Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation which works with artists of different genres, has supported Gireesh in several ventures going back more than a decade. A photojournalist who was worked with several media organisations, Gireesh's passion is to document everyday life and bring out those characteristics which somehow escape the mind's eye.

Gireesh GV profile (2018-10) by Gireesh GVSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Gireesh GV - Photojournalist

"What you see and what you observe and then think about where you can apply it, is very important for a photographer".

The statue as political propaganda was perhaps at its peak during the Roman Empire. British author A.W. Lawrence writes:

Specifically Roman sculpture [...] was a political as much as an artistic creation, its purpose being to give visual expression to Augustus' ideology of Empire.... His theoretically superhuman status was demonstrated at Rome and throughout the empire by the dissemination of portraits idealized into embodiments of beneficent but dispassionate authority.

Head of Augustus, -27/-25, From the collection of: British Museum
Portrait Head of Augustus Portrait Head of Augustus, Unknown, 25–1 B.C., From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Examples of early statues heads of the Roman Emperor Augustus. "Augustus's propaganda art was intended not only to convince those at home, but also to weld together a very heterogeneous Empire." - A.W. Lawrence.

Prof. Robin Jeffrey, an author and historian with a keen interest in modern history and politics of India, especially with reference to the northern area of Punjab and Kerala in the south writes:

The first statue in Southern India was of a Dewan, Sir T. Madhava Rao (1828-91), one of the greatest 19th century Indian administrators. Before the coming of British domination, and for a long time after, India had no statues. Muslim rulers built tombs as Islam, indeed, deems statues idolatrous. However, once the British began to put up statues in India, westernized Indians followed the example as a way of emphasizing both to the British and to allies and rivals their modernity.

Diwan T.Madhava Rao (2021-11-04) by Gireesh GVSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Statue of Dewan T. Madhava Rao

This statue of the Dewan was installed on 30 May 1893 and continues to stand, a forgotten figure, opposite the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram. The junction is the focal point for directions, and traffic is designated as either going, or not going, via "Statue Junction."

Diwan Madhava Rao (2021-11-04) by Gireesh GVSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Madhava Rao's statue reveals a lot about changing values, educational innovation, secularised, competitive politics and a new variety of social conflict in the then Travancore.

"I have seen thousands of statues abandoned or simply neglected across the country. Our faith and systems lead us to believe that even a stone can acquire divinity through Pran Prathishta (or establishment of soul and spirit). A dash of vermillion, the presence of a benevolent tree, and another deity comes into being for worship. But in the case of non-religious statues, often this reverence quickly dissipates, as if the soul has left the body and the statue is just stone again." - Gireesh GV.

The power of four (2015-10) by Gireesh GVSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

The Powerful Four

Statues of Tamil icons & politicos - Periyar, Annadurai, Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and MG Ramachandran are the golden boys of a small town in Chengam near Tiruvannamalai.

The statue-erection spree in Tamil Nadu got a big official boost under the first DMK regime during the second World Tamil Conference in Chennai in 1968, when it populated Marina beach sands with a line of statues of great Tamil savants and literary figures.

Today these statues lie unprotected, a favourite perch for birds, and a site for bill-posters who keep their pedestals gaily plastered with notices of the latest meetings, films and demonstrations. 

The sculpted likeness of a once-loved political figure or national hero loses sheen, its statue reduced to a foregone shadow, often at the centre of a busy square, often with a tattered old garland still hanging around its neck. Respect is lost - both for the artist and the icon he chiselled out of a fearless rock.

Eternal warrior, Gireesh GV, 2010-05, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Under wraps, Gireesh GV, 2010-04, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Two distinctly different soldiers, from Gireesh's perspective -- but ironically both are under wraps. One presumably a warrior with the sword being a dead giveaway while the other - ostensibly an inspirational figure, is typical of the statues that abound in different parts of the country.

This bothers me, and even though I can't do much to change what is really collective, and selective amnesia, I feel that by recording them through my lens I add another annotation to this curious phenomenon.

Star of Andhra (2012-08) by Gireesh GVSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Star of Andhra Pradesh

A statue of the late NT Rama Rao, matinee superstar-turned chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.

The inscription in Telugu indicates the statue was erected less than a decade ago, in 2012.  

Rising above the rest (2012-08) by Gireesh GVSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

An ode to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, above the market place in a small village in Andhra Pradesh.

Standing tall - Swami Vivekananda (2012-08) by Gireesh GVSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Keeping Watch

Swami Vivekananda crosses his arms at Prathipadu in the East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh. This 56-foot statue is placed on an 8-foot base and watches over the village of Narendra Giri next to a National Highway.

Yet new statues arise each year, for our society needs to venerate, however transient that may be. An all-important hanger to conveniently hang our faith, or ideology on. And then to promptly forget - Gireesh GV.

Credits: Story

References: Paradise Discovered: Chikkamagaluru
Project title: Decorative Soldiers
Information & Research: Gireesh GV
Images: From the personal collection of Gireesh GV & Image collection of Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation.
Curated by: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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