Sunday, July 05, 2009

Mayawati's Lucknow - A city in transition, and a city in defiance

We went to Lucknow after we were sort of thrown out of the Kanpur-Delhi train on Saturday night. So we took a bus and spent the Sunday cursing our stars for not being able to attend the Gay Pride March in Delhi. Since the flight was in the evening, we spent the day driving around the city, looking at Mayawati's structures. An edited version of the article appeared in the Indian Express on July 5, 2009.

Chipping away at Lucknow/A changing Lucknow
While Mayawati’s memorials and statues alter Lucknow’s landscape, The Sunday Express discovers a Lucknow that has been through such changes before but has held on. Will it do so this time around?

By Chinki Sinha

ON the banks of the Gomti, now Mayawati’s pink and peach sandstone and marble dreams define the skyline of Lucknow (and cower over everything else. The banks of Gomti is also the site of the multi-crore Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Sthal), there used to be an open ground. Squeezed in between the river bank and the Dariya Wali Masjid and across from the King George's Medical College (now called Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj Medical University), this was where kite fliers of repute would tug at their strings and fight fierce and colourful battles in the skies. Jafar Mir Abdullah would often stop by at the ground on his way home from La Martinere, where he studied at the time, to see the spectacle. Kan kauwe bazi or kite flying was a favourite sport in Lucknow. As a 10-year-old in 1952, he loved looking at the horizon that was painted in different hues in the twilight hour, the war cries resounding for miles. He loved watching the kite runners as they ran through the labyrinthine streets to grab fallen kites, raising dust as they sprinted.
The dust still fills the skies. Not because of the kite runners but because thousands of workers are busy carving memorials and statues that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati has decreed.
In a city that has pushed some of its past to the confines of the Lucknow Museum--where stone statues of Queen Victoria and members of her court languish--a new reality is emerging: the kind that’s cast in marble. These statues of Mayawati and her mentor Kanshi Ram--different in detail and intricacy from the ones the Europeans built--dot the landscape and occupy the spots that the British once claimed.
But though the statues belong to different eras, they serve a similar purpose--an assertion of power and of politics. In today’s times, as they stand tall at various intersections and inside memorials, the statues, all of them made under tight deadlines, symbolise Mayawati’s infatuation with her self and a statement of her Dalit politics.
While Lucknow still conjures images of the Bara Imambara, the Chhota Imambara and the famous Bhool Bhulaiya maze, Mayawati’s elephants and pink stupas have encroached upon that imagination.
The Buddha Park that stands on the ground Abdullah, now a businessman, remembers with much nostalgia was made in the early 1980s. This was before Mayawati started her mammoth construction and, as many old timers say, started altering the soul, the spirit and the character of the city that has always been referred to as a city of monuments and parks. But then, those parks aren’t the kind the BSP supremo is pushing for. The new ones are typically bereft of trees and celebrate Dalit leaders, including herself, by erecting huge statues of theirs. They intimidate as much as inspire awe.
At another Buddha Park near the Kanshi Ram memorial, the one the Dalit icon is building, a statue of Buddha is flanked on either side by a statue of Mayawati holding her famous bag and a statue of a safari-suit clad Kanshi Ram. A guesthouse and a public library are also being built at the site. A guard, who doesn’t want to be named, says labourers are working overtime to finish the project. But like many in the city, he can’t see the point of it all. “If she is building parks, then there has to be some grass for us to walk on. This is all stone and the feet burn when you step on it. This is such a waste,” he says.
Across the road, clouds of dust part to reveal another memorial. Being built on a war footing on a 30-acre piece of land, this one is dedicated to Kanshi Ram, who discovered Mayawati in a nondescript colony in Noida and installed her in the corridors of power. The dome resembles that of the US Capitol Hill and two giant elephants guard the entrance. But as with her all other structures, awe-inspiring and intimidating, this one looks misplaced too.
“Whatever she is making, it doesn’t match Lucknow’s character,” says Abdullah. “What is the point of 100 elephants and seven-foot statues? It has no relevance. Haathi was a vehicle of the nawabs. What does she want to show?”
The cost of the entire exercise in pink sandstone isn’t known. Some peg it at Rs 2,000 crore, others say it is much more, close to Rs. 6,000 crores in Lucknow alone. The scale is huge too--there are at least nine memorials being built in Lucknow, including the Kanshi Ram Memorial, and the Buddha Stahl in Alambagh. Elephants are omnipresent but in the Kanshi Ram Memorial, across the road from the Buddha Sthal, the dome is built on the lines of the Capitol Hill dome in Washington. When she would have finished, Mayawati’s structures in Lucknow would have left behind the ones in United States, including the 46.5 meters Statue of Liberty in New York designed by the French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi . She had already commissioned a 165-feet tall Ambedkar statue that would have cost more than Rs. 200 crores to Shraavan Parajapati, the artist who has made most of the statues lining the streets of Lucknow. This one was to be installed at the Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Sthal, which is under construction after the BSP leader razed Ambedkar Sahitya Sansthan and Museum, Satkar Bhawan and the adjacent Ambedkar Stadium, which was previously called the Gomti Nagar Stadium, to accommodate the ambitious project estimated to cost around Rs. 560 crores.
Public Interest Litigations have been filed, the Supreme Court recently issued notices to Mayawati and the state government, and politicians have criticised the way money meant for development had been wasted, but an unabashed Mayawati pushed for her agenda. She set tight deadlines for the sculptors, luring them, even daring them. Shraavan Parajapati, one of the two sculptors the BSP leader has sourced the work to, finished a 17-ft bronze statue of Ambedkar in XXX in 15 days flat. Even the Gomti looks subdued, its course thinning as it passes by Mayawati’s ambitious 130-acre BR Ambedkar Park that is being built to honour the man who she calls the “true leader of the Dalits”.
Architect and author Gautam Bhatia absolves Mayawati of any blame for celebrating, through architecture, her community’s rise in the Indian political system. But, he feels, the construction is designed to glorify her and is an exercise in megalomania. And the uniqueness and the scale of it all indicate how she is trying to create an architecture that is new and has no connection to the past. Through this, she is breaking conventions. “This is what Hitler did and Mussolini did. You make such grand gestures that people would remember,” says Bhatia.
By installing her own statues and placing them with Ambedkar’s and Kanshi Ram’s, she is also deviating from tradition that memorial parks are built to honour the dead. But then, Mayawati is a non-conformist. Unfettered by criticisms, she has gone on, inaugurating statues, pumping even more money into the parks, razing them and redoing them, trying out her grand experiment of might in Lucknow.
In 2007, when she once again became chief minister of Lucknow and this time with an overwhelming majority, Mayawati seized the opportunity to etch her name in history--and change the city once again.

