Image 1: Bombay in the 1890s.
In the erstwhile colonial Bombay of the 1800s, colossal sculptures began materializing in and around the city’s most prominent avenues. Larger than life, these sculptures showcased regal looking men and women, often astride majestic steeds or positioned on commandeering thrones. The sculpture of Queen Victoria, for instance, at eight feet and six inches and seated under an elaborate gothic canopy, could be found at Victoria Gardens. Similarly, a king-sized rendering of Prince Albert showed him atop a black horse, and staring off into the distance with an arguably patronizing expression on his face. In fact, it is this particular statue, which, called Kala Ghoda (Black Horse) in Hindi, gave the now-iconic art district in Mumbai its name.
Image 2: King Edward VII on a black horse – that is, the original Kala Ghoda statue that gave the locality and the art festival in Mumbai its name.
The act of erecting such sculptures in public spaces is rarely an innocent endeavour, and particularly when undertaken by colonial powers in their colonies. By far, the most noticeable aspect of this undertaking was the staggering dimensions of these statues and the subsequent awe they inspired in onlookers. There are records of individuals garlanding these statues and putting vermillion tikkas on them out of sheer devotion. It is thus interesting to note that through these marble sculptures, the colonial state was but defining the manner in which it was to be perceived by its subjects: unequalled and unassailable. As symbols of the might of the British Raj, the physicality of these statues manifested the most fundamental message of all colonial endeavour: The noble white man would overlook, civilise, and guide the dark-skinned savage. In fact, such was the demand for these statues in London, that the term “sculptural imperialism”¹ arose to describe their “powerful role in the making of the British empire.”2 A peeling of the onion that was structural imperialism thus reveals the manner in which the British Raj colonized public spaces. The Raj’s officialdom was omnipresent in the form of the numerous statues of distinguished individuals — in gardens, parks, street corners, government buildings — who had expanded the domain of English Imperialism. As Orwell summed up the sentiment: “All Art is Propaganda.”3
The question of colonial Bombay metamorphosing into the Mumbai of today then becomes, in significant measure, an exercise in understanding how these markedly colonial spaces were dealt with. In post-independent India, public sentiment demanded that these statues either be relocated away from the public space or shipped back home; it is thus that amidst the patriotic fervour of the 1960s, a number of these statues were defaced and damaged in rather gruesome ways. Just as the British had asserted their dominance through the installation of these statues, a section of the Indian population sought to reclaim this dominance – that is, by legitimising their nationalistic victory through the removal of these colonial symbols.
Unsurprisingly, the city’s administration was quick to shift the statues from the British Raj away from their positions of prominence; Queen Victoria, for instance, found her new home in the back gardens of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. They now occupy — quite literally — a rather curious interstice between abject abandonment and museumization. The city underwent a spatial decolonization, one that was followed up later by the rechristening of Bombay to Mumbai in the mid-1990s. It is during this period that Shivaji Maharaj riding a black steed replaced George V in front of the Gateway of India.
Image 3: Queen Victoria at Bhau Daji Lad without her grand canopy – or her nose.
Thus, the art of erecting statues is inherently contentious for its visible exhibition of power as well as the necessarily public nature of its existence. If there is one thing we might learn from the role of the spaces that statues occupy as constituting the naming and content of historical location and tradition, it would be to be wary of the practice itself, regardless of who it is that we are putting on the pedestal.
Radhika Srinivasan is a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University. She has attained her undergraduate degree in English Literature and is aiming to pursue her further studies in East Asian Area Studies.
- Sahasrabudhe, Aishwarya. “As Imperial Figures across the World Are Brought to a Reckoning: A Look at Statues and Their Relevance in Colonial India.” Firstpost, 23 July 2020. www.firstpost.com/art-and-culture/as-imperial-figures-across-the-world-are-brought-to-a-reckoning-a-look-at-statues-and-their-relevance-in-colonial-india-8596561.html.
- Orwell, George, et al. All Art Is Propaganda. First, Mariner Books, 2009.
Anderson, Edward. “India’s Troubled Relationship with Colonial-Era Statues.” Caravan Magazine, 30 June 2020. https://caravanmagazine.in/commentary/indias-troubled-relationship-with-colonial-era-statues
Patil, Sushmita. “’A Nation Set in Stone’: Insight into the Politics of Statuary in Delhi (1950-65).” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 47, no. 30, 2012, pp. 232–238. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23251775 . Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.
Sahasrabudhe, Aishwarya. “As Imperial Figures across the World Are Brought to a Reckoning: A Look at Statues and Their Relevance in Colonial India.” Firstpost, 23 July 2020. www.firstpost.com/art-and-culture/as-imperial-figures-across-the-world-are-brought-to-a-reckoning-a-look-at-statues-and-their-relevance-in-colonial-india-8596561.html.
Saul, Gwendolyn W., and Diana E. Marsh. “In Whose Honor? On Monuments, Public Spaces, Historical Narratives, and Memory.” Museum Anthropology, vol. 41, no. 2, 2018, pp. 117–20. Crossref, doi:10.1111/muan.12178.