Opinion

A monumental mistake

Thomas Sajan Titto Idicula | Updated on March 12, 2018

India’s love for huge political memorials is misplaced, if not distasteful. The West knows better



In the backdrop of the looming general elections, India is witnessing a ‘statue-war’. In other words, who can build the tallest statue of the world? The BJP and Congress governments in two major states are competing with each other to build statues of colossal dimensions.

The Statue of Unity project — the brainchild of Gujarat chief minister — is proceeding fast with far-fetched attempts to mobilise the Indian citizenry. Meanwhile, Maharashtra proclaimed it would install a record-breaking Shivaji memorial within three years.

For its proponents, such engineering wonders would transform India’s identity to the outside world. The 182-metre tall monument of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is even heralded as a historical communion connecting the country’s past with her future.

Are skyscraping statues the signs of a country that is marching to the global forefront? Will the wealthy and the technologically advanced nations in the world start looking at India with awe and inspiration for its record-breaking monuments?

Restraint west

Anyone who looks at the list of world’s tallest 50 statues would be surprised by the fact that no European or North American countries have attempted to build a giant monument since the Second World War. The 128-year-old Statue of Liberty, dwarfed by dozens of taller 20th-century monuments in Asia and Latin America, remains the tallest statue in the Western world.

It is hard to believe that Western nations are shying away from huge monumental projects due to lack of economic resources or technical expertise. The Channel tunnel and the Large Hadron Collider, built in the West, are major engineering feats. However, there is conspicuous disapproval of constructing gigantic statues and colossal monuments as symbols of human creativity.

Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, would be the right place to observe this disengagement. The unofficial capital of the EU encompasses some of Europe’s finest Gothic artworks and the best-preserved specimens of medieval architecture.

Amid the antiques stand a few modern attractions, of which the ‘Statue of Europe’ might be the most important. As a monument erected to commemorate the birth of the European Union, one would expect it to be a magnificent work of art. But it is ‘disappointing’ to the eyes until one knows the story behind it.

The Statue of Europe is merely five metres tall and simply consists of a globe held up by tightly entwined arms of various colours representing ethnic diversity.

The monument was designed, built and painted by visually impaired children from many countries under the supervision of renowned French sculptor Bernard Romain. The idea was to demonstrate that “disability is not a disqualifying factor”.

It is a remarkably humbling experience to know that this tiny statue was erected to represent one of the greatest political events of the last century — the birth of a unified Europe. Such self-restraint is the product of hard realisations that followed a century of bloody conflicts. Giant, cumbersome monuments find no place here.

Lessons from history

The twentieth century saw the rise and fall of ambitious visionaries who also happened to be perpetrators of genocides and crimes against humanity. Astounding buildings and monuments were planned throughout Europe to prove the supremacy of an ideology or a ruler. Such attempts were made on a maddening scale and at a furious pace and were, to some extent, accomplished both in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Adolf Hitler envisioned a super city called ‘Germania’ with a series of colossal buildings of such magnitude that not even modern architects would dare. He believed that those engineering marvels would serve as idols at the altar of fascism.

“Buildings would give people a sense of unity, strength, and togetherness. They will psychologically fill the citizens of our people with a permanent self-consciousness, namely: to be German”, to quote from one of the Hitler’s speeches in 1937.

The centre-piece of Germania was to be a monument named ‘Volkshalle’ with a dome as tall as 200 metres and as wide as 250 metres accommodating an enormous mass. It’s interesting to note that the designers feared the Volkshalle would have its ‘own’ clouds, even creating rainfall from the condensed breath of the mass accumulated in the dome.

Across the eastern border of Germany, Josef Stalin also planned buildings and monuments of similar grandiosity. He envisioned a palace symbolising the triumph of Communism.

At a height of 495 metres along with a giant statue of Lenin atop, the ‘Palace of the Soviets’ would have been the tallest structure on earth at that time.

It is a paradox that during the same era of megalomania, millions of farmers known as ‘kulak’ were slaughtered under Stalin for being ‘richer’ than the rest.

By definition, anyone could be branded a kulak if they owned a few cattle and 4-5 acres of land. Kulaks were paying the price for their ‘richness’ at a time when Stalin was building a towering palace that not even the Tsars could dream of.

Both Hitler and Stalin failed to fulfil their megalomaniac aspirations because of the sudden onset of World War II, but the subsequent generations recognised the madness behind these constructions.

Expressions of arrogance

There is a realisation in the West that the regimes that masterminded the construction of mountainous edifices also presided over massive death and destruction. Advanced nations therefore exercised restraint and held back from architectural madness.

Europeans, despite being well known for maintaining their small and large historical buildings, haven’t ever attempted to construct huge memorials of no practical utility since World War II, not even to represent their biggest political accomplishment of a unified Europe.

What’s being overlooked in India amidst the clamour over creating colossal statues is that the modern world would regard these as nothing but glorified expressions of human arrogance.

The troubling paradox is that the same political parties — BJP and Congress — that jumped on the bandwagon of making India a ‘developed’ country are now aggressively falling back on history.

It is ‘a great leap backward’ that megalomaniac statues are being heralded as India’s showpieces for the 21st century.

(Sajan is a social anthropologist at University of Bergen, Norway. Idicula is a consultant neurologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway)

Published on March 16, 2014

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