UP chief minister Mayawati has become famous -some will say notorious – for erecting dozens of giant statues in Lucknow of dalit icons like B R Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and herself. This is, of course, a grandiose political exercise. Yet history may eventually remember her not just as a dalit politician but also as the Lutyens of Lucknow.
When the British Raj shifted its capital to Delhi, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens and other British architects were summoned to India to build New Delhi, a great new city outside the old walled city of Delhi. They created wide avenues and giant edifices of red sandstone. Enormous public spaces were created between Lutyens’ two most famous creations, India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Mayawati’s scale is not quite as ambitious. Yet her giant parks in Lucknow must rank among the greatest new public spaces created in any Indian city since Independence. Her parks are ringed by sandstone lattice walls that seem to come straight off the drawing board of Lutyens.
Let nobody think that she has simply built statues. She has installed statues and memorials in public parks covering hundreds of acres. The Gomti Park, right along the banks of the Gomti river in Lucknow, is a wonderful open space in the heart of the city, one that Mumbaikars would kill for.
She has used a creamy sandstone, different in colour from Lutyens’ red, but her style is startlingly similar. Her memorials have domes reminiscent of the dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan, built for the Viceroy to occupy in Delhi. Some architects believe that in designing Rahstrapati Bhavan’s dome, Lutyens aimed to incorporate elements of Buddhist architecture. Famous Buddhist stupas at shrines like Sarnath and Sanchi have huge drum-like domes. They also have sandstone lattice walls. Lutyens and his fellow architects incorporated both these features while building New Delhi.
So, it is no coincidence that Mayawati’s Lucknow resembles Lutyens’ Delhi. She has drawn on ancient Buddhist architecture no less than Lutyens did.
BR Ambedkar asked dalits to adopt Buddhism as a refuge from caste oppression by Hindus. Mayawati has taken the neo-Buddhist approach further, using the elephant (sacred in Buddhism) as her party’s election symbol. Hindu dalits have always been oppressed, and have never had a historical golden era to draw on as a source of pride. But the neo-Buddhist dalit has a Buddhist golden era to hark back to, and Mayawati has used this to the hilt.
Like Lutyens and the Mughals earlier, Mayawati has used architecture to send out a political message. Lutyens’ New Delhi aimed to symbolise the glory of British imperial rule. Shahjahan’s Red Fort aimed to symbolise the glory of Mughal rule. Mayawati’s Lucknow symbolises the rise of dalits, mixing this with memories of the ancient glory of Buddhist India.
She has been criticized widely for spending hundreds of crores on symbols of grandeur instead of spending it on the poor. This is no different from criticism by Indian nationalists of Lutyens and the British Raj, who were also accused of wasting enormous sums on grand edifices while ordinary people starved. Nobody remembers that criticism of Lutyens any more. The same will one day be true of Mayawati.
Her New Lucknow has snazzy wide roads and posh hotels next to the great parks. They look very high-class compared with the crumbling, crowded alleys of the old city. Critics complain that she is creating a grand new area for a new elite while neglecting old areas. They acknowledge that the parks are indeed great open spaces that the public can use, but say it’s terrible to spend crores on a New Lucknow while leaving the old city immersed in filth and neglect. Doubtless exactly the same criticisms were made of Lutyens when he built New Delhi, neglecting Old Delhi.
Some old-time residents of Lucknow are highly critical of the building style of Mayawati’s New Lucknow. They say her giant new structures are completely out of character with the city’s famous Islamic architecture and its two great Imambaras. This, again, eerily echoes criticism of Lutyens by Delhi residents of his time, for building something completely out of character with the great Islamic architecture of old Delhi.
The criticism in both cases is accurate, but misses the point. Both Mayawati and Lutyens sought to overthrow the old order and establish the greatness of the new. In doing so, they consciously sought an architectural style that would be grand in ambition but totally different from the style of the rulers they displaced.
Lutyens celebrated rule by the British imperial race. Mayawati is celebrating rule by the underdog, a miracle made possible by democracy.In this respect, New Lucknow beats New Delhi.