Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Colossus of Bombay

Vishal Dadlani, the singer and composer, is planning to petition the high court against the state's plan to spend 350 crore on building a colossal statue of Shivaji on an artificial island. You can read the petition here, and sign if you sympathise.
Though I think the island is a dumb idea, I don't believe Dadlani makes a good case against it. His basic contention is that because we're in the middle of a drought, the money budgeted for the statue could be better spent elsewhere. I'm against arguments of this kind because they can be used against any subsidy of the arts. Why host a theatre festival when people are starving? Why spend tax rupees on bringing musicians, artists or dancers to this country when the money could be spent fixing roads or increasing power generation? It is impossible to make utilitarian arguments in favour of the arts.
In any case, it ought not to be up to the court to stop the government from spending money, unless specific laws are contravened.
I object to the island idea for a different set of reasons. Its concept was drawn up when the Sea Link project was already in an advanced stage. Our chief minister decided to place the island where it would be obscured by the final stretch of the sea bridge connecting Haji Ali to Nariman Point.

To allow for the island to be visible, the SeaLink plan was modified. As it currently stands, the final segment appears doomed. They're never going to get permission to dynamite their way through Malabar Hill. If they do, they then have to build an underwater channel parallel to Marine Drive. This will be prohibitively expensive, and the extra cost ought to be considered part of Shivaji Island's outlay.

In my view, the change in the Sea Link's orientation is the only strong basis for challenging the building of Shivaji Island. Is it not irresponsible for a carefully planned and crucially important infrastructure project to be altered, in a way that renders it unbuildable, in order to accommodate a vanity monument?
Shivaji is associated with hills rather than the sea. He raided sea ports such as Surat and nibbled at the fringes of what are today Bombay's northern suburbs, but neither he nor the Maratha leaders who came after him ever established ascendancy over these parts. Would it not have been more sensible to identify a location with which the king is intimately associated and build a statue and museum there as a way to vitalise the surrounding economy? But of course, our ministers were thinking of outdoing the Statue of Liberty, and so Shivaji had to be placed on an island. It is worthwhile recalling the sonnet by Emma Lazarus engraved on a plaque inside the statue on Liberty Island. It ends:
... "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

While Liberty invites people from across the globe and promises them a just and inclusive new home, those who practise Shivaji politics aren't welcoming of migrants even from other parts of India. Noted for his liberalism while he lived, the Chhatrapati has become, through being co-opted as a mascot for identity politics, a symbol of divisiveness based on language, caste and creed: Marathi against Hindi, Maratha against Brahmin, Hindu against Muslim.


Unknown said...

Dadlani does make a rather simplistic case. But it’s right to question the government’s decision to spend money on a statue when it could be spent better elsewhere. Funding an arts festival for instance or using it for something that will actually benefit/edify people. Besides a statue in the middle of the sea would only interrupt our view and given the government’s aesthetic standards, the statue and the surrounding landscape that Mantralaya has in mind, could well be monumentally ugly. That’s another reason to veto the statue.
More importantly, Bombay has so many statues of Shivaji that we don’t need yet another one of him (or Ambedkar as the RPI has declared in its manifesto for the assembly elections). Especially since, as you’ve pointed out, erecting statues is a part of this theatrical practice of creating personality cults to further political agendas.

Girish Shahane said...

Questioning is one thing, Pronoti, questioning in court another. Edification is a matter of opinion, and I suspect you and I are in a minority.
I don't accept the 'better spent elsewhere argument', it is not the way systems work. We have thousands of tons of grain in storage and also absurdly high malnutrition levels.
As for having other statues of Shivaji, we certainly have nothing close to this scale. If built properly, the place will be a massive tourist draw.
The best argument against it, I'm certain, is the monument versus infrastructure one I have outlined. That way we aren't speaking about mythical people who could be fed or educated, but about a real plan that was passed after years of chasing security and environmental permits, and was then completely altered on a whim.

Anonymous said...

