The Poetics Of Statues

Men construct huge structures, make endowments, inscribe their names on monuments, create memorials, demonstrate their authority with seals imprinted with their images, consecrate statues and there by long for permanence.  One such urge of the erstwhile kings, conquerors and military generals is reflected in the statues they themselves got erected or their disciples got  made to prove their allegiance to the authority. There are statues installed by democratic governments too, to celebrate an occasion or remember a person.  The Statue of Liberty standing as guard at the entrance of New York Harbour on Liberty Island is a gift from France to commemorate the 100th year of signing of the Declaration of Independence of USA. A symbol of democracy, it’s also a colossal neoclassical structure.

This well known statue has an inscription on its citadel, a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), The New Colossus. Considered to be one of the finest pieces of sonnets in English literature, it compares the Statue of Liberty with the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World.   The Colossus of Rhodes no longer stands.  Constructed to celebrate the Rhode’s victory over Cyprus, it was said to be around 33 meters (108 feet) high, almost the height of the present day Statue of Liberty. Erected by Charles of Lindos in 280 BC, it collapsed during an earthquake in 226 BC. Though it was never rebuilt, parts of it are preserved, as if questioning the endeavours of men or their ideas of permanency!

But my Statue of Liberty, says Lazarus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek Fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles.

Thus, Lazarus describes the Statue of Liberty as the mother of exiles, and as distinguishable from the Colossus of Rhodes. While Colossus of Rhodes stood for ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and for exhibition of power, authority and victory in war, the Statue of Liberty, says Lazarus, stands for compassion, an inviting Mother of Exiles!

Keep, ancient lands, your storied

Pomp!” cries she,

With silent lips. “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-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The question that lingers in the mind of any liberal today is: “Is she now the same personification of liberty that Lazarus so passionately praised?” When the golden doors of the land that was one of the first to be colonised are shut to millions of immigrants and asylum seekers, exiles and destitute in the name of “America first”, and when walls are erected on the borders of the neighbouring States, is she the same Lady of Liberty who cried “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” and invited those tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Has Time erased the lustre of the claims of Lazarus?  Or is it as history has demonstrated time and again—today’s heroes are tomorrow’s tyrants?

There are plenty of statues, and they stand higher and higher.  The Sphinx and the Great Pyramid stand far taller than the Statue of Liberty. Competitive devotees clamour for taller, stronger, higher idols to consecrate their Gods, Kings and Gurus, owned or appropriated. Now the moderns are also in the race to surpass all that is tall in the world. The Sardar, one of the triumvirate of the freedom struggle with Gandhi and Nehru, now stands as the Statue of Unity, a new colossal, bigger than his mentor in the very land of the mentor, 182 meters high, on the river island constructed by a Multinational Company, with money coming from the much tainted public sectors, consuming about Rs 3,000 crore of a poor and developing India, looking down condescendingly or with consternation at his mentor and all his comrades-in-arms? Challenging many for the title of the tallest statue in the world, including the Spring Temple Buddha and the Father of the Nation, he occupies now more than two hectares of land, which probably he might not have ever ventured to occupy while alive!

There is another statue, which also stood for power and authority, the statue of the Egyptian king Ozymandias. He was a villainous pharaoh who enslaved the ancient Hebrews who Moses led to the Exodus. P.B. Shelley (1792–1822), in his sonnet Ozymandias reveals the nature and state of statue.

I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert . . .  Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias, the ancient Egyptian King, now known as Ramesses II, regarded as the greatest and the most powerful Egyptian pharaoh, now stands as “two vast and trunkless legs of stone”, conveying the ephemeral nature of human pursuits, with even civilisations themselves disappearing into a whisper. John Keats (1795–1821), a contemporary of Shelley, wrote a beautiful ode, Ode on a Grecian Urn, where he describes Time’s irrelevance to the physical and material, with a suggestion that it is art that is an anti-dote to this impermanence. The art on the Grecian Urn, a decorative pot from ancient Greece, survives the test of time. Empires, emperors, civilizations and cultures appear, and then disappear traceless into history, but the piece of art remains.

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

. . .

What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

What pipes and timbrels! What wild ecstasy?

. . .

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

We remember Sardar as one of the greatest of India’s freedom fighters, as a man with absolute integrity, honesty and sincerity, as the greatest follower of Gandhi, as the comrade-in-arms of Nehru and many other freedom fighters, as a satyagrahi of the highest order, as a man with an iron grit to unify the nation, and as a man with great humility who spoke less and did more.  He is one of the tallest figures of modern Indian history. His greatness is within and not without. Hugeness of his statue may not further the ideals of this great soul, instead it distances us from him. We want to remember Patel as one who, along with our Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nehru constituted the triumvirate who led our freedom struggle to victory. The Indian freedom struggle is, probably, one of the best human struggles for freedom and liberation in the world history! We hope that the madness to ‘dislocate’ Patel within huge fortified structures does not disturb the serious student of India’s freedom struggle from appreciating and re-appreciating his contribution to the nation.


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