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Of political icons and vandalism: A view from history

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The weeks leading up to BhimRaoAmbedkar’s birth anniversary on April 14 this year ironically saw idols of the Dalit icon and architect of the Indian Constitution being destroyed, made, and re-made in a series of sculptural life-cycles.

It all began with Lenin though. In early March, less than two days after the BharatiyaJanta Party’s electoral triumph in Tripura, an emboldened group desecrated two of Lenin’s icons in the state. The ‘face’ of communism in Tripura had been demolished in violent revenge. Had we been living in less-frenzied times, this irrational act of vengeance may have been contained through suitable penitence or legitimate punishment. But communal insecurities, misplaced allegiances, and virulent identity politics seem to have sucked the very breath of rationality and tolerance from our lives.


Lenin’s symbolic fall in Tripura unfortunately triggered a nation-wide retaliatory iconoclastic epidemic, cutting across ideological boundaries. In Kolkata, the face of Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s statue, founder of the Right-wing Bharatiya Jan Sangh, was blackened. Statues of social reformer Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, himself a non-believer in the exaltation of icons, paradoxically was hammered in Tirupattur, Tamil Nadu.

Ambedkar was only next on the hit list. Black in the case of S.P.Mukherjee changed to red as paint was poured over his statue in Chennai. As political leaders of divergent views and affiliations continued to meet a similar fate in an irrational tide of iconoclasm, Mahatma Gandhi’s spectacles were dislodged at Kannur in Kerala, metaphorically sparing him a clearer view of the madness that had enveloped the nation.

With the date of his centenary celebrations drawing closer, more Ambedkar icons continued to be demolished. Ambedkar’s centenary preparations saw the inauguration of a grand memorial alongside hasty and often aesthetically impoverished reinstallations of new Ambedkar idols at various places. The picture, as it unfolded, was bizarre, to say the least: In a symbolic act of appropriation of Dalit interests and constitutional values, Ambedkar’s coat was painted saffron and, next, hastily repainted to blue. Decapitation, damage, desecration and ‘saffronisation’ went together with memorials and eulogies to the leader who has for long symbolised constitutional values and empowerment of the underprivileged.

Such is the power of images that portraits of national leaders have assumed lives of their own in the present—to idealise, idolise, hammer, decapitate, replace, recolour and resurrect with changing socio-political proclivities, ideologies, and interests. Kings, emperors and pharaohs of ancient and medieval times have been replaced by modern-day political leaders, freedom fighters and nationalists of various hues. But history is witness that the inherent capacity of art to reimagine, reimage and conjure life-like personae capable of fostering an image-cult remains as true today as it was in the past.

The civilisational remains of ancient Egypt offer perhaps the earliest and most well-documented examples of mummified pharaohs and their larger-than-life idealised images. But the practice of evoking a cult of kings through grand imaginations and imageries was well-established from other cultures too. In 1974, the world was stunned by the discovery in Xi’an of the 3rd-century-BCE tomb-complex of the ‘first emperor’ of China, Qin Shi Huang Di, replete with an impressive terracotta army of thousands of soldiers. Given the extraordinary aesthetics of grandeur and power that the Xián army of soldiers convey, one can scarcely begin to imagine what the main tomb chamber interred with the emperor’s bodily remains would have been like!

The grand memorials to royalty in ancient Egypt and China were more concerned, however, with an image-cult of the dead king focused on ensuring a royal memorial and comfortable after-life for deceased kings—one that was in direct proportion to their perceived earthly stature and the extreme social hierarchies that made possible control over vast reserves of artists and labour force required to create them.

In the early centuries of the first millennium, the Romans are known to have created awe-inspiring, larger-than-life portraits of emperors, giving them real presence. The iconography of the near-14-feet tall 2nd-century CE metal icon of Marcus Aurelius astride a horse, now housed in the Capitolini Museum, or that of Emperor Augustus at the Vatican Museum in Rome, are only two among the many Roman royal icons that at once convey political power and authority inspiring a cult of kings.

Interestingly, unlike Rome, early India does not offer any surviving examples of kings idolised in the shape of their portraits, barring one exceptional and short-lived period. This singular aberration in a consistent record of the absence of life-sized portraits of Indian kings belongs to the time of Kushan rule, that is, the first two centuries of the first millennium, in a part of North India. Discovered in a ‘dynastic shrine’ at Mat near Mathura, the practice of making life-sized or over-life-sized portraits of ‘king(s) of kings’ who were also ‘son(s) of god’ came to India from across Central Asia and through the north-western corridor. Displayed in the Government Museum, Mathura, these stone sculptures of Kushan kings had all been decapitated at some unknown time in history.

The practice of idolising kings by making their life-sized portraits, however, did not settle well in pre-modern India and the Kushan period emerges as a sort of parenthesis in this respect. No free-standing big portrait of Ashoka, the Maurya emperor, was ever made in his lifetime (or after, until the modern times) even though he had a well-thought-out distribution of tall stone columns and rocks carrying his voice across his vast empire in the form of edicts.

