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.’