The idea that large statues might act as political tools is hardly a novel one. Immortalized figures from the past often serve the interests and ideologies of the present, whether it’s Lord Nelson riding proudly above Trafalgar Square or North Korea’s former leaders looming over Kim Il Sung Square.
Compared to such blatant projections of power, the new 597-foot-tall sculpture of Sardar Patel in Gujarat cuts an altogether gentler figure.
The record-breaking monument, which opens today, depicts the Indian politician wearing humble clothing and a placid expression. His arms hang calmly beside an unmistakable paunch; his bare toes protrude from oversized bronze sandals.
Construction workers at the Statue Of Unity's plinth. Credit: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
It’s a far cry from the sort of overbearing figure one might expect of a monument being derided as government propaganda. But the world’s new tallest statue is nonetheless being painted as a political endeavor.
The structure is widely seen as the personal project of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who first announced it (as Gujarat’s chief minister) in 2010 and who will formally unveil the statue. Although the project is largely funded by Gujarat, Modi’s government offered financial support, with the leader personally calling on farmers across the country to donate iron for its construction.
The Statue of Unity pictured during the final stages of consturction. Credit: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
“Sadar Patel was very much the strongman of the Indian National Congress (popularly known as the Congress Party),” said Delhi-based art critic and curator, Gayatri Sinha, in a phone interview. “This statue is a post-colonial assertion of pride and power that India seeks to identify with.”
Conveying national values
Beyond the specifics of party politics, Gujarat’s new statue, like New York’s Lady Liberty, can be viewed as an expression of collective values. Having helped negotiate the incorporation of more than 560 of colonial India’s princely states into a single union, Patel arguably represents a national political ideal (hence the monument’s full name, The Statue of Unity).
The Statue of Unity would tower over famous monuments and buildings, including the Statue of Liberty and Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer.
“Sardar Patel was a principal negotiator in a (time) of distress and division and he brought different communities, states and linguistic groups together,” said Sinha. “He was very well known for leading the farmer movement in 1928, when he mobilized the farming community into active resistance … And to bring attention to his role is not a bad thing at all.”
A wave of statue-building has swept India in recent years. With a few notable exceptions, most of the country’s tallest examples have been built within the last 15 years. The structures are often dedicated to deities or other religious figures from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Buddha is a popular choice, as is Shiva, the monkey god Hanuman and the 12th-century philosopher Basava.
More recent historical figures also regularly feature. Chief among them is the 17th-century warrior king, Shivaji, the subject of 696-foot statue of being built off the coast of Mumbai. Upon its completion, which is tentatively set for 2021, the monument will surpass the Statue of Unity as the world’s tallest.
A metro train passes by a 108-foot statue of Hindu god Hanuman in New Delhi.. Credit: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images
The choice of Shivaji, like Patel, can be seen as inherently political. The period of his reign, during the Maratha Empire, is often portrayed as a golden era by a resurgent Hindu nationalist movement spearheaded by the BJP. Modi made a photo opportunity of laying the mega-project’s first stone in December 2016.
But there are, at least, examples of statues from elsewhere on the political spectrum. The Buddhist activist B. R. Ambedkar, who championed rights for India’s lower castes, is the subject of a number of proposed statues around the country, in what Sinha described as a “pan-national exercise.” Monuments honoring Ambedkar include the upcoming 125-foot bronze in Hyderabad and a planned 350-foot memorial (known as the “Statue of Equality”) in Mumbai.
If enormous statues are expressions of self-assurance, then Asia appears to have confidence in abundance. In recent years, the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar have all announced — or begun construction of — statues over 100 feet tall.
According to Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow in foreign policy studies at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution’s India outpost, statue-building can be viewed as a projection of a country’s technical abilities.
“Part of this just has to do with capabilities — the fact that Indian engineering companies are able to do this, they have some money and resources, state-supported or privately financed,” he said in a phone interview.
But Jaishankar points to the symbolic status of large structures. “Statuary, like skyscrapers and other mega-monuments, is seen as having prestige value,” he said. “There was this surge, in the 1970s and ’80s, of large-statue building in Japan, and in the ’90s and 2000s in China. And it does seem in the last 10 years or so there’s been this spate of mega-projects in India.”
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With Japan no longer undertaking monuments of this scale, China and India are now responsible for the vast majority of upcoming mega-statues. There is a palpable sense of competition between the two countries — particularly when it comes to record-breakers.
But Jaishankar warns against viewing statue-building as only serving the aims of the national government. The furor around Modi, a national-level politician championing a state-level monument, is perhaps evidence of a localism at the heart of statue-building — Modi’s involvement was the exception rather than the rule.
“If you look at the choice of figures, they do have a local political resonance in most cases,” Jaishankar said, citing large-scale statues of the Vaishnavaite saint Ramanuja in Hyderabad and of the poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar in Tamil Nadu.
“A lot of it has to do with local politics, so I wouldn’t just look at this as an ‘arms race’ between India and China.”
Sardar Patel was a key figure in the freedom movement, and India's first deputy prime minister. Credit: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Rather than international competition, the future pace of statue-building in India may come down to domestic factors, such as state resources and public support for large-scale art projects, said Sinha, who is also founder of the Indian art initiative Critical Collective. She predicts that questions will inevitably arise about whether mega-monuments are even suitable as national symbols.
“We don’t have an Indian tradition of such statues — it’s very much a colonial residue,” she said. “But are we then going to take it and expand upon it?
“Then there’s this notion of, ‘what about modernity or contemporaneity in art?'” she added. “There are great sculptors in the world, of Indian origin, who can memorialize through more abstract, more indigenous kinds of structure. There are questions that are bound to follow in the weeks and months to come.”
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