Frank davis Memorial Lecture Series

Histories in Transition

The Dead Object of Public Statuary: Sculptural Iconographies of Colonial and Postcolonial Calcutta

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

17.30 - 18.30, Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre

bronze statue of man on horseback
Statue of the revolutionary nationalist leader, “Bagha Jatin” (Jatindranath Mukhopadhyay), bronze, c.1978, standing at the junction of the Victoria Memorial and Casuarina Avenue, Calcutta. Photo: Tapati Guha-Thakurta.

Speaker(s): Tapati Guha-Thakurta (Director and Professor in History, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta)

Ticket/entry details: Open to all, free admission

Organised by: Dr Ayla Lepine

Despite their largeness and privileged locations, the genre of urban civic statuary are usually rendered the most ignored objects of public spectatorship, consigned to a liminal status of being neither ‘art’ nor ‘icon, of belonging to the realms of neither ‘high’ nor ‘popular’  culture. One of the central paradoxes that this lecture explores is the draining of life and affect from objects that are intended to embody personhood, whereby public statues become, literally and metaphorically, as “dead” as the personalities they were made to commemorate. With a focus on Calcutta’s colonial and postcolonial statues, the lecture interrogates the public lives and functions of these street objects from three broad angles. Firstly, it plays on the ‘image’/’object’ distinction to scrutinize the logic of form and materiality in this genre of imagery – the massed effects of carved marble, molten bronze, layered plaster and coats of dark paint – and the purposes these serve in transforming human likeness into monumental object and official, commemorative symbol. Secondly, it pursues the ‘sculpture’/’statue’ binary, to ask why statues continually fall short of being ‘sculpture’, and when, and in what contexts, they may move from one nomenclature to the other? It looks in this context at the transference of the quintessentially colonial art of standing and equestrian statuary into local sculpting practice, and the inadvertent slippage from the ‘fine art’ of British realist sculpture into public kitsch in the making of the city’s proliferating corpus of nationalist statuary. Thirdly, it tracks the transition for the colonial to the postcolonial in the changing sculptural iconography of the city, charting the course of travels, relocations and substitutions by honing in on two contrasting spatial clusters of Calcutta’s imperial and nationalist statuary.

Tapati Guha-Thakurta is a Professor in History and, currently, the Director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). She has written widely on the art and cultural history of modern India. Her two main books are The Making of a New 'Indian' Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal (Cambridge University Press, 1992) and Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India (Columbia University Press, and Permanent Black, 2004). She has also authored a number of exhibition catalogues, including two exhibitions out of the archival collections of the CSSSC - Visual Worlds of Modern Bengal: An introduction to the documentation archive of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (Seagull, Kolkata, 2002) and The City in the Archive: Calcutta’s Visual Histories (CSSSC, 2011). She is presently completing a book titled In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata.

The 2012 Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series explores intersections between modernity and historicism worldwide. It extends and enriches the Research Forum project Revival: Utopia, Identity, Memory and interacts with the provocative Research Forum theme, ‘The Quick and the Dead’. Spanning art, architecture and design across America, Europe and Asia from the nineteenth century to the present, each lecture demonstrates the allure and the value of the past in forming challenging responses to new circumstances. Interrogating the nature of revival, historicism and transnationalism, the series engages with nature and artifice, ritual and memory, and the flexible meanings of materials, images and structures that simultaneously inhabit traditional and innovative territory.

Sponsored by the FM Kirby Foundation and The Prince's Foundation

Traditionally sponsored by the F M Kirby Foundation, this year the Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series is also sponsored by The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community; Transforming Lives through Engaging, Educating and Empowering People.

“The Prince's Foundation believes that sustainably planned, built and maintained communities improve the quality of life of everyone who’s part of them. They help us both live better at a local level and start dealing with the broader global challenges of urbanisation and climate change. Our goal is a future where all of us can take part in making our communities more sustainable. We're working with everyone from local residents groups to governments to make it happen.” See  

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