Perhaps there was a never a point in the city’s life when it was complete. It was always changing, incorporating bits of history in its houses, its gardens, and its streets. The nawabs built their Imambaras and their masjids. Then the Europeans came and razed at least two-thirds of the city’s fine, old buildings and erected their structures. And then, successive governments chipped away at Lucknow’s legacy. But a fundamental core stayed, a part that hasn’t been breached. Here, in the city’s old colonies like Kaiser Bagh and Aminabad, where the latticework on the balconies is still intact and where a mellifluous, old language is spoken, Mayawati’s elephants haven’t yet marched in. And that’s where the heart of Lucknow still beats.
At least that’s what Abdullah feels. An old timer, he has seen the city change. Much of the change was inevitable—the malls in their glass and steel opulence, the apartment buildings where the migrants lived and the new colonies that the housing department built on land that was once part of villages bordering Lucknow. Much of Mayawati’s grand plan is being played out in these parts where there is the space to accommodate her mammoth structures. The rest of the city remains cramped, squeezed in, and only a faint reflection of its former self.
One architect who is defying the winds of change is S.M. Zafar. Zafar grew up in Lucknow and worked abroad but is now trying to bring back the old glory of Lucknow in his buildings. He has some contracts to build residential units and is trying to style those to resemble some of the fast-fading nawabi architectural style. It’s with nostalgia and disgust that Zafar refers to the newer parts of the city, including Gomti Nagar, that came up 25 years ago on a landfill.
“Where they have placed the elephants, there used to be a dhobi ghat and people used to fly kites. There also used to a swimming institute that was free for all,” he says. “I don’t know what her intention is. At one point, Rumi Darwaza was the entrance to the city. I am trying to keep the old architecture, at least the physical aspect of it in my buildings.”
Disgusted he is, but Zafar can understand why Mayawati is doing what she is doing. “She is sentimental. I agree she was oppressed, her community was oppressed. But by building elephants, their problems will not go away,” he says.
Like many in the old city, Zafar zealously guards the older parts of the city. “Our culture will not go away. The people who are the bearers of this culture live in the old city. Those in the new parts are the migrants, the industrialists, the powerful,” Zafar says.
As more elephants and statues come up in Lucknow, life goes on in the old city. The residents only stop to sigh at the sight, and then return to the familiar parts, away from the grand stupas, away from the colossal elephants and away from the noise. And they hope Lucknow will yet again defy the change.

In case you want
A photographer who has documented Lucknow in his works said what Mayawati was doing was incomparable. But the credit goes to her for the development of the city, for building roads and keeping the city clean.
“I am no advocate of hers. But she has developed the city,” he said.
But Abdullah, who lives in the older parts near Kaiser Bagh, said the development was only in the stupas. As with Mayawati’s memorials that need space and can’t penetrate the narrow streets of old Lucknow, development too has been kept out of it.
“Has anyone ever asked us what are our problems,” he said. “She is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Not just of her clan.”
Some of the projects
Manyawar Kanshi Ram Memorial
Rs 110 crore spent on project, another Rs 125 crore needed
This memorial is coming up on 42 acres on Jail Road, Alambagh.
Kanshi Ram Museum
The 140-foot-high structure built on 11 acres will cost over Rs 100 crore
It is a 140-foot-high structure, being built inside the Kanshi Ram Memorial.
Kanshi Ram Bahujan Nayak Park
Bungalow, which housed BSP headquarters, demolished for park
This park is being developed in the memory of the late Kanshi Ram on South Avenue.
Ramabai Ambedkar Rally Maidan
Developed on 51 acres of land acquired from villagers
Kanshi Ram Sanskritik Sthal
Over 100 acres carved out of a memorial for Kargil martyrs
Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal
The Lucknow Development Authority has developed this on a two-acre area on the Gomti embankment, adjacent to the Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Sthal.
Manyawar Kanshi Ram Yaadgar Vishram Sthal
The government is developing a guest house named after Kanshi Ram on Mall Avenue, which was initially allotted to Mayawati as a former chief minister.
Buddha Sthal and Sharda Canal Front Development
This monument is coming up on 6,000 sq metres of land on VIP Road in Alambagh, at a cost of Rs 90 crore.
Samtamulak Chauraha and Ambedkar Chauraha
The Public Works Department is developing two roundabouts and two triangular crossings at Samtamulak Chauraha, earlier known as Uptron crossing.

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