By Raghu Karnad
As a tribute to International Women’s Day from the city that was home to India’s Iron Lady, we thought we’d visit Delhi’s actual iron ladies – its statues of great women. Then it dawned on us that there aren’t any. Indira? No. Razia Sultan, Delhi’s thirteenth-century ruler? Absent. Victoria, baton-twirler in the parade of Raj statuary, who still reigns over traffic circles in cantonments and old Presidency towns across the land? Absent, even though her title of first Empress of India was announced at the “Proclamation Durbar” of 1877 in Delhi.
Nothing of our former ruler, Sheila Dixit, while our empress-in-waiting Mayawati, India’s Marble Lady, remains thwarted and tarpaulin-ed in Noida. That leaves only the statue on DB Gupta Road of Rani Lakshmibai, the queen of Jhansi, who has the most tenuous possible connection to the city.
Naturally, the city is crowded with statues of men; so many busts, and yet so few. We have Russian poets (Pushkin at Mandi House Chowk) and South American liberators (Simon Bolivar in the Ridge) and a full graveyard of weeping viceroys in Coronation Park. A statue of Shiva allegedly halves the functional length of the airport’s longest runway, and a Parashuram does battle with Maharana Pratap over the ownership of a roundabout in Noida Sector 14. Yet despite the disadvantages of statues of men (such as the preoccupation with whose is bigger), there are barely any women.
Delhi does have statues of make-believe women, like the modernist yakshi in front of the Reserve Bank of India. The trials undergone by this sweet, knock-kneed apsara shine some light on why Delhi doesn’t have more “statuettes” in the first place.
When she was installed in 1967 in what the RBI website calls “her natural beauty”, the yakshi offended “the prudish sensibilities of parts of the populace”. Soon her bosom was under debate in the Rajya Sabha, where the MP Satyavrata Siddhantalankar begged to know from the Minister of Works and Social Housing: “What is the object in erecting this statue of a naked woman?” If the yakshi could talk back, she might have asked who in fact was being erected, and whether that was his own problem – a question Delhi women are still asking today, and which seems, as it were, almost carved in stone.
Raghu Karnad (@rkarnad) is a former editor of Time Out Delhi.
Editors’ Note: This piece first appeared in Timeout Delhi’s March 5-18, 2010 issue. Four years ago, journalist Raghu Karnad walked around Delhi looking for the statues of great women. It was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day and he thought it would be a fun thing to write about. Except he didn’t find any stone cold grand dames.
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