Till February began, en-statued, Shivaji Maharaj, Maharashtra’s celebrated warrior king, sword arm raised, astride his warhorse, resplendently rampant on a rock in the Arabian Sea, was supposed to have been located off old Bombay’s old Gateway of India. But news reports this month all agree the great king will be moved due west – south-west and his statue will be in the sea, off Marine Drive.
Recent news reports are confusing. One single column in a national newspaper on February 4 states that the National Environmental Engineering and Research Institute, Nagpur, has completed its assessment and concluded the statue is on. Leaving aside the irony of a study about a statue in the middle of the sea being finalised by an institute in land-locked Nagpur, the report refers to a “jetty” off Marine Drive, which doesn’t exist in Mumbai (though there is a jetty off Marine Drive, Kochi). A report in a Marathi newspaper quotes “high officials” at Mantralaya as saying that the project has already received most of the approvals required for a giant statue 1.5 kilometers inside the sea and, as it appears tartly in a literal translation of the original, “Ministers are desperately trying to break this coconut before the elections.” Yet another report speaks of “the tallest statue in the world” based on a “new concept design” by JJ School of Architecture.
Every report misses the same things. There are no quotes from the NCP’s Jayant Patil, Mumbai’s “Guardian Minister”. There are no quotes from anyone at the JJ School of architecture, either. Trying to get them, I discovered the reason why. Tracking down the minister is hard work for an outsider. After several days of trying and failing, I decide to go to the Mantralaya and take a chance.
Queuing up with a long line of applicants and supplicants, I make my “visitor entry slip” and then try to walk in. I am politely stopped by a policeman with a machine gun who points out that the time of entry says “after 2 pm.” Mywatch, says it is 1:00 pm and try all three assistants on the phone. One gives me the number of another and suggests I ask for a “proper appointment.”Another says,“Come right now. He is here for the next 45 minutes.” When I tell him I cannot come in till after 2pm, he hangs up. When I finally do get in, after 2pm, one of the three hard-working assistants tells me the Minister has gone on tour and won’t be available till after the 12th.
Trying to get quotes from folks at the JJ School of Architecture is, if anything, even harder. A very polite and urbane school official first denies the school’s involvement, refers me to one of the Minister’s assistants and finally says there is nothing to be said unless the minister says it. I try a different tack. Might I request a crash course on the architectural challenges of giant statues I ask. Perhaps the difference between carved monoliths and cast statues, I suggest tentatively, given our inheritance of Ellora. But I am making no headway. So I give up and wonder at the reasons for this unusual reticence about the giant statue that I have started thinking of as Big Shivaji, an image distinct from the historical figure.
Big Shivaji was originally supposed to have been of a size in between the Vairocana Buddha in Lushan, China, and the Broken Christ, in San Jose de Gracia, Aguascalientes, Mexico. Although at 32 storeys of gold-speckled casting alloy, Big Shivaji would not have been splitting the difference between them, it would in fact have been some way past the golden mean. But the ruling Congress-NCP Maharashtra government has now decided to go for broke and has just announced a statue that will be twice as tall as before and bear a price tag of Rs 1,000 crore. It will also be the world’s tallest statue.
There is already a statue of Shivaji Maharaj opposite the Gateway that was erected in 1961 when Yashwantrao Chavan was Maharastra’s first CM, among many other statues of Shivaji in the city including the iconic one in Shivaji Park, note-worthy because Shivaji does not bear a sword. So Congress and Shivaji are old friends.
But what does the Shiv Sena that remade Bombay into Mumbai in 1995 think of the latest Congress appropriation of Shivaji? A source close to Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray says: “Who can argue against a statue for Shivaji? But this is just election talk of the Congress and NCP.” He then speaks of the manner in which the late Balasaheb Thackeray “creatively and forcefully” used the idea of Shivaji and his warriors, the Sena, to forge a political identity that was new and different from the old identities of caste that swirl around in the ebb and flow of India’s identity-led politics: “The Sena was thinking and acting like Shivaji.”
For once political scientists and politicians agree. I recall Thomas Blom Hansen’s book on the Sena’s rise that records the “transformation of the city’s political culture”. Or Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s comments on the book: “the Sena politically created these identities.” But then, surprisingly, there comes a platitude. “Shivaji Maharaj is an Indian king. He should be honoured as a great Indian.” Talk about treading the middle path!
