By Shivam Vij
First published in Open dated 4 April 2009
On a Friday evening, Ajay Kumar Singh has driven his family to a tourist spot in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It is quite some spot, this. It is not a relic of the Awadh Nawabs or the British Raj; it is a statue of UP Chief Minister Mayawati alongside that of Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). On the other side of the road are similar gargantuan statues of Bheem Rao Ambedkar and his wife Ramabai. Singh is visiting the Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal or the ‘Site of the Symbol of Social Change’.
“Yes, I am Dalit,” says Singh, who works as a civil engineer with a company contracted by the Mayawati government to build houses for the poor. But isn’t this a glaring waste of public money? “Did you ask anyone that question when Gandhi-Nehru statues were put up? When we (Dalits) see this, it raises our hopes and aspirations. We get the feeling that somebody from our community is doing something big. We were once suppressed under others’ feet. Today, these monuments give us the confidence to say what we want to.” His ire has clearly been aroused: “You tell me, what is India recognised by? The Taj Mahal, Red Fort and Qutub Minar? And were all those kings fools to build these? And if they were, why do you feel proud of those monuments? And can’t you see the employment these projects are creating? Better than the Nawabs of Lucknow, who built monuments only to give employment, eh? It was all fine until Gandhi. Today high castes like you have a problem with Kanshi Ram. But even the high castes are realising their place in the new order. They’re voting for Mayawati.” His wife has to calm him down. They leave.
No matter what your political persuasion, it is hard not to be awed by the scale of the architectural enterprise being undertaken by the Mayawati government in UP. More than 10 monuments are under construction in Lucknow. It is impossible to go anywhere in the city without being confronted by gigantic structures in red sandstone and towering bronze statues of Dalit icons. Collectively, they form the basis for what’s best described as the ‘BSP school of architecture’.
In three short stints as Chief Minister between 1995 and 2003, Mayawati had commissioned several such statues and edifices. But the magnitude of the ongoing project, set to cost Rs 2,000 crore, is staggering in ambition. Lucknow is already a changed city. Only the formal stamp of the inauguration remains. This was to take place on 14 April, Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, but has had to be put off because of the code of conduct.
The most monumental creation is undoubtedly the Ambedkar Udayan, or ‘park’. At the heart of this memorial is an Ambedkar statue, the only such likeness that doesn’t have him standing with a copy of the Indian Constitution in his left hand. Instead, it has the late chief draftsman of the document seated, like Abraham Lincoln in Washington DC, with his arms on the armrests of a chair. Though a few feet shorter than the Lincoln statue, it is far more imposing—stand beneath it and your head reaches its feet; you have to crane your neck to meet the statue’s gaze. Thou shalt kneel before me, it seems to insist.
Encircling this are four bronze works—Ambedkar writing the Constitution, Ambedkar presenting the constitution to Rajendra Prasad, Ambedkar converting to Buddhism and Ambedkar with his family and pet, a labrador. Further on, there’s a bronze relief work on a wall depicting Mayawati and her officials inaugurating the monument twice, in 1997 and 2002. All this is housed in a complex that looks like a citadel from afar. Steps lead up the ramparts to what appears to be a stupa, and indeed, there is no entry to the dome. After a circumambulation, much as a pilgrim would perform at a shrine, steps on the far side lead to an imposing Mughal-style gate which opens on to a gallery and museum. The Lucknow Development Authority disallows any structure taller than this in the vicinity.
Parallel to this runs a colonnade where elephants substitute columns, each tusker built at a cost of Rs 56 lakh. First started in 1995, this complex was originally landscaped by Satish Gujral for a fee of Rs 12 crore. Work on it stopped when Mayawati lost power, and was completed only once she returned as CM in 2002. A lake and much else in the Gujral version has been removed, and land around it has been acquired by demolishing a stadium and an office of the crime branch. In 2007, after Rs 150 crore had been spent on the complex, Mayawati, back as CM for the fourth time, decided to have everything but the Ambedkar statue at the centre razed. The new memorial covers 123 acres on the Gomti banks.
It’s a lot of concrete, but it serves to set the BSP pantheon in stone. Above all is the Buddha himself. Then, Ambedkar. Next in the hierarchy is Kanshi Ram, with assorted new memorials devoted to him. Mayawati, naturally, follows.
