Destroying statues

NOBODY IS PERFECT, and that includes all of those ‘great’ men and women whose lives are remembered with statues. Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without questioning (or even after questioning) nor that statues should be destroyed.  Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.

STAT BLOG

Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without or with questioning nor that statues should be destroyed. Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.

Consider Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). He was not a person that I would have enjoyed meeting, even for a brief drink in a pub. From what I know of him, he was power hungry and greedy and would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.

Undoubtedly, money derived from his endeavours has been spent on good works including the famous Rhodes Scholarships, which began funding bright young scholars from 1902 onwards. Many academic and other fine accomplishments have been achieved by the recipients of these awards. However, some of them are now criticising the way that Rhodes exploited/plundered Africa to produce his wealth. Given that these scholarships, funded by what some might describe as ‘dirty money’, are awarded to people with above-average intellectual abilities who could easily have examined Rhodes’ history, I find it strange that the recipients did not question the morality of the origins of what was being offered to them before receiving and spending it. Some recipients justify accepting the scholarships by saying it is a way that Rhodes’ debt to Africa can be partially repaid. Maybe, but would you feel comfortable if, say, the infamous Kray Twins or Al Capone offered to use some of their ill-gotten gains to fund your education? Would you justify accepting their money by saying that although they killed people and committed crimes like theft, it was good that they were using someone else’s wealth to repay their debt to society? Few people would justify erecting statues to either the Kray Twins or Al Capone.

Unlike Capone and the Krays, Rhodes was not breaking any British law when he was plundering Africa to glorify the British Empire and line his own pockets. From the viewpoint of the great majority of ‘white’ British people, his contemporaries, Rhodes was doing a good job during his lifetime for the Empire and his native land, Great Britain. Statues were erected in his memory by those who had benefitted from his life’s work. Those people were mostly, if not all, ‘white’ people. The monuments were put up during an era when racial prejudice went unquestioned and people ‘of colour’ lacked any public influence.

Times have changed. The racial situation, the rights of ‘people of colour’, is also changing, albeit too slowly. Recent and not so recent events across the Atlantic in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” have justifiably heightened popular consciousness and questioning of the worthiness of those, like Rhodes, whose statues adorn our lands.

So as Vladimir Ilych Lenin, discredited by some, and many of whose statues have been toppled, asked in 1902:
“What is to be done?”
What is to be done with the statues of celebrated people with flaws in their personalities? One could pull them down as has been the case with many statues of Stalin, Enver Hoxha, Saddam Hussein, and more recently a slave owner in Bristol. Apart from temporarily assuaging the temper of an assembly of aggrieved folk, the toppling or destruction of a statue might have few or no lasting beneficial effects.

It would be far better to remove the statues from positions of great public prominence to more discreet locations (maybe to museums) and to label their plinths with inscriptions that summarise the subjects’ both good and bad actions. Also, it would be a good idea to educate children and other students to understand that just as there are two competing teams in a football match, there are two sides to a person’s personality: a good one and a bad one. It is the balance of these that needs to be judged. In the case of Rhodes, the bad wins, but in the case of, say Edward Jenner (of smallpox vaccination fame), whose statue can be found in Hyde Park, his good features easily predominate.

Finally, destruction of statues and monuments worries me because they are part of remembering. If we know that a monument commemorates something that should not be repeated, such as slavery, let it remain, suitably labelled, so that we do not run the risk of unpleasant aspects of history repeating themselves. For as the philosopher George Santana (1863-1952) wrote in 1906:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Black and white

HAVING PARENTS WHO WERE BROUGHT UP IN RACIALLY conscious South Africa, I feel easier calling the two parts of old Pondicherry by their French names, ‘Ville noire’ and ‘Ville blanche’, rather than their English names, ‘Black Town’ and ‘White Town’. The English names are redolent of the sad days of racial segregation in apartheid South Africa.

While Pondicherry was a French colony, most Europeans lived in White Town, and people of local Indian origin lived in Black Town. This kind of racial separation was not unique to the French in India. The British were also keen to keep races separate. Bangalore, for example, was divided into the Cantonment (European area) and the City (local Indian area).

A rather malodorous partially covered canal or drain separates White Town from Black Town (now called ‘Heritage Town’). White Town lies between Black Town and the shore of the Bay of Bengal.