For someone that was all about the middle path, Buddha’s representations have always been BIG. The Vairocana Buddha, currently the tallest statue in the world, is over 40 storeys high. The Broken Christ of Mexico, not as big as the average Big Buddha, at 82 feet, is only as tall as a 9-storey building. Or Lady Liberty. Big Shivaji will be bigger than them all.
But what does it mean that these giant statues are so big? Says one Buddhist scholar about the Vairocana Buddha: “It symbolises the East Asian Buddhist concept of emptiness.” So this is what it represents in essence: nothingness. The Broken Christ is in the great Christian sculptural tradition of the crucified saviour but it is not his size that gets you. It is the right arm hacked off and the right leg chopped off through the lower third of the knee. Looking at it makes for suffering that jumps from Christ to the onlooker.
So what will Big Shivaji mean? Taller than the Lushan Buddha, he is obviously meant to be larger than mere emptiness. Much much taller than the Broken Christ, he is meant to be about courage and valour, not suffering. Says a Sena leader: “We are still awed with what he achieved 300 years ago.” But that gloss does not help much because Big Shivaji is surely a metaphor for achievement in the face of adversity. Not a historical memorial. What does this mean for our own future? One thing for sure: it is going to cost us a bomb.
Big Statues cost Big Money. They are controversial everywhere but they raise more difficult questions in largely poor India. So it is not surprising that the Statue of Unity was challenged. Last month, the Gujarat High Court rejected a petition by one JD Goswami. If the people really believed this was a waste of money, the court said, no doubt they would vote the government out. In its considered opinion, statue-making fell under “policy-making”.
Which seems to tie in well with the thinking behind Big Shivaji and even the Lushan Buddha. By one account, the Chinese government built the Lushan Buddha as a protest against the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The Lushan Buddha cost about Rs350 crore. Ironically, the Vairocana is often interpreted as Buddha’s astral body, the in-between state between the physical body and the soul. Big Shivaji’s currently estimated cost is about 3 times that so it reaches the astronomical plane for sure even if it doesn’t quite make it to the astral. Nor, of course, is it supposed to.
What does their expensively achieved size tell us about giant statues? Sculptors like Claes Oldenburg and Anish Kapoor have used size as a metaphor, making the familiar strange (giant rubber stamp, giant ice-cream cone on a building: CO). But ultimately it is their sheer size that defines giant statues.
So if 32 storeys work, why not 42? Indeed, why not 66? Till February, the government of Maharashtra was for some reason not going for broke. Almost as if the planners were overcome with moderation as they got to the 100-meter mark. No longer.
The folks planning the Statue of Unity are not going to stop till they touch 60 storeys and make themselves the second-tallest statue in the world. So does height mean anything while comparing giant statues? Says one political analyst: “It is not important to make the tallest statue in the world. Shivaji and Sardar Patel are both giants.”
Is it useful then to think of size as a signifier of different signifieds? Well yes, but these can be opposites. Yes, the Vairocana signifies nothingness and the Broken Christ signifies the burden of knowing Christ suffered for all humans and Big Shivaji signifies our connections to something daring wrested out of adversity. But the Vairocana is also about Chinese hubris. The Broken Christ is also about one god above all others. And Big Shivaji is also about banking a caste vote in Maharashtra.
So big statues pose problems for a normal mind. And even more acute problems for a Big Mind. Because the Zen idea of Big Mind is about seeing reality as something more than the purely personal: even if the individual is the measure of value in democratic India and even if we all believe in Google’s negative freedom of “Do no Evil”, there is a need for us to acknowledge that which is bigger than us in any way we measure it: So one reason why giant statues work is because they appear to be free of gravity, drawing our gaze up.
The Empire State Building, the old sign for size will still be twice as tall as the Giant Statue of Unity. It will also top Big Shivaji. When it opened, during the Great Depression, it literally started its life empty and signified its own kind of emptiness. But it is a different kind of icon now, after the taller Twin Towers crumbled.
If Big Shivaji can get us there, why would we want to quibble?
Tallest statues of the world
Height: 25 mts (82 ft)
2 Christ the Reedeemer Brazil
Height: 39.6 mts (129 ft)
3 The motherland Calls Russia
Height: 85 mts (278 ft)
4 Statue of Liberty USA
Height: 93 mts (305 ft)
5 Peter the Great Moscow
Height: 98 mts (314 ft)
6 Spring temple Buddha China
Height: 153 mts (501 ft)