The first statue to have experienced violence in Madras was the ‘Goddess of Commerce’ which was installed in the Fort in 1740s. This pagan statue was named after the patron saint of England and it went missing in the flurry that followed the French invasion. It was possibly inspired by Minerva — the Roman goddess of commerce and war. According to chronicles, the statue was either destroyed in bombings or taken away as a trophy. On the occasion of Madras Day, historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan compiles the fascinating history of Chennai’s most iconic statues.
Taking ‘The butcher of Allahabad’ off Mount Road to Madras museum
It was a colonial tradition to pull down statues installed by previous rulers to establish the superiority of the current establishment. Madras was perhaps the first place in the country where a statue of a British was removed during an agitation a decade before independence. James Neil of the Madras Fusiliers had killed many Indians in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1847 that he was called “The butcher of Allahabad”. Luckily for Neil, one of the members of his Fusiliers, Harris, happened to become the Governor of Madras. Harris installed a 10-foot statue of Neil on a 12-foot pedestal and installed it on Mount Road (at Spencer’s junction). Indians had tried to knock down the structure as well as consistently agitate for the removal of this “monster in human form whose statue disfigures one of the finest thoroughfares in Madras”. Later, in 1937 after forming the government, C Rajagopalachari decided to bring a balance between the British rulers and the agitating nationalists. He negotiated the removal of the statue and in a single night, the statue was taken down and moved to the Madras Museum.
Statues fall to public anger against ‘former humiliation’
After independence, Jawaharlal Nehru believed that colonial statues were an inherent part of the country’s history. During the centenary of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1957, there was a ruckus in the Parliament for the ‘inordinate delay’ in erasing the symbols of India’s ‘former humiliation’. Statues pre-dating independence were attacked across several areas in north India and 50 major pieces of British statuary disappeared from public spaces. Many others were shifted from public spaces to museums. Meanwhile, Madras reacted by removing only Governor Willingdon’s statue after claiming to protect it from a bomb threat. Madras had once again reacted against statues in 2009, when the statues of King George V and his father King Edward VII (above) were shifted to the backyard of the museum with claims that they obstructed traffic.
Vivekananda, Bharathi’s connection with beach
Perhaps the two people immortalised with statues on the Marina who have a spatial significance with the beach are Swami Vivekananda and Bharathi. Vivekananda (left) spent nine days on the beachside castle Kernan, later Ice House. He wandered on the beach daily talking to fishermen and wrestling with some for sport. Bharathi (right), on the other hand, composed most of his poetry in the Georgetown and Triplicane stretch of the beach where he spent many of his evenings.
Munroe rides horse without saddle, stirrup
Thomas Munroe a much-loved administrator and was honoured with a statue on the Madras island. Nine thousand pounds were collected through public subscription and the British sculptor Francis Chantrey was commissioned to make the statue. It arrived came in three pieces from England — the man, the horse and the pedestal. The ship carrying them, The Asia, docked two miles off the coast and the 6-tonne cargo was the single heaviest consignment that Madras had received till then. It took three days and a specially constructed raft-like boat to take the pieces to the shore where it was opened to the public with a gun salute. At that time, there were rumours that the sculptor Chantrey committed suicide because he had forgotten to add a saddle and a stirrup to the horse. Munroe, however, liked to ride bareback. Interestingly, during his one-day trip to Madras, writer Mark Twain thought that Munroe’s statue was actually that of a Roman general.
Left: Thomas Munroe
When statues helped actors catapult to fame across madras
Putting up a person’s statue is often considered to be the epitome of their success, but that does not mean that those on the sidelines cannot reach the pinnacle by themselves either. The movie Meera directed by Ellis Dungan is a classic example of how history plays a silent but serendipitous role. The movie was a hit throughout India and brought lasting fame to MS Subbulakshmi (below) who was honoured with a statue in Tirupati town. The hero Nagaiah who acted as the Rajput prince has his statue in Madras Panagal Park. The film also featured a small-time supporting actor who appeared for only a couple of scenes as a bearded minister in the Rajput court. He had only a few lines in the film but has at least 25,000 statues across Tamil Nadu. He was MG Ramachandran.
Attack on Karunanidhi’s statue during MGR’s funeral and his tribute
Once Periyar who suggested a statue for Karunanidhi when he was the chief minister. But to his credit, Karunanidhi did not accept it. Later, the Dravidar Kazhagam insisted on a statue again and installed one at the junction of General Patters Road and Mount Road. Soon thereafter, DMK lost power. During his arch-rival MGR’s funeral procession, Karunanidhi’s statue was damaged by some miscreants. The next day, newspapers carried the photo of a boy breaking the statue (left) and Karunanidhi poetically retorted:
“Those who triggered him
But that young boy
Attacks me in my heart
Not on my back
So I am peace, may he live long”
But, even though he was a rationalist by tradition, Karunanidhi realised the coincidence between putting him his statues and his power in the state. Whenever a statue of his was installed, he stood to lose power as the ruling party and thus, he forbade putting him his statues ever again.
When Nehru made an exception for Kamaraj
Realising it was an infallible method of perpetuating one’s memory, at least three chief ministers of Tamil Nadu had their statues installed when they were in power. But, all of them were disguised in the form of non- government events; for example, Anna’s statue was gifted by MGR to the state. Surprisingly, it was Kamaraj who led the move. Kamaraj statue was maintained by the Corporation which was controlled by the opposition party DMK. In October 1961, Nehru made an exception to his policy of not unveiling statues of living people and arrived in Madras to unveil it. Although many believe it was a political compulsion that brought him to this city. Speaking at an event organised by the Chennai Corporation on the island, Nehru managed to take a swipe at the hero of the day. He said: “I wish Kamaraj many more years despite a statue being put up for him.”
