It was a reassuring sight and I could not help but point my mobile-phone camera and take a photograph. Two seagulls had perched themselves atop a sword held aloft by a figural representation of the Maratha king Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj, installed at Rajkot, Malvan in December 2023. It may be a cliché to say that birds know no boundaries, yet this particular instance of two birds clinging to each other was rather poignant. For Malvan, a small costal town in south Maharashtra, renowned for Sindhudurg, its historic 17th century walled sea fortress and pungent cuisine, was recently in the news for something quite different – a militaristic iteration of boundaries on something as fluctuating as a littoral zone.
On December 4, 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a host of other key figures of the current political dispensation, as well as Indian Navy officers, descended on the town to mark Navy Day celebrations, with a display of fire power and battle preparedness of India’s naval fleet. This was the second time that the annual event was being hosted away from Delhi, in keeping with a policy decision to spread defence-related ceremonies across different locations.
The palm-fringed beaches and glinting waters of the Arabian Sea perhaps provided a more dramatic background than colonial architecture for what followed – a smoothly choreographed display of naval might and air power that lasted a couple of hours, to which the local public had no direct access. However, a fleet of Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation buses had been arranged to bring in people from surrounding villages, who were able to watch the proceedings from the distant beach front. This was no run-of-the-mill defence exercise; the recently announced Agniveer scheme of short-term commission into the armed forces was perhaps in need of a publicity boost. The scheme had to be made attractive for the young, despite its lack of social security of the kind that had allowed an earlier generation of defence personnel to indemnify their precarious lives.
Two weeks after the event, I happened to be in Malvan for personal reasons, from where feverish WhatsApp groups had been reporting for months before the Navy Day on the various ceremonies that had been planned after the prime minister announced in his radio broadcast Mann Ki Baat last April that the focus of celebrations would be the glorification of Maratha Naval history. My interest in how “publics” are constituted around statues, particularly around the recent escalation of sculptural interventions to shape people’s perception, led me one morning to visit the site, which despite the relatively early hour, was clogged with tourist buses trying to negotiate the narrow lanes of what up until a few weeks ago was an unassuming fishing hamlet. Walking through the maze of the town’s lanes leads one to the base of Rajkot, a rocky seafront outcrop, facing the Sindhudurg fortress across the sea. It was once the site of an ancillary fort of the 17th century where today there stands a theme-park-like recent reconstruction, with plaster of Paris guards positioned at the gate. A veneer of shiny varnish covers the natural red laterite stones, used to hastily construct the walls of the faux fortification that surrounds the newly installed sculpture.
The crowds visiting the site that morning comprised mainly of school students and the throng, on being disgorged from the buses, rent the air with battle cries as they made their way into the complex where the statue stands atop a high pedestal, facing outwards towards the Arabian Sea. This aural articulation of a combative nationalism by a group of youngsters was the main reason why the seagulls had taken flight to perch in safety on the highest point that they could find.
The sword wielding image of the Maratha king is a standardised template that appears in many different visual restatements across India, particularly in Maharashtra, and this statue made by a Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art alumnim Jaideep Apte, was no different. Grounded in European academic realism taught at the school since the mid 19th century, where the focus is on learning the formal conventions of colonial representational forms, the grammar of academic body types was so internalised by the sculptor that he needed no visual model for his figurative interpretation. Through an interview given to me, I however learnt that the sculptor had given much thought to the figure’s directional symbolism. Facing north-west, the statue was aligned with great care to ensure that the sword wielding warrior king’s sword-tip pointed outwards and away from the landmass of India and towards where sea-borne armies of potential colonisers would arrive in the past, and also a port city across the Arabian Sea where the Indian Navy had carried out its ‘Operation Trident’ on December 4-5, 1971, a date that eventually came to be designated as Indian Navy Day.
Like many projects, implemented in great haste to impact public memory in the upcoming election year, the process of making the sculpture was accelerated through the use of laser cutting machines and 3D printers provided literally overnight by a firm called Dream2reality, to print out the enlarged scan in pieces and sand cast it in two facilities in the Mumbai metropolitan region.
What was however unprecedented was that the commissioning, fabrication and installation of this monument was carried out with deep involvement of Naval officers, with an uncanny understanding of the political alignments of aesthetics, as well as an expansive knowledge of implementing a project with military precision. Once cast, the sculpture was transported in a truck and assembled on site just a few days before its consecration by the prime minister and for security reasons apparently, local skilled workers had a minimal role to play in scouting the site, with a great deal of the work being outsourced to men in uniform from the Directorate of Dockyards in Mumbai, where Naval ships are repaired and maintained.
Facts and fiction have often been mingled in contemporary interpretations of the life and times of the Maratha king, which have been delved into by several writers in the past. However, my interest lies in something else, rather than another exploration of his historical legacy. What needs to be analysed is how a granular public memory is being pulverised and reconstituted through a vast digital operating system, to consolidate the visual field into a monocultural world view. Enough studies have been done on how political systems mobilise mass adulation through monumental statuary and marking of physical sites. However, in the era of social media, one needs to be attentive to how memory is being modified through the technical dominance of official image dispersion methodologies.