Politics of protest and the way it plays itself in this city of ours is quite intriguing.
A flyover at Md Ali Road at a kissing distance from the tenements gets built and the one at Pedder Road with the same dynamics gets stalled. The settlements around JVLR (most of them legal and hence attracting the rehab/compensation packages) make way for the widened road, the road widening at Napean sea is opposed on environmental/heritage grounds- probably justified and quietly set aside.Important municipal work at Pedder road, announced much in advance, is halted when the traffic is inconvenienced.

Petitions are signed for bringing a rock concert back to an open air venue by the same set of people who find the Navratri/Ganeshotsav decibel levels annoying.

Dadlani's earlier attempt at activism included a petition which wanted tonnes of 26-11 footage to be reviewed by the courts, and this one wants excess funds to be handed over to 'people who know better'.

Your current piece along with the earlier one questioning the viability of a gigantic equesterian statue are the only ones I could find which make a well-argued case against the project. The others reek of the same kind of prejudices which abound in Madhur Bhandarkar's screenplays, albeit coming from the opposite quarter.

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks a lot, Anonymous. As far as the statue itself goes, the designers have seen sense, ditched the idea of using bronze, and settled for steel and concrete instead.

DS said...

Anonymous, as one of many residents who live on the stretch that was widened at Nepean Sea Road may I once again say that we never opposed the widening of the road but the amount that was taken for widening and the manner in which it was done.
All we said was take make it 80 feet wide,not 90 feet,and we unlike the BMC based our arguments on measuring the uniform width of road,getting opinions from traffic experts independently and actually as citizens videoing the traffic at both ends of the stretch over peak and non peak hours and spending hours counting the cars that passed through,timing the signals at the traffic lights and came to conclusions based on facts,none of which the BMC had done or did. As for heritage walls,they were smashed,so now you see the car parked on the kerbside at the same position it was parked two feet inside the erstwhile walls.Taking 80 feet instead of 90 would have got them the same 6 lanes (unnecessary as is now proved) and would have saved a minimum of 60 to 70 old full grown trees which have been replaced with pathetic saplings,or as a neighbour calls them twigs.

Yes,our arguments in no way obstructive,but arguments based on keeping the aesthetics of a neighbourhood community intact, were simply set aside.

The argument against the statue should be based on one premise.It obstructs the completion of a vital infrastructure project, the initial phase of which is so grossly and shockingly overbudget that the government's austerity drive should start right here and stop this colossal waste of money as GS rightly puts it, on a vanity monument. And in steel and concrete amid the salty breezes it will be a recurring costly vanity.

Girish Shahane said...

DS, you really should write in some magazine about the entire experience with road widening. Anonymous is a bit ambiguous at that point, but I think s/he does suggest your protests were probably justified.

dhruvi acharya said...

you should have this printed in major newspapers. I was not aware of the implications of the (&*%@#*&) monument on the sea link! Maybe many Mumbai residents are also in the dark...

Nimit Kathuria said...

Girish Shahane said...

Amit Varma, who is a friend of mine, is a libertarian. I'm not. I believe that state funding for museums and cultural institutions can be beneficial. He believes the government should do nothing beyond taking care of law and order. But we agree on many issues where tax money isn't involved.

Nimit Kathuria said...

I don't understand how Amit Varma being a friend of yours is important in this debate.

And as an extension, isn't labeling oneself "libertarian" or with some such ideology haze the truth just like stereotyping of people fails to understand the complexity of the reality?

Girish Shahane said...

Are we in a debate? I'm not even sure what your point of view is, since all you provided is a link to an article.

Nimit Kathuria said...

The link I provided was supposed to be my pov. I surely believe that the govt. ought to stick to just its basic duties i.e. defence, law & order, and building roads (the only property that that can ever be common).

Other than that, it has no business spending money anywhere else, especially on arts and culture.

The article I linked to provided enough reasons for my line of thinking.

Girish Shahane said...

Fair enough, that is your point of view, and Amit's. It is not mine.