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The travails of the modern icon

By Shiv Visvanathan

Icons have always been a part of memory and heritage, carrying the seal of the sacred. Classical iconography was, in fact, the study of religious icons, an exploration of symbols and their meaning. While iconography has a sense of tradition, modern society looks at its icons differently. The perspective did not always carry the mark of the sacred, but combined folklore and propaganda in interesting ways.

Folklore captures a sense of orality and storytelling in plural ways. Each locality has its own version of the hero and his exploits, providing a sense of a modern epic. Yet, the stories can be deeply plural, reflecting different histories and memories. Shivaji is seen in Maharashtra as the great liberator, but grandmothers in south India used to hushing children to sleep, warning them that Shivaji would come. This sense of plurality was critical and gave to each locality a sense of creating its own icons.


Mass culture and state propaganda operate differently. If folklore has a sense of joy, mass culture brings to its icons a sense of frenzy, hysteria, what one can call a modern sense of idolatry. The narrative possesses an official character which creates a grid of uniformity. The stories are hyperbolic, following a grid. Often there is an attempt to rewrite history or give it a caricatured quality. The figure of Rana Pratap is a good example, where attempts have been made to rewrite his fate in the Battle of Haldighati. Modern memory does not take kindly to defeat and populist memory often takes historical memory and alters it. There is a hyperbolic quality to this rewriting but this act differs from a Stalinist rewriting of histories. Stalin took old Russian heroes, stalwarts of the Bolshevik Revolution, especially those who challenged his dominance, and converted them to non-persons, literally erasing their role in history. The fate of the Indian icon has been constructed differently.

The poignancy comes from a benign neglect, reducing memory and commemoration to a ritualistic event, an empty marker.

In fact, it is interesting to consider the fate of four great modern Indian icons — Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose. Each followed a different narrative and each suffered what we can call the travails of the modern icon.

The Gandhi of the independence movement was every child’s icon, hero and idol. But Indian officialdom and the historian created a one-sided Gandhi, a saint rather than an experimental politician. By museum-ising Gandhi, we put his memory into mothballs. He was reduced to a few select anecdotes, a watered-down version who populated textbooks. The uncomfortable questions he raised, the controversies around him were forgotten. From one of the great monuments of the era, he became a memorial and was soon reduced to mnemonic commemorations on birthdays through official clichés. In 2019, it’ll be 150 years since his birth, and one realises he is being strip-mined for official slogans and programmes, where his great quotations become clerical clichés. A Gandhian programme combined the political and the ethical, which Swachh Bharat Abhiyan does not — it is a mere act of governance, a spectacle which has still to encounter untouchability and the septic tank.

The career of Bose followed a different trajectory, of erasure and temporary revival. Bose’s mystique derived from two sources: from the Azad Hind Fauj which was a counter to Gandhi’s satyagrahic imagination, and from the mystery of his disappearance. The fact that there is a mystery around his death created a literal industry of inquiries by every opportunistic politician. The sense of possibility, the repeated excitement of the ever revived question, “what if Bose had lived”, always gave a sense of alternative possibilities and histories to India. Many people felt that the Indian narrative would have been different.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to honour the Azad Hind Fauj tried to cater to this obsession. It was an attempt to play down the Nehruvian imagination. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has attempted to capture history by appropriating Congress icons. It is an act of political envy which reveals that the BJP senses its own national heroes as pygmies before this Congress quartet.

The fate of Nehru has been the most controversial. The memory of Nehru has been battered by opponents ever since the war with China. Nehru has been unfairly constructed as a Pandora’s box of errors since then. People even attributed the roots of the Emergency to his sense of administration. Yet, Nehru pops up like a spring flower after every one of these attacks. The Nehruvian imagination stands like a huge aesthetic canvas despite the BJP’s attempt to belittle him. One has to acknowledge that his leadership evoked a different style, a different set of memories from Indira Gandhi’s. Nehru’s ideas of modernisation still have a political appeal. It was his era that saw the building of the great institutions that Indian modernity talks about. One can criticise their decline, but no one can deny that Nehru brought a magic to modernity and institution-building. A.B. Vajpayee’s attempt to give a Nehruvian touch to his politics testified to the validity of the Nehruvian imagination and style.

Nehru is a perennial icon, whose ability to survive has made a mockery of his critics. Instead of hyperbolic attacks and hysterical critiques, one senses that a quieter nuanced assessment would have been more devastating and effective. Sadly, balance and fairness elude the fate of the Indian icon who sways between hagiography and hysterical downsizing, both of which reduce Indian history to a comic strip of exaggerations.
The recent events around Sardar Patel capture the travails of a modern icon poignantly. Patel, like Bose, was labelled one of the ignored men of modern history, even when both were larger-than-life creatures in folklore. In fact, they did not need the manicuring of history to make them relevant. The BJP’s attempt to appropriate Patel is in that sense pathetic, more interesting as a caricature, a case-study in propaganda than a historical ritual of redemption.

The BJP tried to appropriate Patel by turning from text to spectacle. They did not rewrite history but claimed that Patel was the real exemplar and paradigm of India’s future. It became an example of gigantism, of the regime’s attempts to create spectacular monuments which seek to enter popular memory for their statistical prowess, their ability to make the Guinness World Records than to alter historical perception. Patel, for a few months, will be the tallest statue in the world, till the monument to Shivaji upstages him. In fact, monumentality and gigantism compete with neglect and erasure for the fate of an icon. If one creates artificial erasure, the other emphasises exaggerated attention, and in doing so pretends it is rectifying historical injustice. Exaggerated spectacles rarely rectify history, which has a nuance and logic of its own. What the Modi regime does to its favourite icons, Stalin did to production statistics. It creates an ideological frenzy which commemorates and celebrates not the icon, but the regime, serving as a diversion, a disguise for its own narcissistic preoccupations.

The humanity, the vulnerability, the ethical genius of each of these exemplars disappears in these acts of exaggeration or downsizing. In fact, it shows that the BJP is afflicted by its own sense of history rather than possessing a sense of poetry, accuracy or authenticity. The sadness is that all four icons understood the limits of power and history. One misses professionalism, the craft of academic scholarship in these moments where contemporary power destroys history for opportunistic reasons.