In the state elections in Uttar Pradesh, India, held in early 2012, the Election Commissioner ruled that statues of elephants, the symbol of the ruling Bahajun Samaj Party (BSP), and Mayawati, the Chief Minister, be draped so as to avoid unduly influencing the voters. This unprecedented ruling speaks to the power of images in swaying the masses, not surprisingly given the dominance and impact of figural imagery in the visual culture of India. Statuary has been a very significant element in the recently built large urban parks in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Known popularly as the ‘city of Nawabs’ alluding to its nineteenth-century Muslim rulers who were great patrons of architecture and performing arts, Lucknow has a distinct cultural identity that had survived the colonial urban development and expansion in the post-independence period in the latter half of the twentieth century. The recent urban insertions in the form of memorial parks, plazas, and streets have created a new look for Lucknow, at odds with its historic Nawabi character and its colonial past.
This new urban landscape is an expression of the political ideology of the BSP, seeking to fabricate heritage for the historically disenfranchised Dalit community. The term ‘dalit’ refers to the untouchable castes that have been socially and economically marginalized for a millennium in Indian society. They constitute 22% of Uttar Pradesh’s population and together with other castes low in social hierarchy termed as ‘backward’, comprise a substantial vote bank. The BSP provides them with a voice and platform to overturn centuries of exploitation and repression by the higher castes. With their support the BSP has come into power several times with Mayawati as the Chief Minister. First elected to power in 1995, she immediately began her campaign of building memorial parks and tirelessly pursued it every time she came into power thereafter (1997, 2002, and 2007).
A critical reading of this new memorial landscape in Lucknow’s public realm reveals it to be suggestive of power through monumental scale, visibility through prominent locations, use of expensive building materials and spectacular effect, and control over access. Statuary of Dalit leaders and ancient Buddhist architectural elements add imagery associated with Dalit pride. Memorial parks produce symbolic capital for the Dalit community in the public sphere but are remiss in creating social and environmental capital, all three forms of capital being important dimensions of the public good. Surveys of visitors to the memorial parks and focused interviews with Dalits in Lucknow and its rural hinterland confirmed that the parks are perceived as symbols of Dalit heritage but are not conducive to building face-to-face communities and are not environmentally friendly. To add social and environmental capital should be the goal of park maintenance and renovation.