The power of Mayawati’s park: Colossal, but not a waste

Mayawati is writing history, not in an NCERT textbook but in a park, accessible to everyone, everyday.

hidden October 15, 2011 14:09:47 IST
The power of Mayawati’s park: Colossal, but not a waste

 By Shiv Visvanathan

The political pundits have dismissed Mayawati’s  Rs 684 crore Noida park as a colossal waste. It is colossal but it is not wasted. Her idea of monumentality demands excess and exaggeration. Power has to symbolise conspicuous waste.  Narendra Modi does it one way, the Congress does it another way. All Mayawati is effectively saying is I can do it bigger and better.

Mayawati’s search for monumentality is interesting. The Indian democratic state hardly builds monuments except as PWD structures. Our great monuments are either Mughal or colonial, as witnessed by the Taj, Red Fort or Lutyens’ Delhi. Our idea of memory does not extend to monuments.

The power of Mayawatis park Colossal but not a waste

She is sensible enough to realise her following is mostly illiterate. Naresh Sharma

The great Gates of Bombay and Delhi are odes to war and empire. Our tragedies like Bhopal or the even the partition have no monuments. Memory is still scratched in the hearts of the survivors. The statues that the Congress, CPM or BJP build are forgettable affairs. Sculpture was never the style of these parties. But Mayawati is different.

She is shrewd enough to realise that there will be no archives for her, no equivalent of the Nehru Museum. She has created no future dynasty but she has a sense that she belongs to a genealogy of power. Her sense of political ancestry is more important than her sense of dynasty. She realises that both the Dalits and she need to create an alternative idea of history monumentalised into public space in a way that cannot be easily erased.

She is sensible enough to realise her following is mostly illiterate. But she has a sense of popular culture of what I call Dalit Bollywood in politics. She realises that it was filmland which bought egotism to politics. It was MGR and NTR who through the film hoardings or their samadhis created a sense of power.

Mayawati knows hoardings are temporary and that electoral defeat may eliminate the possibility of such memory. She knows her monument cannot be a ghat or a samadhi to be evoked or visited only on ritual calendar-marked occasions.  She realises it must be a public reminder which is publicly accessible. Her tribute to her Dalit self must have both monumentality and everydayness.

The answer logically becomes a park, a sound and light vision in concrete, where instead of trees and lakes, we have a gallery of icons - the Dalit Valhalla. A crowd moving through the park recites the names and the very roll call of names becomes a roll call of history.

Try it yourself. Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram, Mayawati, Phule and suddenly a new trajectory of history is born. Just the summoning of the names creates the rhetoric of a new ideology with Dalit on its letterhead. The symbolic power of this public space, presented as a public good (a park) is enormously effective.

Of course it is a tribute to the egotism of power. But so is the Colossus of Rhodes or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Taj Mahal. Why should Mayawati be different?

History as expressed in power is excessive, but at least it is insurance against forgetting. A few years down the line some journal of popular culture will provide an ethnography of Dalit monumentality. Mayawati understands the necessity for a Dalit mnemonic because NCERT books and Nehru archives will give her icons little place in a history of the nation. Our middle class has its own biases and one of them is its silences about marginality.

True, it is not the most beautiful of monuments. It is not quite Taj and nor is it the Parthenon. It is a park. But it costs less than a dam, about half the cost of the Kudankulam reactor. It has not displaced people or destroyed livelihoods. It has destroyed a few thousand trees but its history in concrete shows the Dalits that where there is a Dalit will, there can be a Dalit way.

But it also comes as an important lesson. It shows, as one studies reactions to its monstrousness, that the elite, whatever the party, moves between snobbery and political correctness. Critics claim the money could have been given to the poor. Others would claim it is not a public good but a private act of waste presented as a part of the public will.

Actually these monuments tell you the Dalits are right when they call the Congress hypocritical. It names everything after the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty. You can travel from Connaught Place to the University in Delhi following roads named after the Nehru family. How many Dalits can you invoke when you travel through the redundancy of Nehruvian names as you move from one end of Delhi to another?

But there is a deeper truth. It is that power corrupts and distorts both Dalit, OBC and Brahmin. The park is a reminder of that lesson. It is not just a lesson in history, as Mayawati thinks. It is a lesson about history and politics. Power corrupts and electoral power corrupts through monumentality. It does not make a difference whether you are Indira, Mayawati or Modi.

Maybe some Dalit poet should render a version of Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias. It is about the evanescence of power and the erosion of all monumentality.

"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, 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away". 

Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Science nomad.

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