Small, generic portraits of the Magadha king Ajatashatru, Maurya king Ashoka, and some Satavahana and Ikshavaku kings are indeed found as part of the iconographic programme of Buddhist stupa complexes. These are to be seen in the sculptural remains from Bharhut and Sanchi in Central India, and Kanaganahalli in Karnataka, for example, and belong to the early centuries before and after the Common Era.

The important point here is that these rather small sculptural representations are not portraits of political power. Nor are they ‘portraits’ in the sense that specific portraits of kings were produced in Rome. Rather, royalty is postured in all of these early Indian instances as being in service of the Buddha and the Sangha, conveying the voice of the Buddhist community who patronised the making the of stupa complexes. The Buddha himself, who was born as Siddhartha, the Shakya prince, was idolised and deified many centuries after his death as the enlightened being and as a chakravarti (universal ruler) but only in the sense of a religious head and not as a king.

After the Kushans, the Gupta kings who ruled over a large empire did not carry forward the Kushan practice of idolising kings through the commissioning of large portraits, even though Gupta coins carried different typological images of their kings. The aesthetics of political power in the courts of these kings and of their successors in various parts of India was exercised by an assertion of kingly power through divine intervention: as gods in heaven, so the kings on earth who were sanctioned divine authority to rule.

Consequently, generic (and not specific) portraits of kings were almost always found as a relatively insignificant part of, and in the larger context of, religious monuments. This is true of the seventh-century portraits of Pallava kings Mahendravarman-I and Narasimhavarman-I at Mamallapuram and the 11th-century painted portrait of RajarajaChola-I in the interior of the Great temple of Brihadishvara at Tanjore in Tamil Nadu; the 12th-century image of King Vishnuvardhana at the Chennakeshava temple in Belur, Karnataka; and the 13th-century portrait sculptures of the Ganga King Narasimhadeva from the Sun temple in Konark, Orissa.

The small-size bronze representations of the Vijayanagar king, Krishnadevaraya with his queens again seem to have served a similar ritualistic purpose. In all these visual simulation —Ashoka onward—the iconography of the king portrays him as a devotee or a follower of a particular faith. And the size and context of the image clearly indicates that these could not have been received as cult icons. In other words, the posturing of the king in all these cases is clearly not meant as an icon of power.

Portraiture was not the medium for conveying the king’s power in pre-modern India. Authority was expressed through other means—say, the inscribed or written word—so that a cult or following for the king was consciously cultivated but the anthropomorphic visual icon was not at the centre of kingly propaganda. In such a scenario, vandalism by a victorious enemy king often meant the desecration and/or loot of the cult icon of the royal temple of the vanquished king.

The Mughals, too, perhaps in line with the tenets of Islam, never commissioned large portraits of themselves or their ancestors. Their portraits—as allegories of power or otherwise—are often encountered in small scale as part of miniature paintings which certainly were not intended as propaganda images of emperors. Of course, Mughal emperor Akbar began the practice of jharokha-i-darshan in which he appeared on an east-facing balconied and canopied window of his fort to offer darshan to his followers. This certainly was an altered form of idol worship where the king himself appeared in person, framed by the window and the canopy. The practice continued until the time of Aurangzeb who considered the idea of darshan as being non-Islamic.

The idolising of political leaders or rulers through the making of their portraits appears to have entered the Indian psyche in its true sense only with the arrival of British colonial power. In a strong statement of imperial power, the British colonial government reinvented the Mughal practice of jharokha-i-darshan. This is obvious in the way King George V and Queen Mary appeared on the balcony of the Red Fort during the grand spectacle of the Delhi Durbar of 1911.

But beyond the appropriation of a Mughal tradition in which Akbar had incorporated the Hindu idea of darshan, the coronation durbars of Delhi and the ritual of paying homage to the British crown also saw the making of large portraits of Queen Victoria (Durbar of 1877) and King George V (Durbar of 1911). The grand spectacle of the third Delhi Durbar saw King George V and Queen Mary seated on thrones and the announcement of the shift of the capital of British India to Delhi. Initially located under a canopy in the India Gate complex, King George V’s portrait as an icon of British imperial power in India has been relocated in Delhi’s coronation park.

The freedom struggle, ensuing nationalist zeal and political ideologies of varied hues saw an unprecedented rise in the celebration of national leaders through a cult of portraits. Some among these are indeed works of art. The magnificent artistic composition of the Dandi March by the well-known sculptor DeviprasadRoychowdhury at Raisina Hills in Delhi comes to mind instantly, but there are indeed several other remarkable portraits of Indian leaders. But unlike these masterpieces of modern sculpture, when the idolisation of leaders through the art of portraiture assumes irrational proportions, the contemplative practice of art and aesthetics can scarcely cope up!

With demands of mass production of icons to keep up with the rising needs for political propaganda and the hasty replacement of vandalised icons, what we have instead are sad caricatures of our leaders, painted and repainted in different hues of political ideologies, as was Ambedkar’s fate in the recent past. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the caricaturising of another leader—SardarVallabhbhai Patel—through the megalomaniac size of his ‘Statue of Unity’ being envisaged in Gujarat. It is time we stopped this madness of idolisation through mindless manufacture of political icons and their subsequent vandalism. Certainly, there are more thoughtful, aesthetic, and befitting ways to memorialise our political icons.