Today, more than 60 years after the French ceased to Govern Pondicherry, the White Town continues to retain its appearance as a French colonial town. Many of the buildings were built by the French and are distinctly European in architectural style. The streets are neatly laid out, tree lined, and wide. There is none of the hustle and bustle associated with most Indian towns and villages. This might be because there is little commercial activity apart from tourist related facilities (accommodation and eateries). You can enjoy a good but costly meal in White Town, but buying a newspaper or fruit and vegetables is hardly, if at all, possible.

Since our last visit to Pondicherry five years ago (just before the great storm that flooded Chennai in late 2015), the city’s authorities have placed plaques along the streets of White Town. Written both in Tamil and English (not French!), they provide short informative histories of the streets’ names.

Cross the covered drain into what used to be called ‘Black Town’, and familiar Indian urban life is flourishing. The streets are crowded; there are shops aplenty; the area is full of traffic: two, three ,four (and more) wheeled vehicles; and there are Hindu temples (as well as churches). Apart from tiny roadside Hindu shrines, the only places of worship in White Town are churches.

In contrast to White Town, the architecture in the old Black Town is not so fine. There are a few traditional Tamil style buildings, but much of the architecture is relatively new and generally lacking in visual appeal.

Apart from being a very pleasant place to visit, Pondicherry and its well preserved historical layout offer an interesting reminder of colonial life and its less savoury racist aspects. That said, the place and its beautiful seaside promenade is a joy for all visitors whether or not they have any interest in history.

CLUBS AND GOLF CLUBS

WHEN THE BRITISH RULED INDIA, they established clubs in India that were based on the sort of clubs frequented by upper class gentlemen in London (e.g. the Reform Club, the Athenaeum, and military sporting clubs). Like their counterparts back in the UK, the clubs in British India were subject to rules and strict dress codes. And, apart from servants, Indians were not admitted. There were a few exceptions. The Bangalore Club allowed some high ranking Indian military men as members, and also the Maharaja of Mysore.

Even after India became independent in August 1947, some of the British colonial clubs in India denied membership to Indians, a few of them until the late 1960s or after.

The Tollygunge Club in south Calcutta, founded in 1895, was one of the institutions that ddidnot admit Indian members until long after 1947. When my late father in law, an Indian and distinguished professional, was offered membership of this club in the 1960s because they needed to replace the dwindling number of ‘white’ members with Indians in order to remain solvent, he turned it down because he felt it wrong that he should join a club that had refused membership to him long after his country became independent.

It may seem surprising that the Indian authorities tolerated the continuation of this racial exclusivity long after independence. It was not only these clubs that denied access to Indians even after 1947, but also some hospitals and schools. This illustrates a certain tolerance amongst Indians to their foreign invaders. Remember, the Taj Mahal and the Victoria Memorial remain unscathed long after their foreign builders left the country.

The Tollygunge Club has its own golf course, a magnificent stretch of parkland where there is much wildlife including jackals, who watch the golfers seemingly unconcerned by them.

While staying at the Club, we noticed large boards on which the names of high achieving golfers are listed. For example, there is a board listing the Club members who have achieved a ‘hole in one’.

What particularly caught our attention was a board listing winners of The Public School Competition. A public school in the UK is actually a private, somewhat elitist, school. The winners of the Public School Competition on the list are not names of individual players but names of British public schools listed alongside the dates of their achievement for example: Rugby, Fettes, Felsted, Winchester, Eton, Marlborough, and many others. The competition continued until the late 1960s, by which time most of the European members of the Club had returned to the UK or elsewhere.

It would seem, although nobody has confirmed this to me, that during the Public School Competition teams of players who had all attended the same public school would compete against teams of other players each containing men who had attended this or that public school. It was a competition between school alumni teams and the winning school was listed on the board of honour.

The colonial clubs continue to thrive in India, the vast majority of their members being Indian. These pleasant establishments, often housed in colonial era buildings and set in lovely grounds are still elitist and retain some of the rules and traditions that were formulated by their British founders.

Like the gated residential communities that are springing up all over India, the formerly colonial clubs are havens where the better-off can relax, separated from the ‘madding crowds’.

From Norway to Bengal

Doll hse

 

We were attracted to the latest theatrical production at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith (West London) because it was a play set in Calcuttta (Kolkata) in the late 1870s. It was not any old play set in Victorian Bengal, but a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s the Dolls House (first performed 1879), which was originally set in a Norwegian town in the 19th century.

