Roman families kept busts of accomplished ancestors—senators, consuls—which they paraded during festivals. In our parts, statuary is poor. It is difficult to name another major nation whose public figures are humiliated in stone as they routinely are in India. It’s remarkable in a nation of idolators which should at least get this right. But I cannot think of a single temple deity that has moved me as has the work of Italian artist Bernini. It was different here earlier, but more of that later.
Writer Upamanyu Chatterjee, in his underrated novel English, August, describes the statue of a major national leader as having sagged and then propped up with a rod up its backside. I will not name the leader for fear that there will be some reaction against the novel. How much less gratuitous violence India saw when fewer Indians were aware of books.
My father owned a lovely, polished figurine of Tagore, about 8-inches high. It was of dark wood with ivory highlights and the sage’s robes were well-articulated, as were his beard and hair. I don’t know where one can get that sort of thing any longer, and I am interested because I collect.
One evening, the abolitionist Yug Mohit Chaudhry and I were at his flat discussing the death penalty. The conversation turned to what Plato had said on the subject and we went to his bookshelves to consult a copy of The Republic. By his volumes, Chaudhry had first-rate little busts of the ancient Greeks and I thought that was civilized. This was a few years ago. When I remembered the episode last month, I wrote to him to ask where he had got them.
From Greece, he wrote back. Then he did what a good man would do, and sent me one of them—that of Socrates. Chaudhry also sent me a pedestal, a fine example of a column in Ionic order. That is just as precious and I was glad to add it to my little collection.
The bust is ivory and faithfully represents Socrates as he describes himself in Plato’s great dramatic work, The Symposium. At that drinking party, where the dashing Athenian playboy politician and general Alcibiades is present, Socrates, who is pudgy and middle-aged, explains why he is actually the more handsome one. “My own eyes must be more beautiful, because they bulge out, and therefore I can see better. And by the same account my nose is more beautiful, because my stubby nostrils are upturned and flare out and so I can gather in more smells.”
I said that statuary in India used to be better. I was referring to the Ashokan epoch. There are few objects as beautiful in this land as our great Lion Capital of Ashoka. When Mint reported on 28 August that Ashok Vemuri had quit Infosys, it ran a photograph with the board member at his desk. Behind him on a shelf is a wooden figurine, the Lion Capital of Ashoka mounted on a pillar. It is not a good example and I have seen it before in my search for a representation that would do justice to our greatest king.
Of course, none exists in this strange nation and so I commissioned the sculptor Parag Tandel to make me one, 7-inches high, without the pillar. It cost a lot but he did a superb job. It is ivory with the lions roaring. When I am on television, I often place it behind me so it can be seen, and so perhaps interest others. The other four-headed prop I use is an old wooden figure of Brahma, apparently part of the Hindu trinity but not worshipped, which makes me partial towards him. The figure is from Phantomhands.in, the website co-run by my friend, the designer Aparna Rao. It is a gentle Brahma, clean-shaven and fine-robed, and I hope to find a second with beard. Another friend, the writer Achal Prabhala, gifted me a little golden bust of Lincoln. It is actually a bottle of cologne, but the definition of that strong and determined face is quite good.
One little figure that was lost when I moved from Bandra, Mumbai, to Bangalore was of Gandhi in bronze. It was a gift and was interesting because it was without the glasses. A younger Gandhi whose features, as Aldous Huxley was quick to spot in his work Jesting Pilate, were fox-like. Leaders are generally made to look heroic, and therefore their images tend to be boring.
There’s a photograph in Mushirul Hasan’s The Nehrus, which has the fit and trim Jawaharlal Nehru doing Shirshasana. What a fine statuette that would make. Jinnah, like Aurangzeb of austere body, elegant dress and avian features, would make a good idol too.
What I want for my collection is Darwin, Newton (perhaps a little copy of Scottish sculptor Paolozzi’s statue of him based on William Blake’s watercolour etching The Ancient of Days), Caesar, Valmiki, Homer and Ravan. Also, Alexander, with the special quiff in his hair, the labia-shaped anastole (as described by the historian Mary Beard), which made him distinct.
The rustic, simple-minded Jesus as described by writer Ernest Renan is an attractive figure, and though I don’t particularly care about the religious, this one would be interesting.
The radiologist Dr Hemant Morparia, India’s best cartoonist in my opinion, is a man of many interests, including knife-throwing and sculpting. He has made a series of busts of the US President Barack Obama, which are humorous and interesting, which he once shared with me. I wish I could make my own figures as well. Perhaps I should learn.
J. Krishnamurti once wrote of trying an experiment. He picked up a stone and made an offering to it of flowers every morning for a couple of weeks. He observed that when he stopped the ritual, he felt uncomfortable. I keep my figures for decorative reasons rather than for worship. I stare at them between paragraphs when writing.
The Spectator columnist Jeffrey Bernard also had a thing for figures. He wrote that he spent his day in his Great Portland Street flat, in London, “gazing at Nelson’s bust or the secretary’s across the street”.
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