As imperial figures across the world are brought to a reckoning, a look at statues and their relevance in colonial India

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe
·8-min read

The death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have made statues the centre of global attention, as several larger-than-life figures in the Western world have been brought down €" both literally and metaphorically speaking €" highlighting the relevance of statuary as artwork that represents our collective histories.

In India, too, statues are important public symbols, as a way of commemorating civic leaders, local heroes, religious icons and philanthropists, and they have undergone various trials €" including vandalism, relocation and exile. However, many colonial and post-colonial statues largely remain 'curiously empty of adulation', due to public disinterest or their locations, which are usually crowded marketplaces or busy traffic junctions.

Nonetheless, there lies a rich history of statuary in India that can be traced back to the colonial era, when statues were commissioned to British sculptors with the intention of fortifying the imperial rule in the local psyche. Speaking about the cultural politics behind statue-making in India, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, retired professor of History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS), and indologist and historian Sandeep Dahisarkar, held forth on the cultural politics behind statue-making in India in an online discussion titled Statues in Colonial Bombay and Bengal Presidencies.

Hosted by the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai and the Ministry of Culture, Government of India along with AVID Learning, the session was moderated by historian Dr Simin Patel. It was conducted as part of a virtual week-long series dedicated to sculpture, and explored the landscape of Indian colonial and post-colonial statuary in the two prominent presidencies of British India, Bombay and Calcutta.

Elaborating on why statues matter, Professor Guha-Thakurta explained the commemorative function of statuary such as John Henry Foley's sculpture of General Sir James Outram €" a bronze, equestrian work which was commissioned to mark Sir Outram's bravery during the Siege of Lucknow and erected in Kolkata in 1874.

A statue of Sir James Outram which stood on Park Street, Chowringhee junction in Kolkata before being moved to the Victoria Memorial Hall in 1958. Image via Wikimedia Commons
A statue of Sir James Outram which stood on Park Street, Chowringhee junction in Kolkata before being moved to the Victoria Memorial Hall in 1958. Image via Wikimedia Commons

A statue of Sir James Outram which stood on Park Street, Chowringhee Junction in Kolkata, before being moved to the Victoria Memorial Hall in 1958. Wikimedia Commons

Such statues were erected after these officials returned home, and their purpose "was to commemorate their rule. That's why the statues were commissioned in England, but they always returned to India," said Guha-Thakurta in an interaction following the talk. This is in contrast to post-colonial statuary, in which a person was commemorated through statuary or a bust upon their death most times.

Guha-Thakurta noted that the first commemorative statue erected in colonial Calcutta was of Marquess Cornwallis, who served as the Governor-General from 1786 to 1793. Made in the studio of the well-known artist John Bacon in London, it was transported to Kolkata in 1803 and was later moved to the East Quadrangle of the Victoria Memorial Hall.

In her talk, she pointed out that in post-Independence India, nationalist sentiments prompted the relocation of several such structures from Kolkata's public spaces, including General Outram's statue, which was removed in 1958 from his spot in Park Street, Chowringhee Junction; Lord Napier's equestrian sculpture; Viceroy Curzon, as well as Queen Victoria. What took their place were other commemorative works such as Roychowdhury's bronze statue of Gandhi on his Dandi March, bronze works of Deshabandhu Chittaaranjan Das, 'Masterda' Surya Sen and Matangini Hazra, the only slain female participant of the 1942 Quit India movement, among others.

The first colonial statue in Kolkata was that of Lord Cornwallis who served as Governor-General from 17. Wikimedia Commons
The first colonial statue in Kolkata was that of Lord Cornwallis who served as Governor-General from 17. Wikimedia Commons

The first colonial statue in Kolkata was that of Lord Cornwallis who served as Governor-General from 1786-93. Wikimedia Commons

Guha-Thakurta also emphasised the broader question of how far a statue represents the person themselves. She said, "The statue has a greater purpose of public visibility. It occupies a public space or is housed in an institution."

However, while it may be lifelike, the measure of a statue's effectiveness is in how far it carries the legacy of its subject forward.

For the colonial regime, this was of marked relevance since sculptures were in such high demand in London that the term "sculptural imperialism" arose, to describe their "powerful role in the making of the British empire, not just India, as statues are made to travel to all the British colonies."

