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Business News/ Opinion / Busts, figurines and the stories behind them

Busts, figurines and the stories behind them

Good statuary should be in the Greek style, that is, nude. The bodies of some our leaders may not be suited to this

Subhas Chandra Bose, Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda and Mother Teresa. Photographs by Hemant Mishra/MintPremium
Subhas Chandra Bose, Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda and Mother Teresa. Photographs by Hemant Mishra/Mint

This is my collection of busts and figurines. The group in the photograph below is of Greeks and Romans. The coloured ones (above), from Kolkata, are, of course, Indians: Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, Mother Teresa. Why are they so poorly made? It is embarrassing. Isn’t an idol- worshipping society at least supposed to know good statuary? This requires an essay of its own. Meanwhile, I will keep looking for better examples, particularly of Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Muhammad Iqbal, Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Vallabhbhai Patel and Narendra Modi.

Let’s look at the ones I have, starting with the Greeks.

Pythagoras, Diogenes the Cynic, example of column in Ionic order, Socrates, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Sophocles, Hippocrates, Alexander, Homer, Plato, Aristotle.
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Pythagoras, Diogenes the Cynic, example of column in Ionic order, Socrates, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Sophocles, Hippocrates, Alexander, Homer, Plato, Aristotle.

The blindness of Homer is depicted well here, and he looks vacant-eyed. Homer was, we now know, not one man but many. Milman Parry observed the Yugoslav oral poets narrating their stories in verse and the way they threw in stock phrases to hold the line’s meter. He realized the recurring phrases of the Iliad (“Hector, breaker of horses" and “rose-fingered dawn") have the same purpose.

Socrates is also depicted well here in this bust. The philosopher says, in Plato’s masterpiece Symposium, of his ugliness that he was actually quite beautiful. His bug eyes meant good sight and his flaring nostrils guided all smells efficiently into his nose.

Socrates wrote nothing himself and what has come down to us of him is by two men: first, Xenophon the mercenary and second, Socrates’ greatest disciple. The man of whom philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that “all Western philosophy was a series of footnotes to Plato". The Athenian’s name was actually Platon, meaning wide. Probably because he was a wrestler. In my bust he wears a hairband, which I think is a wrestler’s touch. It shows Plato as an old man. The pessimist who wrote The Laws, and not the romantic young man of Apology or the self-assured middle-aged genius of The Republic.

His pupil Aristotle is here gaunt, stern (as expected by those who have read him), unemotional.

Sophocles is one of the three great tragedians, coming after Aeschylus and before the prodigy Euripides. Aristotle writes in The Poetics that at first theatre had only one actor playing all parts (the greatest of whom was Thespis, from whom “thespian"). Aeschylus expanded the cast. Of Sophocles, Aristotle writes that his Oedipus is the highest achievement in tragedy. True. When his rival, the much younger and more talented Euripides, died, Sophocles appeared during the annual Dionysia wearing funereal black. I wish I had busts of Euripides and of Aeschylus. Most of all, I miss one of Aristophanes the comic, my favourite playwright.

Alexander the Great had a recognizable hairstyle which his court sculptor Lysippos apparently reproduced accurately. The quiff in front has a name: anastole, a word that means an open wound. A historian recently wrote that it reminded her of pudenda. It was a famous hairstyle, and after winning a few battles, the fatty Pompey emulated it, also calling himself great, “magnus", like the Macedonian. He was hardly great, as Caesar showed at Pharsalus.

The figurine of the old man with the dog is of Diogenes the Cynic. He is the most amusing of the ancient philosophers. When Alexander grants him a wish, the old man, who is sunning himself, tells the emperor he would like him to move because he’s blocking the sun.

Hippocrates, the physician, is an old man with a balding head. I think this is how he is imagined, wise and full of experience, rather than how he actually was.

All Greek statues were originally painted, and their bright colours have gone in time. I like them better uncoloured.

