In the round, on the street
IN Bangalore’s common spaces, an array of sculptures are placed in various venues, from street corners and traffic circles to important expanses of municipal land and strategic corners of private property that have large, open frontage. What kind of sculpture sits in these spaces? Is it always art and is it always public? A journey through the city’s streets suggests that big questions about the politics of art and the poetics of the public are available for discussion in every neighbourhood. As invested creations, they are made for the purpose of orienting people to specific political agendas and consolidating them through the installation of sculptures.
Public sculpture is a category of public art. According to Wikipedia, ‘The term public art properly refers to works of art in any media that has been planned and executed with the specific intention of being sited or staged in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all. The term is especially significant within the art world, amongst curators, commissioning bodies and practitioners of public art, to whom it signifies a particular working practice, often with implications of site specificity, community involvement and collaboration. The term is sometimes also applied to include any art which is exhibited in a public space including publicly accessible buildings.’1 Most public sculptures in Bangalore are designed to be installed and seen in the public space. But most of it is not the variety that involves curators or emerges out of critical working practices. Community involvement and collaboration happen, but on terms very different from what public art curators and makers usually imagine. Most of Bangalore’s public sculptures are proclamations by their sponsors, and the desired audience reaction is veneration.
Let me elaborate these points by discussing the Bangalore urban street experience through three statues, including the legendary Kannada film actor Rajkumar, the highly ecumenical Virgin Mary, and one of a group of men. Each of these is located in a demographically different area of the city; the first two engage divergent notions of veneration while the latter performs the idea of public space.
The Gangambika Kannada Youth Society and the village residents of Kariyannapalya in Lingarajapuram installed a statue of Rajkumar at the end of Lingarajapuram flyover. During his lifetime, Rajkumar played a great role in developing a struggle for the pre-eminence of the Kannada language in South Karnataka’s public and state discourse. Though he personally never advocated violence to achieve his linguistic goals, his followers have often resorted to force. The struggle between Kannada-speaking and Tamil-speaking communities is often posed as a struggle over language, when it actually can involve other issues like real estate, the rising power of English, the distribution of public resources, among others. Invoking Rajkumar by installing a statue on the street at a strategic location can thus represent diverse and conflicting constituencies.
In South Bangalore, which is predominantly Kannada-speaking and BJP, Rajkumar’s presence eases the entry of a political leader into civic spaces and effectively converts his (it is always men who invoke Rajkumar in this way) agenda into apolitical, public work.2 In other neighbourhoods, where Tamilians are the majority, the installation of Rajkumar can be about the creation of a Karnataka-Tamilian identity which refuses to retreat and be marginalized from public space and which seems to evoke the film actor’s statue as a guardian figure that protects and validates hybridity. Rajkumar’s own birth in a border area which today lies in Tamil Nadu is perhaps invoked in such areas to support the idea that a Tamilian can also be a citizen-resident of Bangalore/Karnataka and a supporter of Kannada without necessarily being born a Kannadiga.
Returning to Kariyannapalya, it is important to note the location of the Rajkumar bust near a Tamilian neighbourhood and near the Amruth theatre, which primarily shows Tamilian films. He is painted bronze, historically one of the most prized materials for statues that move in streets as festival images. He is also shaded by a chattra or parasol, an object that in the Indic context is associated with a noble personage who is served by his followers so that he can protect them as their chattrapati or ‘lord of the parasol’. The Youth Society and the village residents extol him, using the titles he received in his lifetime: ‘Gem of Karnataka’ and ‘Padmabhushana’, a title and award given by the Government of India. The bronze colour, parasol and titles come together to place the modern film actor Raj Kumar in the realm of the epic and the historic.
The Virgin Mary is a different story. Her shrine in Lingarajapuram is like many others that arrive on the side-walks in the ten days before the Feast of St. Mary, held on September 8 annually at the Basilica of St. Mary in Shivajinagar (colonial Blackpalli) in the old cantonment area of what is now central Bangalore. During these ten days, men and women, who may or may not be converted Catholics, make vows as individuals and as families and seek Mary’s blessings to make a home, have a baby, improve health, and so on.3
To exteriorize their abstemiousness, they wear a distinct shade of light saffron fabric for clothing, an element borrowed from the larger Indic tradition of using a deep saffron colour as a sign of ascetic vigour but altered carefully in this context to demarcate Christianized self-denial. Dressed like this or in plain clothing, they arrive at the Basilica, very often walking on the main streets in a five to ten kilometre radius around Shivajinagar to attend mass and participate in the Novena at the Basilica during the festival.
