ByÂ Aishwarya Iyer:
Before Narendra Modi came into power, he talked passionately about his plans to build a statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on a river island in Gujarat. The statue which is supposed to be twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty in New York is expected to cost 2500 crores to build after taking donations from across the country.
Soon after Narendra Modi came to power, Shankarsinh Waghela, the leader of opposition in the Gujarat assembly appealed to the PM-elect to built a Ram temple in Ayodhya within ‘the constitutional framework’. With the kind of pressure that is being put on the new prime minister by the Hindu right-wing leaders, it might notÂ be long before the controversial Ram Temple in Ayodhya will be reconstructed, though the religious motif was severely downplayed in the BJP manifesto. If the temple is constructed, it will cost close to a hundred crores.
During former Uttar Pradesh minister Mayawati’s tenure, she was infamous for having installed over 200 statues, a number of which were her own. When questioned under RTI, the cultural department gave a statement saying that there is no government rule describing whose statues can be installed since ‘greatness is subjective’. Each of these statues cost one crore to build.
All of the above are but a few examples of politicians vying at a shot to immortalize themselves for posterity by building something that will remain etched in public memory for forever. Building statues of oneself is a quick way to keep oneself alive in public memory whereas something as controversial as building a temple will lead to a lot of majoritarian support in a country like India, whether it is detrimental to its secular ideals or not.
The whole problem in this country is that we running towards the future without putting together our past and present first. This issue of unequal development has been persisting ever since India gained its independence over sixty years ago. Talks about building bullet trains are happening when there are villages in this country where the nearest hospital is over fifty kilometres away and people die by the time they can be taken to the nearest clinic. Multinational corporations are eager to set up bases in the flourishing metropolises of India but the tribes in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa that have been fighting to secure their rights for decades, are still fighting a losing battle in this country where development has never been inclusive of all its citizens.
Similarly, while our beloved politicians are building new statues and temples, there are monuments throughout our country that are dilapidating by the moment. With rapid infrastructural development and corruption in towns and cities, a lot of monuments have already been demolished and many others are left stranded or heavily defaced. One can find even famous monuments like the Taj Mahal and Red Fort vandalised in places with etchings of lovers’ confessions and ruffians who strive for immortality by leaving their ugly marks on beautiful pillars and ‘minars’. There are other monuments like old tombs, mosques, and community dwellings like havelis which don’t get documented and are under a threat of demolition. Their condition is pathetic with many of them being used by nearby residents to throw their trash and inhabited by hooligans to gamble their night away or manufacture illicit liquor. With the lack of space and increasing population, the government can spare limited attention to these structures. Even the education system of this country teaches students about the past but doesn’t imbibe values onÂ preserving its remnants, its aesthetic and historical value.
In cities, where new buildings are but ugly imitations of skyscrapers in New York and Chicago, our heritage structures keep the architectural character and aesthetic uniqueness of our nation intact. With the increasing lack of interest being shown by the authorities, a lot of independent initiatives by youngsters have arisen to preserve the architectural heritage of this country. Twenty-year old Vivek Modi from Gujarat is one such person. Born and brought up in Siddhpur, which is famous for its Bindu-sarowar where people come to perform ‘Matrushraddha’ (ritual performed by people whose mothers have ascended to the heavenly abode), he works to preserve the Bohra houses in his region. The Dawoodi Bohras are a Muslim sect whose houses are examples of regional aesthetic uniqueness with beautiful ‘jharokhas’ and abstract carvings. The structures with exotic interior decoration are not just architectural beauties but are also evidences of the Bohras’ prosperity, aesthetic values and place in the society.
Vivek says that not only are the authorities disinterested but the people of the region also lack the awareness and enthusiasm to preserve their cultural heritage. He is trying hard to bring about a quick change by focussing on government participation since changing societal outlooks is a much slower and gradual process. He is part of the Siddhpur Smriti trust and works on awareness campaigns, plays and events with them for heritage conservation. Efforts are being made so that these structures are included among UNESCO World Heritage sites so that the nearby residents can benefit from the tourists who visit these structures. He is working to convert some of the abandoned structures into home stays and says that even one tourist will benefit a number of people. Vivek Modi is a sensitive and enlightened young professional who is proud of his identity and understands the importance of preserving it. Even with a lack of government support, his efforts have been noticed by the community. He is a brilliant example of the strength of a civil society that can take leaps and a giant stride to protect and preserve what is valuable to them.