Kannagi – the only statue of a fictional character installed on the beach
Perhaps the only fictional character to have a statue on the beach is the heroine of the epic Silapathigaram. The statue, however, was always associated with rumours. During the Tamil Conference, there were rumours about a starlet who had supposedly modelled for the statue. During J Jayalalithaa’s time, the statue was mired in controversy when a truck knocked it down and the government decided not to restore it. The DMK agitated against the decision. A part of the press described DMK’s interest in installing the statue again as a fondness of a grown-up man to his childhood teddy bear. Those in favour of the statue’s removal allegedly claimed that the statue of a woman who burnt down Madurai with a curse was not a good omen for the city or its rulers. But with the change of government, Kannagi was returned to her original place, pointing to the Marina ground.
Triumph of Labour and its inspiration
Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury (inset) was a sculptor, painter and the founder chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi. In 1928, he moved to Madras and joined the College of Arts. Thirty years later, he retired as its principal. Two of the most famous statues on the beach were sculpted by him. His Gandhi statue has attracted criticism from some quarters and a Gandhian even went on fast to protest the lack of similarity between Gandhi and the statue. The Triumph of Labour statue lies exactly where it was put up on the country’s first May Day — at Triplicane beach. It was inspired by a famous photograph of the Americans capturing a Japanese island and planting their flag on it. It was a conjecture that a vegetable vendor was the model for two of the four labourers of the statue.
Twin statues to Protest ban on horse racing
Horse racing has been carried out in Madras even when the Mughals were ruling Delhi. Even train routes were altered to not disturb the activity. Claiming that gambling can destroy families, in 1974 the government decided to ban racing. The Madras Race Club was quick to challenge the move. Without waiting for the courts to pass an order, in August 1974, Karunanidhi inaugurated two identical statues of a man restraining a rearing horse signifying the ban on horse racing on either side of the month-old Anna flyover. The cement on the statues hadn’t dried before the High Court struck down the ban and horses galloped again in Guindy. But the statues remained steadfast on their pedestals. There have been ongoing speculations that the statues are based on Vanthiyathevan, the hero of the Tamil mega novel Ponniyin Selvan.
Unveiling statues at Tamil Conference of ’68
In 1968, the meeting of Tamil artists, politicians and scholars to further Tamil culture was held in Madras. This singularly contributed to the installation of most of the popular statues in Madras — all on the beach with their backs to the bay. Kambar statue went inside Anna Samadhi compound soon thereafter and many Madras citizens today do not know that their city has a statue of this famous poet. The ruling government slipped in a statue of the then chief minister Annadurai on Mount Road and it was opened a day before the conference opened. The statues were created by funds donated by the people and the state. But, there was some money from the fund which was left over and a statue for comedian NS Krishnan was made with it and installed in T Nagar.
When two rajas stood face to face, but received different treatment from the public
Once there were two Rajas. One was a descendant of the Cheras and ran a prestigious 19-gun salute state Travancore, the other was the son of a moneylender who, by his proximity to governor Willingdon, obtained a title of “Raja”. The later, Raja Annamalai Chettiar (left) probably used the royal-sounding title more than actual blue-blooded sovereigns of India. He used his political clout to ensure that people bought the drama he staged. The Raja of Travancore (right) had a statue put up in the Esplanade area in commemoration of his reforms. Just opposite to it, Raja Annamalai Chettiar leased government land to put up a sabha in his own name and his son installed a towering statue of him in front of the building. The two statues stood face to face and they were in stark contrast to each other. Annamalai Chettiar’s statue glistened with polish while the Travancore Raja’s statue had denigrated into a public urinal. To make matters worse, the Travancore raja was still alive and a frequent visitor to Madras. The Malayali diaspora in Madras could not bear the competition any longer and they shifted the Travancore Raja’s statue to Adyar Gandhinagar near a temple built after his clan’s patron god Ananthapadmanasamy.
All the poetry of Avvai was condensed into an aged face
There have been many Avvais in Tamil Sangam. Some of them even wrote romantic songs. Later, however, all the poetry of Avvai was condensed into one faceless entity. Two men were responsible for giving an aged face to the poetess. The first was Gemini Vasan who made a blockbuster with KB Sundarambal as the aged (and a little overweight) Avvaiyar. The other was dramatist Avvai Shanmugham who even had teeth extracted so he could play the poetess on stage. Avvaiyar’s statue on the beach was donated and opened by Vasan. The road that’s perpendicular to the statue and runs all the way to Mount Road and was earlier called Lloyds Road is now named as Avvai Shanmugham Road. When the statue was installed, there were rumours that it was modelled after the then PWD minister and later chief minister’s mother.
Foreigners’ connection with Tamil
One of the earliest statues on the beach overlooking the sea was of Annie Besant, an Irish by birth. CP Ramasamy Iyer, Besant’s arch rival in court had inaugurated it next to Ice House. The two had fought over the control of philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthy with Iyer representing the boy’s biological father. Three foreigners — all missionaries — were honoured with statues during the Tamil Conference of 1968. Although a missionary, Scott Robert Caldwell held the first scientific study of Tamil language and used the term “Dravidian” to separate the languages spoken in the south of India. The Church of South India donated his statue. Constantine Joseph Beschi, an Italian with a Tamil name “Veeramamunivar” is called the Father of Tamil Prose because he was one of the first to move from poetic expression to prose. Canadian GU Pope was called Pope Iyer by locals for his work on Tamil literature and especially his translation work on the Thirukural.