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Art, the Artist and the Society

In one northern corner of Delhi is situated the ‘Coronation Park’ which witnessed the announcement of King George the V’s ascension to the throne in December 1911. It was hugely celebrated and attended by all the princely states of India. Since Independence however, the park had become the final resting place, or rather the dumping ground of some of the statues of former British Kings, Governors, and officials of the British Raj. The statues were removed from various locations around to city to be placed on red stone plinths inside this park. King George the V’s statue that once stood atop a canopy in front of the India Gate was the first to be shifted to this place, but there’s a catch. Its face is all smashed in.

Not only that, out of the five or six other statues placed in this park, at least four have their noses broken, or the entire lower half of their faces smashed. Some say that the damage has been done in transit, but the particular areas of damage makes one question the legitimacy of that argument. It is more curious still that the designer of these statues, Sir Edward Lutyens, is the same architect who is behind the designing and building of the architectural masterpieces in central Delhi, particularly the India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhawan (earlier Viceroy’s House), which are a thing of pride for the entire city, nay country! So much so that the area itself is often referred to as ‘Lutyen’s Delhi’.

Why vandalise the statues then, or even move them to one unpopular corner of the city when the architecture by the same artist is celebrated elsewhere? One is in no way hurting the actual people whom the statues represent, nor the artist who is long gone himself. Perhaps the anger is only directed towards the statues because they could not be appropriated by the political and administrative authorities of the country, as were the buildings.

In 1937, ascending leaders of the Third Reich hosted two art exhibitions in Munich. One, the “Great German Art Exhibition,” featured art Adolf Hitler deemed acceptable and reflective of an ideal Aryan society: representational, featuring blond people in heroic poses and pastoral landscapes of the German countryside. The other featured what Hitler and his followers referred to as “degenerate art”: work that was modern or abstract, and art produced by people disavowed by Nazis — Jewish people, Communists, or those suspected of being one or the other. The “degenerate art” was presented in chaos and disarray, accompanied by derogatory labels, graffiti and catalog entries describing “the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or pencil.”

As Hitler understood, artists play a distinctive role in solidifying as much as challenging authoritarianism. While it can create a heroic aura of the subject, it can also createpathways for subversion, and for political understanding. Like the proverbial court jester who can openly mock the king in his own court, artists can use their art to challenge structures of power in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.

The vision of the park’s design, created by landscape architect Mohammed Shaheer, is striking in its ability to invoke the original context of the statues while leaving the visitor in no doubt that the park is a different, new space. For instance, the structures of red and white stone and almost stately pathways that are lined with tall street lamps are fleetingly reminiscent of Lutyen’s Delhi.

At the same time, the park contains clear iterations of its own time and diversions from the statues’ pasts. In contrast to the pedestrian-unfriendly avenues of Lutyens’ Delhi, the stepped plinths below the statues, each contained within a small enclosure, offer seats and encourage a physical and visual intimacy to the visitor that is the antithesis of the statues’ original embodiment of the physically remote and culturally aloof nature of imperial power.

State of George V under a canopy at India Gate, circa 1952. The statue was removed in 1960 and eventually relocated to what is now Coronation Park.

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