The streets of cantonment Bangalore become pilgrimage routes and many such figures are installed in temporary shrines all along the way. The number of shrines always increases nearer to the Feast area. Most of these Mary statues go back inside after the feast but others do not; they stay on the sidewalk and become permanent. The Mary in New Lingarajapuram B Block, an area populated by Tamilian and North Karnataka Kannadiga labourers as well as Urdu-speaking Bangalore Muslims, was installed by the Boys Team, a local, young male Christian group. She is dressed festively and stands carrying her baby, Jesus. As the quintessential mother, her presence on the street is a sign that she is able to give benedictions and communicate worshippers’ prayers even if he or she is not rich or able to go to a big cathedral.
Such Mary figures are often placed in glass cages; she may be there for members of the public who seek her out, but the group which erected this shrine also wanted to protect her, aware that a figure on the street is vulnerable to damage and violence. Even so, the Boys Team’s Mary was stolen; undeterred they reinstalled a new Mary. Behind her shrine, a temple for Mariamma, the fearsome goddess of the lower castes, is also currently under construction by area residents. Together, the Hindu and the Christian mothers provide solace, protection and benediction to the community as well as passers-by. They represent the multiple and shared religiosities that reside in one location and often in one household.
The Rajkumar and the Mary sculptures are generic; they are not ‘authored’ by any artist, though the people involved with installing them must have known the artists or may have even been involved in making and displaying them. They are part of a growing culture of appropriating government or civic amenity land for private agendas that can only be activated in common spaces,4 both because of financial constraints faced by the patron(s) and because it is meaningless to place the sculpture in a private space.5
The generic sculptures at Tiffany Square, located at the top of posh Lavelle Road and Vittal Mallya Road are safer; five men partially encircle a boy who appears to be praying on the sidewalk. Every time the water is turned on from the fountain’s jets embedded in the sidewalk, they get drenched. The men do not look particularly Indian and the scene could be from and for almost any city in Europe or the Americas. This is in keeping with UB City’s owners’ desire to project their real estate project as part of a cosmopolitan world in the heart of Bangalore.
Behind the group sculpture stands the Café Coffee Day flagship store and the street in front proceeds to the corporate offices and the luxurious UB City mall, lined with absolutely smooth sidewalks with stainless steel barriers that light up at night and which are dotted with potted palms. For the few who arrive by foot and the lunchtime corporate pedestrians, the sculptures appear to make no difference. In fact, it seems the line of communication is only from the patron who appears to do/want nothing more than to evoke a Norman Rockwellesque jocularity in a plot that is designed to mimic California cafés and streetscapes in an effort to create highly privatized real estate experiences in a contested public space.6
Three other public structures are commemorative, whether they served an empire or represent a state. Close to UB City is a marble Victoria installed in 1919, arrogantly holding symbols of British imperial power at the edge of Cubbon Park, one of Bangalore’s largest green spaces, facing the junction of Queen’s Road and Mahatma Gandhi Road (known as South Parade in the colonial era). Her location at the beginning of the parade area must have once invoked great pride among those Britishers who served her in India. Today, the statue is part of Bangalore’s heritage, a reminder of a time when Patrick Geddes’ ideas had a major impact on Indian urban planning in promoting ecology. The figure’s historical location is especially potent, given that all around large trees have been cut and wholly uprooted to make way for a car culture that has taken over the roads and the Metro that has become a massive midair presence.
In other parts of the city, Victoria has set a precedent for the installation of historical figures at major intersections. Statues of the 16th century peasant warrior king Kempegowda, who ruled the Bangalore area and Rani Chennamma (1778-1829), a queen from northern Karnataka, who led one of the first armed rebellions against the British, have been erected to remind Bangalore and Karnataka of the city and the region’s pre-colonial greatness and anti-colonial resistance.
The installation of such figures in the decades after Independence is both a sign of sovereignty as well as an attempt to represent different classes, regions and interests in a city that is also the state’s capital. The Chennamma statue, located at Town Hall, is particularly interesting since it takes the commemorative equestrian statue made familiar to Indians by the British and places it on a modernist fountain instead of the usual pedestal. Such mixing of styles is familiar in the public sculptures in Bangalore where the fountain becomes the space for showing off modern waterworks while the statue follows the naturalism taught to sculptors in the colonial art academy.
