Updated: Nov 17, 2020
This illustrated talk was presented on August 16, 2017 as part of the 3rd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of India, Calcutta.
‘High Noon in Lucknow’ is a series of photographs I made of museums and memorials in Lucknow. I made photographs of monuments across time and periods of power, and of contemporary politicians like Mayawati who built numerous large statues commemorating her self. I made photographs inside what looked like a warehouse within the museum premises of Lucknow Zoo. This asbestos-covered room is a repository for statues of Queen Victoria and English officers once famous for their works but now mostly forgotten. Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ came to mind as soon as I entered the room.
‘Ozymandias’, Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller 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.’
I captioned these photographs with what the personalities had said, with quotes from mythology and from Jung to reflect in some way on power and its transformation through time.
When King George V was on his deathbed, according to ‘official’ accounts his doctor asked him ‘How is the Empire?’ The King’s secretary apparently answered, ‘All is well, sir, with the Empire’ and the king smiled before ‘relapsing into unconsciousness’. His last words appear to be less quotable—his physician Lord Dawson reported later that they were ‘God damn you’, told to his nurse when she administered a sedative. There has been speculation that Dawson prescribed the sedative to ‘hasten the King’s demise’, so that the press could have the story for the morning newspapers and not the less prestigious evening publications.
The state’s former chief minister, Mayawati, herself a Dalit, has built many large-scale architectural memorials commemorating social reformers associated with India’s ‘untouchable’ caste throughout Uttar Pradesh, including the Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal (Ambedkar Memorial) in Lucknow. In other areas, statues of leaders through various periods of history have been removed and Mayawati’s statue erected in their place. The architecture is usually oversized and assertive. Trees are completely absent from the acres of marble-covered ground, similar in some ways to an imperial or a colonial space. The figures of Mayawati and Kanshi Ram, her mentor, loom over the space.
Kanshi Ram once said to Mayawati ‘I can make you such a big leader one day that not one collector but a whole row of collectors will line up with their files in front of you waiting for orders.’
Although for now Mayawati has lost power, there is speculation that she is focused on becoming the prime minister of India. One wonders what will happen to Lutyens Delhi if she manages to do so.
ccccThe figure of the Buddha from the Ashoka period does not have a face. People of rival faiths would, with every change of ruler, inflict damage on the faces of ‘other’ idols and render them unworthy of worship. A recent example might be the Taliban’s destruction of the Afghan Bamiyan Buddhas. I captioned the image of this faceless Buddha with his own words: ‘Three things cannot be hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.’
History seems to have undone the queen in this photograph. This very imperial queen has a missing nose—perhaps accidentally broken or knocked off by vandals. Destroying idols, knocking off their noses, was common practice in temples of North India, especially when marauding Muslim armies swept into town. The Queen had once said: ‘The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.’ History seems to imply otherwise.
ccccMayawati’s time in power has attracted praise and criticism. Millions view her as an icon but the incredible rise in her personal wealth has been criticized as indicative of widespread corruption. One of my photographs features Mayawati’s famous handbag. I captioned this with her own words when she was accused of corruption: ‘It’s my turn now.’
I photographed the statue of a once-famous man who was responsible for solving issues related to famines in West Bengal. I found a quote from him in a book called Famine as a Geographical Phenomenon by B. Currey and G. Hugo: ‘With the lesson taught by the past before us we may indeed hope to interpret the needs of the present but the past alone projects no certain light on a changeful future.‘
MacDonnell was saying that history teaches us that we don’t learn from history—that we can only hope to predict the needs of the present with the past. I found it a humbling thought, that we as humanity are not really in control.
I found it interesting that there were no trees planted in the massive public space of the Ambedkar memorial. The few plants that are, are constrained by steel frames to give them shape and mould them in a certain way, possibly like so many ideologies today where the objective is about power-grabbing and not about the elevation of citizens.
I captioned the photograph with a saying from Jung: ‘A key to transformations is to be aware of who you are.’
I found this tableau in the Buddha museum within the Ambedkar Memorial. The elephant is the party symbol of Mayawati and I captioned the photograph with a line from the Buddha: ‘If you cannot find a wise and prudent friend, then, like a king who leaves a conquered kingdom, or like an elephant in the forest, you should go your way alone.’
A relaxed and serene depiction of Queen Victoria sans crown and globe (usually in her left hand) is captioned with one of her own lines: 'Great events make me quiet and calm: its only trifles that irritate my nerves.'
Mayawati’s father, Prabhu Das, was a post-office employee at Badalpur, Uttar Pradesh. The sons in the family were sent to private schools while the daughters went to ‘low-performing government schools’. I find it interesting how personal psychology and history affects human history, and this phallic-looking and very trimmed and sculpted tree in the Ambedkar Memorial is captioned with ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a fathers protection’ from Civilization and its Discontents (1930) by Sigmund Freud.
Likewise, I captioned this photograph of a tourist hurrying over the super-heated marble flooring under the gaze of many oversized elephants with a line from Mayawati herself, as she described an attempted violence on her person from a rival political party: ‘The first tenure began in the shadow of the guesthouse incident with Mulayam’s men. It disturbed my peace of mind.’
As the cliché goes, power corrupts. But what is seldom realized is that power also reveals. When a person is engaged in the act of attainment, subterfuge is necessary. But as he or she achieves power, the need for concealment diminishes. In time, monuments are built to honour the powerful, the wise and the heroic. In time, older monuments are replaced by what has risen from the ashes of the past.
All empires perish, but not for a lack of power. They lose discipline and are one day replaced by those who have known less, want more and who have yet to consider a need to rise above their own desires and selves.
The rise and fall of empires have been going on since the first ape man usurped his
brother’s position. Savagery, ascendance, decadence. The great rise because of savagery and a need to triumph. They rule in ascendance. They fall because of their decadence. A cascading process, though space and time, the eternal Ourobouros eating its own tail, its darker aspects alive within the heart of man, whose existence we often reject and allow to manifest in so many ways.
We want to believe in universal peace and justice and our own individual ideas of the world. The truth is that our existences are circles of shadow and light, greed and transcendence, peace and war. It will always be so, no matter the utopias we imagine, history being more gigantic, relentless, terrifying and humbling than what we think we know of ourselves.
Occasionally, a sage.
And this too shall pass.
Ryan Lobo is a filmmaker, writer and photographer who has produced and shot more than 80 documentaries on subjects from the Afghan drug trade to Papua New Guinean tribal rites to King Cobras, and various photography and film projects for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and C&A Foundation. His films have aired on National Geographic, Animal Planet, OWN and PBS, among other networks. A TED speaker, Lobo has co-produced the 2011 Sundance Film Festival award-winning film, The Redemption of General Butt Naked. Lobo owns Mad Monitor Productions, a film- and photo-production company based in Bangalore and is author of Mr Iyer Goes to War.