HEIGHT IS DIZZYING. Elevated reality alters perception, demands an appraisal, a re-reading. A statue, in metallic exaggeration, soars above the mortals not just to play with our memory— or our history books. It is a repudiation of death necessitated by the grievances of the living, or the under-appreciated greatness of the dead. A statue is a reminder: I’m here, forever, you’re indebted. And a declaration: I’m perpetually reborn in the beholder’s eye. A statue is more enduring than a slogan, larger than the words on a page, and easily comprehensible. It is not a sculpture. It is not imagination that shapes memory in stone and metal. It is the urgencies— political, social, and cultural—of the present that bring a statue to perfection.
It is, unlike the animated passage of history, a frozen statement. It’s kitsch that is least resistant to time. It doesn’t outlive. It gets outdated. When the past becomes an unbearable country, the statue tells a story that the onlooker is desperate to overcome. The statue becomes a bad memory. A figure of unfreedom. On liberation’s day after, Lenin and Stalin fell. Yesterday’s empire builders became shattered monsters. The text was re-imagined. They too were liberators, once upon a time, in the strictly codified texts of socialism. They were self-chosen architects of heaven on this wretched earth. They were arbiters of the biggest dreams man ever dreamt. They were not aware that the ghosts were still waiting for vindication, for justice in retrospect. Reciting Mandelstam, they watched from the margins as the liberated danced on the detritus.
The demolition rite of freedom was repeated elsewhere too, most spectacularly in Iraq when the Republic of Fear fell. Saddam Hussein, too, had a back story that was, in its original script, a romance, for Ba’athism was Arabism with a dash of nationalist poetry. Like the evolution of communism as an ideology in power, the terror of Ba’athism was inevitable. The fall required an image: a future built on a splintered past, and the Saddam statue in pieces provided it.
It’s a public execution of the undead. A cathartic spectacle for the liberated.
Do we need this spectacle? Do we need to terminate the past? Can’t the statue stand there as a cautionary tale, as a reminder of what we had survived? Does forced erasure bring salvation? Such questions were asked when Confederate icons were pulled down in Charlottesville, Virginia, in a spree of historical correctness. Does the demolition make an unsavoury yesterday bearable today? Still, a change of the political weather invariably leads to a re-imagination of the past, which requires heroes and villains. In Trump’s America, even the Statue of Liberty has become a part of the rhetorical dispute over immigration.
Every statue exudes political volatility. It is built by the politics of eternity. It is demolished by the politics of retribution. A statue tells more about the living than the dead.
When Prime Minister Modi stood before the world’s tallest statue, it was a moment of restoration, re-assertion and re-imagination. In the sheltering shadow of a Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel soaring into the sky, Modi stood there, transfixed by the oversized idol hovering over him, as the redeemer of a misread history. The bronze incarnation of the Iron Man is necessary iconography for the reign of Modi, who sees himself as a rebuilder of India, and as the other strongman. Patel, in a re-reading of history, was the lone nationalist among patriots in the first Cabinet of India, headed by Nehru. In the new re-reading, he was the unifier, swayed by the idea of the sacred nation, overshadowed by Nehru, the cosmopolitan internationalist who was given the entire credit for nation building.
India is living through its most definitive shift in political culture, and its towering leader can have an equal only from an unjust history. Nehru and Patel were partners who didn’t play out their differences for the sake of India—and its nascent freedom. They tolerated each other. In the newly comforting what-if history, Patel would have been a more rewarding prime minister for the nationalist cause. But what-if is history altered to suit the ideological exigencies of the present. Patel never got the kind of historical attention or appraisal that Nehru did. The best thought out sentences of history books were not reserved for him. Modi wants to live what his idol was denied. He wants to rebuild the nation— and wants the story to be told in his own words. There will be no one else worthy of an equal part in the narrative. His tallest homage to Patel is a correction and a pledge: what the historian missed will be brought to the popular mind by the new strongman.
When he was at Patel’s feet in a Gujarat town, Modi was not dwarfed by the enormity of the legacy in bronze. He was inspired. And therein lies the irony of iconography. It is written by men who aspire to be taller than their icons.