Recently, a contemporary sculpture park has been developed near the Chennamma statue. During the planning stages, there was some debate about situating the sculpture park here, since there was also a desire to install a statue of Raj Kumar; some officials, however, felt there would be a clash of styles. In any case, the sculpture park, with sculptures by many contemporary artists, has been created even though it is always locked and inaccessible. What relationship this sculpture park has to the street seems to be of no consequence; what appears to matter is that there is verifiable state patronage of modern art.7
Sculptures of B. R. Ambedkar, the nationalist, author of the Indian Constitution and creator of India’s Dalit movement, are perhaps the most important presences in the city; they represent the other stories of the nation that are still in the making. A large, expensive metal statue of Ambedkar stands in front of the state legislature, known as Vidhana Soudha on Ambedkar Veedhi (‘street’), with a platform that allows politicians to easily climb and garland him during appropriate occasions. The street in front is broad and runs both ways; the whole complex sits opposite Cubbon Park and the location of the statue uses the long vistas and colourful trees around it as well as the revivalist architecture of the state legislature to create a theatrical setting in which a politician can honour and perform devotion outdoors while his colleagues, visitors from around the state, tourists and city residents take note. As noted by historian Janaki Nair, the entire space is designed and has been used for spectacles and demonstrations, though once again the construction of the Metro has altered, at least for the time being, the atmosphere of the street.8
Usually, we assume that the iconography of public statues comes from elite sources; legislators are, after all, powerful people and they can set the agenda for the artist. But with Ambedkar, the iconography comes from popular culture. Long before the Vidhana Soudha got its Ambedkar, Dalit movements across the country created images of their leader and placed them in their homes, workspaces, shrines and streets. In one hand, they placed the Indian Constitution, which he conceived, and with the other, they show him pointing to the horizon, gesturing the way forward to a more equitable future. The street in this context is the present to be transcended on the road to the future which is only visible mid-air; alternatively, the street area around the statue can also become the much anticipated future available right here in the present.
Ambedkar statues are found everywhere – in villages, towns and cities. The presence of such a figure both connects a neighbourhood to a chain of neighbourhoods across the country to represent a movement among the politicized poor, as also attempts to appropriate the movement by the political elite. The street is where the aesthetics of this contest over Ambedkar is articulated.
On Netaji Road in Pulakeshinagar, a middle class neighbourhood with a few slums, an Ambedkar statue shows a newer, more recent iconography. Here he holds the Constitution and a walking stick. The walking stick can be viewed in two ways; as a sign of his gentlemanliness and as signifying his later life when he accepted the Buddha and the sangha or brotherhood of monks. These days, he is sometimes also painted in gold, which signifies his transition from political leader to Boddhisattva. On sunny days, the bright golden colour of such a statue is like a mirage; its shininess attracts and when viewed more closely, dematerializes the idea of political action because of the overwhelming deification of Ambedkar.
Every Indian city has a Mahatma Gandhi Road and often a statue of the Mahatma. In the heart of Bangalore is just such a MG Road with not one but three Gandhi statues, all made at different times by different artists and all commissioned by the government. Over time, the statues unwittingly reveal the ‘nine moods’ or navarasa of Gandhi and represent an evolving understanding of the great leader. The earliest, installed by a Congress party leader in 1955, is the striding, heroic figure of the satyagraha; the second is the meditative Gandhi who promoted nonviolence, and the latest is the Gandhiji who loved and was loved, as symbolized in a sculpture which includes his two daughters.
The last is the most incongruous of the three; the young Manu and Abha are portrayed as calendar girls who have become demure to accompany the Mahatma. The sculptor clearly wanted to emphasize their womanly figures over their filial piety, an artistic choice made quite frequently by many who make female figures for public installation. Apparently, the normative gender of the public statue is male, given the overwhelmingly masculinist discourse which circulates in the street. When a female figure is included, either she has to be as good as a man (e.g. Rani Chennamma) or quietly incite male delectation in the performance of public service.
This combination of Gandhis sits at a major junction where MG Road begins. Because of the convergence of several roads near these statues, the sidewalk in front of them has long been used for protests. With Gandhi behind them, various groups turn to the street and shout for a cause or rally against injustice. Gandhi’s presence, especially the height of the earliest statue, is necessary to underwrite the ethics and nonviolence of any protest; as such, middle class, left and progressive groups most frequently use the location.
What about the sort of sculpture or public art that we find in European and American cities which is commissioned by curators and made by avant-garde artists? In Bangalore, as in the rest of India, there is precious little. Renowned sculptors like Nagji Patel and Balan Nambiar have bemoaned the lack of interest in the public and private sectors and even among architects in creating spaces for sculpture. Whatever is commissioned is most often ill-maintained and sometimes even removed. This is partly to do with the gap between what the artist is interested in making, what the patrons are interested in funding, and what the audience is interested in seeing. The street is the place where tastes are fashioned and critically evaluated by various parties.