What we saw at the Lyric was a new version of Ibsen’s play created by the playwright Tanika Gupta. In Ibsen’s play the main protagonists are Nora Helmer, her husband Torwald Helmer, Dr Rank, Nora’s school friend Kristine Linde, and one of  the employees in Torwald’s bank, a desperate widowed father, Nils Krogstad. In Gupta’s play Torwald becomes Tom Helmer, an Englishman, who has married Niru,  a Bengali beauty, and has become a senior official in the British administration of India. Dr Rank remains Dr Rank, but is also an Englishman. Kristine becomes Krishna Lahiri, an impoverished widow and schoolfriend of Niru. Nils Krogstad is transformed into Mr Kaushik Das, a widowed Bengali father of four children and a lowly employee in Tom’s office.

In its new guise, Gupta’s Dolls House sticks to the spirit and main ideas in Ibsen’s plot but causes it to be played out in the steamy tropical climate of Calcutta. Gupta explores the relationship between the representative of British imperialism and his very sweet Indian wife. The arrival of Krishna and then Mr Das on the scene soon unsettles the happy home life that the Helmers had been enjoying. Without giving the story away, Mr Das, whom Tom does not like, holds a secret that could bring about Tom’s downfall if revealed. Tom is blisfully ignorant of the threat that Das poses, but the opposite is the case for Niru, whose great anxiety Das stimulates.

Although I had some reservations about the new version of the play, I enjoyed it and the often excellent performances of the actors. What fascinated me was how successfully Ibsen’s play had been ‘relocated’ from the gloom of Norway to the colourfulness of Bengal without losing the feeling that it was a play inspired by Ibsen. By translating the play from one cultural milieu to another, Gupta has preserved and enhanced Ibsen’s messages about the role of women and social class. She has added another fascinating ingredient: the portrayal of British racism towards Indians in pre-independence India. I feel that many of the Anglo-Saxon members of the audience might have been blissfully unaware of their ancestors’ unpalatable attitude to Indians they ruled. They would have left the theatre better informed about this blot on Britain’s history.

 

The play is on at the Lyric until 5th October 2019.

See: https://lyric.co.uk/shows/a-dolls-house/

 

Image adapted from lovetheatre.com

Memory of a great man

AMB 4

 

Almost wherever you go in India, you are bound to see the statue of a man wearing spectacles with round lens frames and a suit. He is always carrying a large book under his left arm. These statues depict Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who was born in Mhow (now Dr Ambedkar Nagar in Madhya Pradesh) in 1891, son of an Indian army officer. He died in New Delhi in 1956. This remarkable man was a jurist, economist, politician and social reformer. He was a founding father of the Republic of India and helped formulate the Indian Constitution. He is best known for his work on promoting the rights of the ‘dalits’ (‘untouchables’) and reducing discrimination against them.

Ambedkar was awarded a doctorate by Columbia University (USA) in 1927, and another by the London School of Economics (‘LSE’) in 1922. He was called to the London Bar in 1922 as a member of Gray’s Inn. Later, he was awarded further degrees by Columbia University and Osmania University (in Hyderabad, India).

Between 1920 and 1922 while he was studying at the LSE and for the Bar, Ambedkar lived in a house at 10 King Henrys Road near Chalk Farm in north-west London. In 2015, the house was bought by the Government of Maharashtra and was then converted into a memorial to Ambedkar. It is open to the public. Visitors can learn about Ambedkar from the well-captioned photographs on the wall of the rooms that they can wander through. The upper floor contains a re-construction of Ambedkar’s bedroom including a four-poster bed, some of the great man’s books, and an old pair of spectacles, which might have belonged to him. Other rooms contain shelves of books and various memorials to Ambedkar. There is also a commemorative plaque to India’s present Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who inaugurated the memorial house in November 2015. The garden contains a typical statue of the type I have described above.

Sadly, this monument to such a great man is under threat. Some local residents have been complaining that it is annoying to have a museum amidst their overpriced bourgeois residences (see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-49411985 ). Camden Council, in whose borough the Ambedkar house is located, are to decide on its fate at a hearing to be held in September 2019. I hope that the (racist???) objecting residents of King Henry’s Road will not be permitted to help to erase the memory of a truly great man’s stay in London.

 

FOR A FEW PHOTOS OF THE AMBEDKAR MEMORIAL HOUSE, CLICK HERE:

http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/album/1244852