The rise of the Bombay School

Commissioning sculptures was a costly affair, and also a time consuming one. It took 13 years for General Outram's statue to be commissioned, for the material to be transported to London, and for the statue to be brought back to Kolkata to be assembled. Gradually, the practice of commissioning statues to Western sculptors gave way to sculptures being produced by Indian artists. This led to the emergence of the Bombay School of statuary.

Sandeep Dahisarkar, in his presentation, Memorial Statues of Colonial Bombay, explained the Bombay School's rise to prominence and talked about the works of three significant sculptors: Rao Bahadur GK Mhatre, BV Talim and VP Karmarkar. The practice of commissioning statues to sculptors in the West continued up until the second half of the 19th century, but the last decade of the 1800s marked "the rise of this new sculptor called Rao Bahadur Mhatre, who is the best-known sculptor of the Bombay School," remarked Dahisarkar in an interaction that followed the talk. "He creates this statue called To The Temple [Mandirakade] which sort of marks the turning point for the Sculpture department of the JJ School of Art."

Describing the trajectory of his career, Dahisarkar notes that Mhatre received numerous accolades for his sculptures and was supported by leaders like Lokmanya Tilak predominantly due to the Swadeshi movement, which helped him to procure commissions for busts and full-size statues. He also received patronage from states like Gwalior and Baroda, and by and by, Mhatre became an inspiration for other artists.

On the subject of the shifting usage between marble and bronze, Dahisarkar noted that while Mhatre's personal medium was marble, there is no way of knowing how he learnt the technique of casting figures in bronze.

"It was probably with the help of his professor TK Gajjar who fixed the Queen Victoria statue damaged by the Chaphekar brothers," he mused.

"Mhatre was like an emperor and Talim was like a king who ruled Bombay," said Dahisarkar. The two artists continued to create remarkable work and "sculptors who came after them like Karmarkar and [Raghunath Krishna] Phadke had to leave the city."

While the former left for Kolkata, the latter established his foundry in Dhar; others like NK Kolhatkar travelled to Baroda to set up their studios. "Slowly, the network of the Bombay School becomes bigger. This makes the Bombay School tradition of statuary the strongest of all four schools in India: Bombay, Madras, Bengal and Lahore."

Statuary today

An illustrative example of the condition of statuary in recent times is the story of where the figures of George V and his son Albert were found: lying in a decrepit shed behind Elphinstone College in Mumbai's Fort. "People knew the statue was in the shed, I identified it as being done by Mhatre," said Dahisarkar.

The decision to replace George V's statue with the magnificent one of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was a revoking of the political legitimacy of what were termed colonial symbols, but incidentally, it also took away from the contribution of an Indian artist to statuary in the country.

In the discussion and the QnA that followed, both Guha-Thakurta and Dahisarkar lamented the relative anonymity of sculptors, attributing it to the significance of statues as a representation of a larger idea. Guha-Thakurta rued, "In post-Independent India, at least for some years the statue maker may have carried some stature, authority, prestige but it's not a very lasting one."

She explained that there could be two possible reasons for this anonymity. "The reason the statue has to struggle for place as a work of art is because it is commissioned, and commissioned work is done according to the demands of others." The second reason is that its primary function is mimetic. "Its function is to represent a person, so whose work it is becomes less important." Even in this mimetic function, she noted, likeness and resemblance garners attention only at crucial junctures of history, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. The argument, according to her, that statues need to be preserved as works of history and art emerges "the moment you wish to remove them".

The contradictory viewpoint stems from the issue of political legitimacy; the belief that colonial statues no longer have a place in public parts of the city.

It is perhaps the inherent show of power that statues signify which makes them contentious.

Statues are commissioned by authorities, erected to celebrate those who enjoyed authority, and more importantly, they are markers in public spaces.

A question posed by Dr Simin Patel during the discussion also brought to the fore the dearth of busts or statues commemorating women. Guha-Thakurta pointed out that female statuary consists of more allegorical structures which symbolise concepts like justice, law, learning. The subject of the female nude is a vast topic in the pantheon of statuary, she added.

"But a statue represents a person of power and authority, and statuary will come into place as females take on powerful roles." An example of this is Queen Victoria's sculpture, which lies at the entrance of the Kolkata memorial. She is viewed as a sort of ungendered subject, not a female statue, removed of sex or seduction.

Statues in Colonial Bombay and Bengal Presidency was held on 9 July. Watch the talk on YouTube.

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