Over the last few years, the Goethe Institute, the German government’s international culture and arts organization, has been actively involved in trying to bring public art to India, in a format comprehensible to the European cultural context. Clearly, many Indian artists and curators are keen to create opportunities for artists to move out of studios and into the street. Recently, Khoj, an arts organization in Delhi, organized the Public.Art. Ecology festival, supported by the German organization and it was a great success. International and national artists participated as did the public at different venues. Such a venture holds great promise but the size of our cities and vastness of our publics requires big funding to address the variety of spaces and audiences.
The German artist Gregor Schneider came to Kolkata a few years back to participate in a public art project initiated by FICCI, the Goethe Institute and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. In a newspaper interview, he commented about his excitement about working in the city. ‘Public art,’ he said, ‘forms a bridge between the museum and the studio.’ The reporter who interviewed him wrote, ‘The former is open to the public but enclosed by four walls, while the latter remains exclusively private. But art in the open has many dimensions, inviting debate and discussion.’9
What is of course undebated as yet is that the sponsors of such programmes are seeding city streets with a conception of public art that is developed from the top down, even outside of India. When placed next to gallery and curator derived notions of public art, the sort of everyday street aesthetics and concerns that produce the art which I have written about in this essay, and are familiar to anyone living in an Indian city, unwittingly become positioned as mere politics, even hooliganism, or more benignly, as tourism of popular culture. Unable to engage these other publics that prioritize veneration over analysis, critical, progressive art may unintentionally domesticate and render docile or alternatively, demonize the unruly demotic nature of urban public sculpture.
If we take Schneider’s statement as outlining a set of criteria for legitimate public art, the statues of Bangalore discussed in this article clearly indicate that public debate and discussion is already happening, indeed is embedded in the statues. The goal now is to broaden the range of art forms and practices through which debates enter our common spaces.
* This essay was originally written for the ‘Experimental Arts’ column, Bangalore section for a Goethe Instit blog. See http://www.goethe.de/ins/in/lp/prj/kus/exp/ban/en7249922.htm. The entire section on Ambedkar and Gandhi which I have included here was removed, perhaps because of space constraints. The development of any kind of street art in Bangalore sits at the crossroads of a historic temple procession and neighbourhood mandapa tradition and the more recent colonial and nationalist programme of commemorative sculptures.
1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_art, accessed on 8 March 2012.
2. See my essay on the politics and design of recent children’s parks in South Bangalore. Annapurna Garimella, ‘Making Childhood Useful’, Domus (India), 2 December 2011, pp. 108-111.
3. See Annapurna Garimella, ‘Miracles in the Park: The Design and Politics of a Contemporary Religious Space in Bangalore’, in Shivaji Panikkar, Parul Dave Mukherjee and Deeptha Achar (eds.), Towards a New Art History: Studies in Indian Art. D.K. Printworld, Delhi, 2003.
4. When someone has a made a personal and a private vow to any god or goddess (including the Virgin Mary), they often feel the need to demonstrate their devotion by installing a god in some common space. I do not want to use the word ‘public’ because the idea of public space in the Habermasian sense does not really function in our context.
5. This statement is based on research conducted with a grant provided by the India Foundation for the Arts between 1999-2001 for research on the contemporary religious architecture in Bangalore.
6. ‘UB City Promoters Accused of Covering Drain’, The Hindu, 31 May 2008 accessed on 15 March 2012 at http://www.hindu.com/2008/05/31/stories/2008053161740300.htm.
7. The official Bangalore Arts Commission functioned between 1976-2001 was meant ‘to serve as a watchdog against the unrestrained operation of political or market forces in transforming or altering the heritage of the city.’ See Janaki Nair, ‘Past Perfect’, in The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore in the Twentyfirst Century. Oxford Universty Press, New Delhi, 2005, p. 222. At the Town Hall sculpture park, art is promoted without much clarity about what the public function of the park is. It is not just political or market forces that exert pressure on common urban spaces, but also seemingly not-for-profit activities such as public art, where the figure of transacted funds may be comparatively small but relies on the same networking and patronage system that engages the market and the state political structure.
8. Ibid., pp. 200-233.
9. Somak Ghoshal, ‘Art of the matter out in the open – city to host project in public space by leading German artist; daylong seminar to debate the waste and wonder’, The Telegraph, Calcutta, 15 March 2010. http://www.telegraphindia.com/1100315/jsp/calcutta/story_12216388.jsp