There has been a lot of work to go around. Most of the bronze statues and wall relief works are being done by Delhi-based artist Ram Sutar. The architecture, a mish-mash of Mughal, Rajasthani, neo-classical and Romanesque Revival styles, is the work of Jai Karthikeyan.
The Bahujan Prerna Sthal or ‘Bahujan Inspiration Centre’ even has bricks laid out to resemble Parliament. “They exude a sense of eternity, like the mosque at Mecca,” says political scientist Aditya Nigam, “except that it’s not religion but the sheer architecture here that gives that sense of sublimating time.”
Architecture, of course, has been a symbol of political assertion all through the ages. But Lucknow has been subject to a peculiarly wide range of architectural whims. It has a building that resembles a wedding cake, left behind by an eccentric Frenchman in his own memory, that now serves as La Martiniere school. Plenty of what caught the fancy of the Nawabs from the Awadh dynasty (1722-1856) remain in evidence, from mosques and palaces to the distinctly Shia Imambaras, though the British razed some of the finer monuments to avenge the uprising of 1857. On attaining freedom 90 years later, nationalists uprooted Lucknow’s statues of Englishmen, which stood on almost every square in the city, and started their own tryst with iconography.
Is this, then, merely more of the same? Not quite, say critics. “At least the Nawabi architecture was aesthetically pleasing,” says Lucknow-born filmmaker Muzaffar Ali, who is trying to restore his home in old Lucknow. “They (the Mayawati administration) build these garish things and do not care about the heritage of old Lucknow.” Adds Ram Advani, an old-time Lucknow bookseller, “Our elders always taught us to have a sense of proportion in everything.”
Resentment in the drawing rooms of Gomti Nagar, part of posh south Lucknow, recently came to a head when the Ambedkar memorial expansion literally reached their doorsteps. Eminent educationist Carlyle McFarland, however, dismisses the grumbles. “The drawing rooms of Gomti Nagar are equally full of garish marble and red sandstone bought with ill-gotten means,” he says. “There is the grace of the Asafi Imambara, but the Mayawati structures are more beautiful than the hideous mermaid gate in Qaiserbagh. There is enough attention to detail in the BSP monuments to make sure they last.” McFarland travels across UP, training English language teachers along the way. “It pains me to see schools without roofs and blackboards, and then to return to Lucknow to see hundreds of crore spent on monuments… But 300 years from now, these monuments will last and people will forget how much money was wasted. Mayawati will achieve her purpose,” he says.
Perhaps the purpose is closer than that. The impact of this ‘capture of Lucknow’ on the Dalit psyche is enormous. Ratan Kumar, a Dalit facultymember at the Lucknow College of Art, asks, “Did you know of Birsa Munda or Jyotiba Phule? Two decades ago, people hadn’t even heard of Ambedkar. Now they will know all the Dalit heroes. Suppressed for 5,000 years, Dalits will now know they too had a history, one of revolt as much as humiliation, and that it was just the upper castes writing the Manusmriti.” But isn’t the scale a little vulgar? “Had it not been for the scale, you wouldn’t have been talking about it.”
It is about Mayawati, in the final analysis. She’s a regular visitor to the sites, asking for a wall to be put up here, another to be demolished there. Once, on finding a 12-foot statue of hers dwarfed by a 15-foot Kanshi Ram, she had it replaced by one equally large. Maya is all, all is Maya.
“Hindu philosophy says ‘put statues up only after one is dead’. She is breaking Hindu traditions!” protests a shrill critic. But the point is that these statues have a logic of their own. It was a campaign for erecting statues of Dalit women heroes that helped the BSP sell the electorate the idea of a female leader. “Myths and memories often help people triumph over an oppressive present, and the past is often invented in new forms to overcome such a present,” writes Badri Narayan of the GB Pant Institute, Allahabad, in his book, Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India.
“When the BSP first entered UP, they could not make Dalits relate with Ambedkar instantly, and realised this was an area of epical memory, where the Ramayana and Mahabharata were still being orally transmitted,” says Narayan. “So they researched the histories of some of UP’s 66 Dalit castes and revived their heroes.” BSP workers would sit around trees and narrate tales of Dalits in mythology and history. “But what we are seeing in Lucknow is the arrogance of power,” says Narayan, “If feudal architecture is the inspiration, then is it really an alternative Dalit vision?”
But then, the BSP’s electoral coalition has become more inclusive lately, and nobody knows what this might bring. Says Narayan, “It will be interesting to see how she now accommodates upper caste symbols.”