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Monumental Mistake

Monumental Mistake

Author: Amrit Dhillon
Publication: The Times of India
Date: July 4, 2009

Building Dalit memorials, Mayawati bungles a rare opportunity

Standing beside the dirty Gomti river in Lucknow, looking at the structures Mayawati has built on its banks in her quest for immortality, is enough to make you weep. Not over the hubris behind the self-aggrandisement. Nor over the idea of building memorials to honour Dalit leaders such as B R Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram. Nor even the colossal cost or the efforts of an army of poor workers labouring under a pitiless sun.

It is the way she has squandered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With acres of land and billions of rupees at her disposal, this was Mayawati's chance to go down in history as the woman who gave birth to a piece of architecture rivalling anything that has come up in the past 60 years. It was a chance to be bold and daring, to create something beautiful and unique. A chance to hold a nationwide competition of architects and order them to let their imaginations soar. The competition would have animated Lucknow residents. A lively debate would have ensued on what they desired for themselves and future generations. What did they want in the city? A stadium, a museum, a university, a hospital, a park or a monument?

For Indian architects, bored with designing shopping malls and farmhouses for the rich, Mayawati's memorials would have been a dream project, a stab at prosperity by creating something as spectacular as the Bird's Nest in Beijing, the Guggenheim Museum, the Sydney Opera House, the Louvre Pyramid or the Pompidou Centre.

Most Indian cities are still symbolised by pre-independence buildings - Kolkata by Victoria Memorial, New Delhi by Rashtrapati Bhawan and Mumbai by Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Gateway of India. The reason is not lack of talent but of opportunity and near-total absence of any aesthetic sense among the political class, coupled with lack of a desire to create objects of enduring beauty that can become the new icons of India.

Mayawati has bungled by giving Lucknow a collection of gigantic bronze statues, colossal domed structures housing Lincoln Memorial-style statues, and immense stone plazas and walkways stretching as far as the eye can see. Lifeless and insipid, they fail to move the spectator because they speak of nothing but their creator's lust for grandeur. So many trees have been felled and mountains of stone brought in from Rajasthan that residents in the surrounding neighbourhoods say the temperature has risen a couple of degrees.

Instead of a beautiful building that would have put Lucknow on the world map, Mayawati has bequeathed the city a memorial with as much charm as her handbag. Grandiose and massive, pink sandstone structures offer a mishmash of styles - East European Stalinist gigantism, Pyongyang's ponderousness, columns of Imperial Rome, mausoleums of European kings - all suffused with the pretentiousness of a provincial housewife trying to emulate the majestic sweep of a pharaoh.

What will families do at these memorials once they have seen the 60 stone elephants, the statues and domed, temple-like structures? The vast expanse of stone, unrelieved by greenery, water or grass, will repel visitors. The stone walkways are so hot that they are almost steaming. If India Gate has endured as a popular landmark, it's because families congregate in the evenings to enjoy the lawns, water bodies and trees. Mahatma Gandhi's samadhi at Rajghat is simplicity itself and, with its lawns, refreshing. But Mayawati, it appears, is only interested in exuding power. Delhi's graceful Lotus Temple would find no favour with her; her intention is not to draw people but to awe and intimidate.

Mayawati had a choice: erect something original or create a landmark cohering with Lucknow's rich architectural heritage. She failed on both fronts. Moreover, as the 'Dalit Queen' whose heart bleeds for UP's downtrodden, the conditions in which her memorials are being built are shameful. Admittedly, they are no worse than the conditions at construction sites across India where labourers build the mansions of the rich while living in squalor and filth.

But Mayawati claims to be different. The very least she could have done was to create a new model and show the rest of the country the decent way to treat construction workers. Why have her labourers been sleeping under tarpaulin sheets and makeshift tents with no clean drinking water, doctor or ambulance at hand, and relieving themselves in the open? Why did she not issue instructions for massive temporary awnings to protect workers from the sun as they slaved for her greater glory, along with a crèche, a canteen turning out three meals a day, tankers of cool drinking water and Portacabin toilets for privacy and dignity?

Instead, she has displayed the same contempt towards these workers as their earlier high caste oppressors, forgetting that both the devil and God lie in the details. Mayawati has built a memorial honouring Dalits and Dalit leaders through the degradation of Dalit workers. She is unlikely to grasp the irony, just as she failed to understand her own limitations and the poverty of her imagination when she started conceiving her imperial city.

- The writer is a freelance journalist.

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