Someone once wrote that heroic statuary should always be in a Roman toga. What they meant was that, for example, Winston Churchill in his bowler, bow tie or top hat would look out of date in 2016. Had he been sculpted in a toga, he would look timeless. For this effect, I recommend statuary not in the Roman toga style but the Greek nude. Nude figures from thousands of years ago, like the Poseidon at Piraeus, or Michelangelo’s David, look effortlessly modern today. The bodies of some of our leaders may not be suited to this, I concede. Cicero said of Julius Caesar’s prose that it was beautiful and unadorned, like Greek statuary.

Caesar was conscious of his balding, according to Suetonius. He had what we call a comb-over, which is visible in this bust. Caesar was given his dictatorial powers democratically, and was not only Rome’s finest general and one of its finest writers but also its most talented politician. It is because of him that the word “caesar" lasted 2,000 years as a popular title in many European societies (kaiser, tsar, etc).

He is here wearing a toga, and is young, probably the time when he was tribune.

His successor (after much bloodshed) Augustus is also shown as a young man, and he was vain. He was the first emperor (“imperator") and before him Caesar was only a dictator. Augustus is wearing armour, a highly ornate breast piece, like the shield of Achilles, but he personally didn’t do much fighting. The German hero Hermann, or Arminius, destroyed the legions of Varus, forcing Augustus to forever stop Roman expansion northward.

I should have a bust of Augustus’ hitman Agrippa. Missing also: Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, the bearded Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian. Hannibal, of course, destroyer of Roman legions as no other, and, speaking of the enemies of Rome, Mithridates.

Of the writers, Sallust, Livy, Polybius, Suetonius and Plutarch. Herodotus, Xenophon and, of course, Thucydides. But I get greedy.

There is Pseudo-Seneca, a bust of someone meant to be Seneca, of whom I should like a copy. I have recently ordered from Germany a first-rate Cicero, whose chubby balding figure is probably very accurate (available at, which does not deliver in India).

The two modern cultures that do statuary well, and from whom we must learn, are the English and the Germans.

I have large busts of Charles Darwin and the textile designer William Morris (of the Arts and Crafts movement). There was a silly BBC show, I think called Great Britons, in which people plumped for who the greatest of them was. To my amazement, it featured John Lennon and Churchill, nobodies with little achievement to their name, juxtaposed with Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Horatio Nelson. No contest. Darwin enlightens humanity on the one question asked from antiquity by Buddha and Plato and remaining unanswered: Who are we? What are we?

Having said that, I want and need Nelson and Arthur Wellesley, and Churchill.

The Buddha is of clay and from Sarnath. We have no idea what the historical Buddha looked like. His bust is idealized, based on the physical characteristics of great men. It is why our statues of “Mahavir" and “Buddha" sport similar faces. One of the 32 characteristics of great men, I was intrigued to learn in Max Mueller’s Digha Nikaya (part of Sacred Books Of The East, and translated by Thomas William Rhys Davids), Buddha’s lovely long discourses, was a fully sheathed penis.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, Dante and Leonardo da Vinci.
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Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, Dante and Leonardo da Vinci.
Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach and a bust of Brahms in black resin.
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Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach and a bust of Brahms in black resin.

The figurine of Confucius (whom the Chinese know as K’ung-fu-tzu) is coloured in lucky red and is from Beijing. The Mao bust is made of porcelain and it is of the quality that I expect from Indians.

The Che Guevara bust, also porcelain, in green is from Cuba and the Ho Chi Minh from Hanoi.

Missing revolutionaries: V. Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, Leon Trotsky. I suspect I will definitely get a good Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels at some point.

Other tyrants missing: Napoleon, Hitler.

The one obvious hole in my collection is women: I would like Indira Gandhi, Kasturba Gandhi, Greek poetess Sappho from Lesbos, Benazir Bhutto, perhaps Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. Definitely Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle.

Lastly, the enemy of pastors Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. That would round it off nicely. For now at least.

I have built this collection over the years, picking up pieces on my travels across the world and through the indulgence of friends and kind acquaintances.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

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Published: 20 May 2016, 01:41 PM IST
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