Calcutta's Marxists put British back on their pedestals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2006, 12:00am


A bust of George V was erected with great fanfare in the heart of Calcutta in 1939. It survived India's independence in 1947. But in 1967, within months of a communist-led coalition capturing power in West Bengal, the royal bust was unceremoniously taken down along with statues of many other prominent British colonial figures and dumped in a store.

The communists still rule the eastern state. But last week the Marxist administration suddenly turned its policy towards the statues of the Raj on its head.

Now sculptures of British royalty, viceroys, governor-generals and marquises languishing in oblivion will be put on public display once again.

Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, the mayor of Calcutta, has announced that as many as 24 British-era statues - some of them first erected in 1803 - will be re-erected.

According to Mr Bhattacharya, a few of them will return to their original pedestals, while others will be put up in an open-air gallery near the stunning Victoria Memorial.

Not surprisingly, the change of heart has unleashed a debate in India's reddest city - once the second city of the British empire after London. Calcutta was the capital of British India until 1912 when Delhi became the capital.

Most people suspect that the provincial communist government, particularly the Calcutta municipal corporation, is trying to project a liberal, west-friendly image to attract investors and pull in tourists whose numbers are dwindling.

'Calcutta and its surrounding areas need plenty of overseas funds to tide over its present messy existence,' said noted commentator Rajat Roy.

'The Marxist dispensation somehow thinks that it stands a better chance of pulling in foreign investors by watering down its rabid opposition to all things western. I think that's the principle reason why British-era statues are staging a comeback.'

Since independence, Calcutta has rapidly deteriorated from a thriving metropolis to a decaying city of 10 million. Communist-backed militant trade unions have driven out industry since the late 1960s. But of late, Marxists have admitted committing mistakes and are wooing investors. Some communist leaders admit that there is no hope for Calcutta unless it becomes a hub of information technology like Bangalore in the south.

Above all, they say, a lot has to be done to live down Calcutta's image of the world's 'armpit' reinforced by Mother Teresa's high-profile presence in the city and the periodic visits of other western 'bleeding hearts'. One obvious way out is to cash in on the city's heritage.

But neither the mayor nor West Bengal chief minister Shri Buddhadev Bhattacharya are willing to admit on record that the reintroduction of British statues will make the city more market-friendly.

'The statues are going to see the light of day once again not to relive or glorify the colonial past but to enable people to appreciate them aesthetically,' said the mayor.

'All of them were created by great sculptors in England, Scotland and Australia and shipped to India. We do not want to deprive arts connoisseurs of the pleasure of admiring these masterpieces.'

Besides the celebrated Henry Foli, among the creators were Sir John Steel, Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, William Macmillan and Sir Thomas Brook.

The first statue installed in Calcutta was of General Marquis Cornwallis in 1803. Alapan Bandyopadhyay, Calcutta municipal commissioner, said at least 37 statues of British personalities had been taken down.

All of them were dumped in Latbagan, the Viceroy's weekend retreat in Barrackpore, 40km from the city.

Some of the empty plinths gained statues of Indian nationalists who fought the British.

The communists not only pulled down statues - apparently to remove vestiges of colonial rule - but also changed street names. At the height of the Vietnam war, Harrington Street, which housed the American and British consulates, was rechristened Ho Chi Minh street with great fanfare.

The return of the statues is all the more intriguing because a few years ago Calcutta was renamed Kolkata by the state government. Although communists were accused of taking liberties with history, they insisted that as Calcutta was an 'alien misrepresentation' of Kolkata - one of the three villages bought by the East India company in 1690 where Calcutta grew - they had merely rectified a mistake.

Analysts say Calcutta's renaming was a political stunt by the government to deflect attention from its dismal failure on several fronts, particularly public health, education and transport, despite its record-breaking stint in power.

'And now, with their back to the wall, communists are pulling out all stops to pull in investors. They have somehow calculated that giving a new lease of life to imperial statues will boost the city's image internationally,' said analyst Manojit Mitra.

'Communists are looking for short cuts to turn Calcutta into a Hong Kong or Singapore. But it is doubtful whether such superficial cosmetic changes will help at all.'