Art Attack

If Kolkata is the ‘cultural capital of India’, why is its public art so ridiculous?

From a statue of Maradona to a football artwork, installations have become viral memes and attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.

Footballer Diego Maradona unveiled a statue in a North Kolkata club last week that shows him holding up the World Cup that Argentina won in 1986 – or at least it was meant to.

Rather than bearing a resemblance to the former Argentinian striker, the 12-foot-tall sculpture looked more like “someone’s gran” or Scottish singer Susan Boyle. Comparisons were made on social media with the “horrifying bust” of Cristiano Ronaldo, which the Portuguese player unveiled in Madeira in March, and memories were dredged up of the long line of public art installations in Kolkata that have been mocked. The episode beggared the question – if Kolkata is indeed the “cultural capital of India”, as is frequently claimed, why do the city’s public art installations cause such embarrassment and invite ridicule?

Not a new problem

To be fair, Kolkata’s public art installations being criticised is not a new phenomenon. The city’s most iconic installation, that of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose on horseback, faced severe criticism when it was inaugurated in 1969. The statue was the work of Nagesh Yoglekar and is remarkably similar to a colonial-era statue by John Henry Foley of General Sir James Outram. It stood at a prominent location until the state government’s drive to remove colonial symbols and artwork from public view sent it retreating into the grounds of the Victoria Memorial, where it still stands today.

The same drive caused Lord Curzon’s statue in front of the north gate of Victoria Memorial to be replaced by one of Sri Aurobindo. However, while Curzon’s statue was removed, the smaller statuettes surrounding the pedestal were not, leading to a clearly modern and somewhat anorexic-looking Sri Aurobindo being surrounded by chubby, cherubic neo-classical figures.

A statue of James Outram and a statue of Netaji Bose. Credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.
A statue of James Outram and a statue of Netaji Bose. Credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.

Two things have changed from then to now. First is the rise of social media, which amplifies all issues. Memes mocking new art installations now regularly go viral, leading to opinions pouring in from Bengalis who do not even reside in the state. Second is the frequency of such art installations, which has increased thanks to the state government’s beautification drive.

The first casualty was Shanu Lahiri’s landmark Paroma sculpture, which stood at the Bypass-Science City crossing. Installed in 1987, the “fibreglass figure resembled clay dolls of rural Bengal” and had pigeon coops near the base. In November of 2014, the artist’s daughter, Damayanti, suddenly noticed that the roundabout on which it stood was empty. Reports then emerged that the state government had planned to relocate the statue, but the workers hired for the job had demolished it “by mistake”. The move was widely criticised by prominent artists such as Jogen Chowdhury and Ganesh Haloi. Paroma’s place has now been taken by the Biswas Bangla, a rotating blue globe with the Bengali letter “baw” on it and a fountain around it. This is the icon of Biswa Bangla – the state’s brand to market local products to the world – that was designed by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself.

Make Kolkata London again

The earliest media reports about Banerjee wanting to turn Kolkata into London, surfaced soon after the assembly elections of 2011. The Hindu quoted her as saying, “In spite of a much smaller population than ours, Londoners could build such a beautiful city through proper planning. Even we can do so if specific plans are in place.” Budgets were a problem, she agreed, but was certain that support from private players would pour in “once the government takes a positive step towards beautifying the city”. The concern now is that her ministers and councillors may have taken this somewhat literally, by trying to recreate the London skyline in Kolkata.

The most visible symbol of this is the Lake Town Clock Tower. In October 2015, photographs of a replica of London’s Westminster Clock Tower (Big Ben is the name of the bell inside it), went viral on social media. With Durga Puja coming up, most people assumed it was another marquee for the Sreebhumi Puja Committee next door – a remarkable copy, but a temporary one. But when media reports confirmed that it was indeed a permanent structure and had cost Rs 1.36 crore to make, many questioned the rationale behind spending such a large sum of public money on such projects.

Lake Town Clock Tower. Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Lake Town Clock Tower. Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.

Local residents even began a door-to-door signature campaign to seek a public referendum on the tower, but the project was pushed through by MLA Sujit Bose and South Dum Dum Municipality chairman-in-council Mriganka Bhattacharya. “But why build a replica of something that reminds us of colonial times,” asked art curator Oindrilla Maity Surai.

Still, Rs 1.36 crore may just seem like a drop in the ocean, when compared to the replica of the London Eye that has been planned for Millenium Park on Kolkata’s riverfront. The 120-metre diameter Ferris wheel, set to open next year, will cost Rs 300 crore, out of which the state government’s share is Rs 86 crore. Another example of aping is the faux-Roman fountain at the crossing of Burdwan Road. The fibreglass fountain with multi-coloured lights began malfunctioning soon after it was installed. Today, it is covered in moss and leaks onto the road surface. Police barricades prevent the public from getting too close.

Burdwan Road Fountain. Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.
Burdwan Road Fountain. Photo credit: Deepanjan Ghosh.

The latest installation to send the Facebook meme machine into overdrive is the football installation in front of the Salt Lake Stadium. The statue features the lower half of a muscular male torso, in soccer gear, with a Biswa Bangla globe on top and a football on each foot. A plaque at the base says “Concept and design by Mamata Banerjee”. The installation has been labelled “hideous”, although Kolkatans seem happy with the way the stadium and surrounding streets have been spruced up. But why is it that a city which Bengalis love to call the “cultural capital of India” keeps turning into the butt of jokes because of its art installations?

Art is never a priority

The reasons, says art curator Oindrilla Maity Surai, are not difficult to understand once one looks at our education system – “We are distanced from art and it is never a real priority in our lives. It is not given much importance in our schools either.” She points to organisations like New York’s Public Arts Fund, which works with well-known artists to create public art installations. Governments, she says, are not best suited when it comes to this task, because they tend not to give the responsibility to talented artists, but rather to lay people. A good example of public art gone wrong is in South Korea, where the law requires owners of large buildings to set aside one per cent of construction costs for art. But this “art for law’s sake” approach has led to grotesque artwork mushrooming all over the country.

Closer home, cement sculptures installed by the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, have invited scathing criticism from artists. “The trouble begins when one person starts to believe that he or she is good at everything”, said art critic Rita Datta. “From what I understand, the Chief Minister [Mamata Banerjee] is close to well-known artists such as Subhaprasanna and Jogen Chowdhury. What she should do is set up a committee with people like this and civil engineers, who will evaluate a site and then select the artists who will create installations that are fitting.” The Trinamool Congress government has done well with projects such as the Kolkata Riverfront, which attracts large crowds every evening, but its art installations continue to attract attention for the wrong reasons. “Wait a while near the blue neon-lit bridge and hear the chime from the Big Ben replica,” writes Shamik Bag. “In London, the tolling of the bell is informally referred to as the Bongs. Ah, well.”

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