A week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the tallest sculpture in the world, an overcrowded boat struck a rock and capsized near the proposed Shivaji memorial in Bombay, claiming one life. The contrasting stories capture the divergence between two projects that sprang from a similar impulse: the urge to build colossal monuments to dead heroes as political statements.

The plan for the 182-metre likeness of Patel, known as the Statue of Unity, was proposed in late 2010. Bids for construction were invited in October 2013. That same month, Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, laid the foundation stone at a site near the giant Sardar Sarovar dam, also named for India’s first deputy prime minister. Precisely five years later, the memorial is ready, having stuck closely to the timeline and budget initially envisaged.

The Shivaji memorial, on the other hand, has been a disaster from day one. The chosen location, off Marine Drive, was inappropriate for a number of reasons. First, the culminating stretch of an ambitious infrastructure project, the Western Sea Link, was supposed to curve around the same bay to Nariman Point, the city’s financial centre, when the Sea Link was proposed. Once the Maharashtra government called dibs on an offshore location for the Shivaji memorial, the Sea Link plan was shelved, leaving behind one completed stub that does little to decongest the city’s arterial roads.

Second, building an artificial island in the sea is prohibitively expensive. The state initially proposed a laughably small budget of Rs 260 crore, which has grown tenfold over the years. It hasn’t helped that ministers keep changing the size they want the statue to be. The initial idea was to make it slightly larger than the Statue of Liberty, but with each iteration the plan grew more ambitious. Earlier this year, in a humiliating climbdown, the government reduced the statue’s height from 160 metres to 126 metres. To save face, it augmented the size of the pedestal, so the monument as a whole would now be slightly higher. But bases and pedestals mean very little, or else the 5.5-meter statue of Horatio Nelson atop a column in London’s Trafalgar Square would count among the world’s tallest.

The Shivaji memorial was mooted in 2004 by a Congress-National Congress Party government, and cleared by then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh in 2008. A full eight years later, in December 2016, Modi finally performed the bhoomipoojan at the site. For some reason, another bhoomipoojan was undertaken last week, to get to which invitees crowded into boats, leading to disaster.

Costs versus benefits

Though the Statue of Unity has been constructed with unusual efficiency and tremendous technical finesse (presuming it remains stable in the coming years, and bronze plates don’t start falling off), there are many voices decrying its Rs 3,000 crore cost. A BBC report from the area quotes local farmers opposed to the monument. These disaffected individuals have received few benefits from the Sardar Sarovar dam, and feel the money budgeted for the statue could have been better utilised in easing their lives. Unsurprisingly, environmentalists have also criticised the project.

Any undertaking in a democratic society that is not strictly utilitarian is bound to face similar objections. For example, throughout the 1960s, the majority, or near majority, of Americans felt the achievements of NASA’s space programme did not justify its costs. Damien Chazelle’s admirable Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man, brings in this opinion through a performance of Gil Scott-Heron’s protest poem, Whitey On the Moon:

I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)

Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)

The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(‘cause Whitey’s on the moon)

No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)…

Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)

How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hm! Whitey’s on the moon)

One can point to technologies like Landsat, the World Wide Web, and mobile telephony being enabled by space exploration, but conflicting views about monumental, symbolic projects can never be definitively reconciled, since both sides present valid arguments. Speaking for myself, I am happy Whitey was on the moon, and also believe the benefits of the Statue of Unity will outweigh its costs. India has far too many farmers working far too little land. Their standard of living cannot be meaningfully improved without a significant increase in productivity predicated on a significant drop in the number of farmers. Any project that brings alternative sources of employment to the rural population ought to be welcomed, provided it does not massively disrupt the environment or uproot huge numbers of people. The Statue of Unity, in combination with the lake formed by the Sardar Sarovar dam, promises to be a major draw for Indian tourists, and will offer local farmers many job opportunities.

'The current design for the Shivaji statue is a horrifically ugly conception, making the horse appear to have run aground on a rocky outcrop.'

The statue and the man

Of course, Modi wasn’t thinking primarily of the project’s benefits when he conceived it. He saw it as the final stamp on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s appropriation of Patel from the Congress camp. The process had been inaugurated in 1990 by Lal Krishna Advani, who kicked off his infamous rath yatra from the Somnath temple, a shrine plundered by Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century and restored on Patel’s initiative over the objections of Jawaharlal Nehru. Patel, for all his excellences and achievements, makes an unlikely subject for a 600-foot statue. He was a practical man rather than a visionary, and lacked the charisma of other great nationalist leaders. Vivekananda, Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Subhas Bose, Nehru all possessed identifying habits, mannerisms and costumes, features that assist portrait makers as also mimics such as Modi. The prime minister can strike a pose with a charkha, or wear an Azad Hind Fauj cap as a shortcut to appropriating legacies.

Representations of Patel over the decades have not evolved an individual iconography of the man. To explain what this means, consider the emblematic sculpture of BR Ambedkar, which has him wearing specific attire (a suit), carrying an object deeply associated with his life (a copy of the Indian Constitution), and making a symbolic gesture (pointing to a progressive future). The Statue of Unity presented an opportunity to create a set of symbols for the Iron Man of India. It could have involved a representation of the over 500 princely states he integrated into the Indian Union. Instead, Ram Sutar, who has crafted more monumental sculptures of Indian political leaders than any living artist, and who is now nearly 100 years old, went with a simple, safe figure. He has done a fine job of replicating Patel’s features, as has the Chinese foundry where the bronze cladding was fabricated, but the statue seems listless, at least in photographs. “Don’t just stand there, do something,” I feel like saying to it. Still, the sheer size will suffice to draw the peanut-crunching crowd.

The matter of the horse

The Shivaji statue, meanwhile, faces grave problems, although its subject has a settled iconography which ought to make things easy. Shivaji has no separate battle gear and ceremonial robes; he even wears the same costume as a young child. The king is most commonly shown seated on a horse, and it was the demand for an equestrian sculpture that created immediate problems for the memorial. There’s a good reason why none of the world’s tallest statues features a man riding a horse: it involves the ratio of surface area to volume. Volume, and therefore mass, grows at a faster rate than surface area, and so, if you take a life-sized equestrian sculpture and make it bigger, the load per square centimetre on its base will progressively increase. Beyond a certain size, the spindly legs of a horse can no longer carry the weight of its body. This would be true of actual horses, and is also the case with horse statues. Though sculptures, unlike live animals, can be hollowed out, this only postpones the breaking point rather than eliminating it.

The current design for the Shivaji statue attempts to stabilise the structure by placing a globe and an abstract formation under the belly of Shivaji’s steed. It’s a horrifically ugly conception, making the horse appear to have run aground on a rocky outcrop.

I wish the location and form of the memorial had been better thought out at the start. Shivaji is hardly associated with Bombay, which was a European stronghold through his life, and a poor target for raids. There exist, in rural Maharashtra, a number of spots linked intimately with the king which would be much better served by a new tourist attraction. A gargantuan statue of the monarch seated on his throne built in a place like that could have brought jobs to where there’s a desperate need for them. Instead, we have a folly in the middle of a bay in an overpopulated metropolis, a vanity project that displaced a vital road link, but is struggling to get off the ground a decade after being cleared.