Community memories of the Malvan event, for instance, have coalesced around the spectacular images put out by the government propaganda machinery, shot with high-end equipment of official photographers on duty and taken from unmatched viewing angles that only they had access to. My quest for images of the Navy Day ‘Operational Demonstration’ taken by local residents a fortnight after the event yielded no results for quite some time. I was repeatedly directed to online repositories of official photographers by people who had nonetheless personally witnessed the events, even if from afar. Neither the local newspaper and not even the Malvan BJP office could give me access to photographs taken by their associates, even though they were listed as key organisers of the event in news stories that came out locally. A visit to three photo studios in town, who run a thriving business of wedding photography and passport photographs, also turned up a blank. On probing further, I realised that people who did take photographs had, not surprisingly, deleted them from their phones. For mobile phone photographs take up too much digital memory space and for many, they seem to be nothing more than an elongated pause of a fleeting moment, unless photography is their professional calling.
When the sculpture was unveiled last December, the entire space around the site and staged ceremonies had been cordoned off, with views of what transpired made available for all only via officially mandated news outlets. The prime minister’s YouTube channel, now the most subscribed in the world of any political leader, has been very active since then in disseminating information about the event and his performative politics. No political leader in contemporary times has a better grasp of how ceremonial protocols, invented and performed for image enhancement and amplified via social media, work. The rituals are carefully choreographed for aura building, where distancing and staged proximity with the members of the public are of equal importance, as is their dispersal through a tightly controlled media that play out snippets of these performances, a manifestation of the biopolitical state that India has become today.
It is uncanny how there is little left in the form of a digital trace in the expanded memory of the local residents. Speaking to my network of acquaintances revealed that as they watched the spectacular events unfold on the beach, their hand-held mobile phone cameras could not capture the blinding light of exploding bombs, contrails of fighter aircrafts and whirring helicopters above that were the mainstay of the Naval power display. The millions of views that the Indian prime minister’s social media pages get have simply overpowered images taken with poor grade phone cameras that the second hand economy of phones available in the local mobile phone shops makes possible. The more expensive phone cameras do not make their way into the local market.
Eventually though, I was able to get some images from a member of the public who did witness the events and had access to a better-quality camera phone. The images taken by him reveal paratroopers landing on the beach front, flying the Indian tricolour in a mock display of a sea front confrontation with an imaginary enemy. Another reveals a fireball in the shallow waters of the sea, brought about by what looks like a drone in the sky, shooting at a ground level target. A fly-past as well punctures the sky. It certainly appears that the Indian Navy is well prepared for any threats to India’s territorial integrity, as long as environmental concerns are ignored.
A recent cryptic comment by Satish Naik, an art critic from Malvan who has run a publication called Chinnha for decades, is worth noting, if one wants to understand what is unfolding in this coastal strip. He points to the businessmen-politician nexus that is driving an unprecedented building boom in the region. Today an airport close by at Chipi and the new Mopa international airport within a short driving distance have led to an explosion of building activity in the region, and there are more billboards advertising hotels that fill the skyline than coconut palms that people purportedly come to see. The unkempt highway and the barely existing rural roads left unfinished by the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana are lined with trash tossed out by day trippers and colourful plastic bags festoon the rich grasslands that cover the plateaus.
Roughly 10 km away from where the prime minister exhorted his audience to defend the land on Navy Day, a threatening pink haze stains the sky. Dust, released by cutting machines, deployed in large scale chire (red laterite) mines, chokes the air. Cut through by a network of rivulets, the banks of the riparian lands surrounding Malvan harbour many villages enveloped by dense rain forests and rich plantations.
The young from these villages have, however, left for cities in search of educational and work opportunities. The plateaus above are today pockmarked by legal and illegal mines where gigantic saws are swiftly eating through the rock surfaces, while the rivers and deltas are being ravaged by illegal sandmining.
The scale of these operations is such that the sightline is filled with red gashes of exposed stone for miles, if one walks off at a tangent from the main road leading out of Malvan. Here, one can see poorly paid migrant workers, sweating in the blazing sun, loading interstate trucks with hard blocks of red laterite stone, ready to be ferried to distant locations. The political class is united when it comes to junking environment reports. The plea they make is always on behalf of the local residents that they purport to represent.
Carving up the land for wealth accumulation by a few, instead of making it productive for new industries that might create job opportunities for the unemployed, apart from the leisure industry that caters to the city elite, is just one more example of how a new India is taking shape. It is clear that the spectacle of patriotic displays our country’s political leadership puts on is nothing more than a smoke screen to facilitate the exploitation of natural resources by powerful business-politician lobbies, while the young are fed to the war machines to keep safe their concentration of wealth.
Shukla Sawant teaches Art History and Visual Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.