A thousand years ago (in 980 CE), an acclaimed sculptor oversaw the making of a big monolithic statue of Mahaaveera, a Jaina Teerthankara. The 57 foot tall statue has continued to serve its purpose for all these centuries and today it is still sanding strong in Shravanabelagola, Karnataka. Around 500 years ago (in 1528 CE), Emperor Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara Kingdom commissioned the sculpting of a big monolithic statue of Ugra Narasimha, a Hindu deity in Hampi, Karnataka. The statue of Ugra Narasimha (~21 feet in height) was vandalized many times by tyrants but it is still there standing bright amidst Hampi ruins. A giant Buddha statue in Leshan, China (carved in 8th century CE) is still there. The giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyan (7th century CE) that were carved into the natural hill cliffs in Afghanistan were lost under tragic circumstances.
Today in India, central and many state governments are spending millions on tall statues of historical figures. For instance, the central government wants to build a 182 m tall iron statue of Vallabha Bhai Patel, at an estimated total cost of nearly $550 million (Rs 3000 crores). The Maharashtra state government intends to build a 210 m tall gigantic statue of Shivaji spending $280 million (Rs 1200 crores). Now, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana state governments are competing to build two statues of B R Ambedkar (both >100 feet tall). All of these governments are also in a race to outdo one another in misusing people’s money. There are some NGOs and some private consortia that are funding the building of giant statues of religious or spiritual symbolism. Their intentions are also suspect. India is not the only country that is obsessed with Gigantism in statue building. An internet search will give you a list of at least 50 other statues of such gigantic proportions from all over the world. It is easy not to overlook that most of these statues have been commissioned and built over the last 15 years. Many countries are in the process of erecting some new statues of incredible size and proportions.
Our current political leaders have no idea of what statues can and can’t do. Indian politicians (by and large) do not understand the value of public money anyway. They certainly do not understand the value of visionaries like B R Ambedkar. Sculpting of a Gommateshwara in 10th century CE in hard granite is not the same as casting gigantic pieces of modern metallic or concrete “junk” in 21st century. We cannot compare the artistic grandeur of Ugra Narasimha to modern construction of concrete statues in many places all over the world. There is nothing great about building any big statue that has no aesthetic or technical appeal (be it of Gods or of mere mortals). Building statues is not a challenge with today’s technology and mechanical support but building statues incurs costs without benefits. By entering the rat race of building the tallest statues in the world, India does not suddenly start respecting and practicing the values espoused by its heroes.
Indian politicians are not paying any attention to ancient monuments that are decaying due to decades of neglect. All they want is to misuse public money to erect some XYZ statue, so that, they get to unveil a piece of tiny slab inscribed with their names on the day of statue inauguration. They don’t realise that building such statues may take many years and the people who started the project will not be in office and may have died, and costs sky rocket by the time the ill-conceived monster comes to life. The fetish for these useless modern colossi is hard to explain. Justifications including the sultry notion of national integration, or the sundry notion of local pride are a façade. These living politicians have no achievements of their own to commission their own statues and sadly, the dead are revived and hung to dry in the open again. Perhaps it is not feasible in a democracy like India to erect your own statue. Some kings, queens and some dictators used to do that in the past. I hope these politicians realise that their names on the parapet are even less durable than these statues themselves. Indians do not value such statues anyway. The poor state of hundreds of human sized Ambedkar statues (with not-so-shining suits and boots) and thousands of Mahatma Gandhi statues (with broken glasses and shabby walking stick) in the streets and corners all over India serve a grim reminder. It is a different matter as to what concern we have for the modern day Ambedkars. Mahatma Gandhis are extinct anyway.
The Roman colossus of Nero began as Nero, became some other Sun God at some point, and then the statue’s head was replaced to convert him into some other emperor. The same is also true for many temples and monuments, which evolve and become something else through generations. But, some monuments survive and gigantic statues rarely survive. Those that survive and remain endearing to the public are often aesthetically, spiritually, and sometimes technically awe-inspiring. Those that survive are not the “me too” types. We should not forget that the Colossus of Nero probably did not help Nero glorify his legacy, and his statue did not even survive the fall of the Roman empire.
PS: Some of you might be thinking of Ozymandias by P B Shelley (1792-1822).