From Kannagi to Col Neil: A brief history of Chennai's statue conflicts

Not just Periyar, statues in honour of leaders, literary figures and other personalities have always been central to people’s sentimental and ideological associations.
From Kannagi to Col Neil: A brief history of Chennai's statue conflicts
From Kannagi to Col Neil: A brief history of Chennai's statue conflicts
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The stunning victory of BJP in one of the last standing Leftist states, Tripura, quickly turned from jubilant celebration to vandalism after a statue of Communist icon Lenin was brought down last week. This act of a statue being razed spawned tit-for-tat vandalism in different parts of the country.

The election which turned out to be a moral dampener for Leftists in the country resulted in chaos, several miles down south. Tamil Nadu erupted in protests after BJP National Secretary H Raja, who is known for his foot-in-mouth comments, posted on his Facebook page that Dravidian and anti-caste revolutionary Periyar’s statue would be next.  

Hours later, a statue of Periyar was vandalised in Vellore district, by a member of the BJP and another belonging to the CPI. Several political parties took to the streets in protest demanding that H Raja apologise for his comments, even as the BJP leader claimed that an administrator posted the comment without his permission and that the post had been deleted.

But this is not the first time the state has created an uproar over its statues. Tamils have always defended their language, literature, literary figures, culture, practises and leaders passionately. The largescale protests against the Jallikattu ban in 2017 being a recent example. 

Chennai, in particular, has witnessed a number of controversies over its statues, with a few still warranting constant vigilance. And one that features on top of this list is the statue of a woman who, according to literary accounts, burnt an entire city in a fit of rage. 

Symbol of Tamil pride

That statue of Kannagi was installed in 1968 when DMK first came to power, under CN Annadurai’s regime. 33 years later, in December 2001, the statue made headlines when it suddenly disappeared from its pedestal on Chennai’s Marina Beach promenade. Initially unnoticed, the absence of the statue soon led to protests. 

Then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa defended the statue’s removal stating its pedestal was damaged by a speeding truck and so it had to be removed for its own ‘safety’. Later, rumours abounded that the Kannagi statue was indeed removed because a few soothsayers had warned Jayalalithaa, who was known for her belief in astrology, that the statue would bring bad luck to the ruler. 

Stowed away at the PWD building overnight, the statue was later moved to the Government Museum for ‘safekeeping’. Here Kannagi’s statue gathered dust for about five years until she was finally reinstalled at Marina Beach in 2006, when the DMK returned to power. 

The story of Kannagi, of a citizen reducing an entire kingdom to ashes, has made her a goddess fighting for the justice of Tamil people. For years, the epic heroine has been the centre of multi-dimensional debates. Kannagi’s history is that of a common woman who feared no one, including the king. Having lost her husband to an unjust death penalty, her curse was so powerful that it burned down the state’s cultural citadel, Madurai. In certain accounts, Kannagi is venerated, with a few associating her to the celestial form of Madurai Meenakshi. 

The fire around Kannagi’s bronze statue may have calmed down today but hers is one that symbolises Tamil pride, self-respect, righteousness, bravery and women power - five things that could lead to agitation if touched upon carelessly. 

Remnants from a colonial time

Colonel James Neil’s statue that once stood on Mount Road in Chennai has an interesting history. A 10-foot statue on a 12-foot pedestal, this installation of Colonel Neil, with his right hand pointed at one direction and his left holding a sword, earned the wrath of residents. The reason? Colonel Neil was a British military officer who had led the Madras Fusiliers in quelling the revolt of 1857. While he was celebrated a martyr by the imperial government, Neil was a reminder of brutality and oppression for citizens. 

A report in The Hindu reads, “At 9 am on August 11, 1927, two Congress volunteers from Madurai, Mohammed Saliah and Subbarayulu, armed with an axe, a chisel and a ladder scaled the façade of the Neil statue and hammered away at it.” This later led to a sensational agitation that helped Congress mobilise the crowds. The Neil statue Sathyagraha, as it came to be known as, demanded the removal of the colonel’s statue.

Congress leader K Kamaraj was also an active part of the satyagraha, leading it at one point, which was supported by Mahatma Gandhi. It was, however, in 1937 that the statue was finally moved to the Government Museum, where it still stands. Once a symbol of colonial power, the statue now stands forgotten in one corner of the anthropology section of the museum.

The coastal city of Chennai was the southern centre of power for the British, who established a stronghold in the city, then called Madras. The colonial power left behind a number of structures including Fort St George that presently houses the state’s legislative assembly. 

Enter through one of its gates and you are greeted by a Greek styled structure, complete with pillars and a cupola. This pavilion however is bereft of its statue - Lord Cornwallis. In an account by historian, V Sriram, “The Cornwallis statue moved out of Parade Square to the Cenotaph in 1925. It stayed there for just three years, moving in 1928 to the Connemara Library as the salt and moisture-laden air of the sea at First Line Beach began attacking the marble. The statue remained in the library till 1950, when it made its last journey, this time to the Fort Museum.”

Then there’s the statue of Thomas Munro, the ‘stirrup-less majesty’, seated on a horse exuding authority. The Governor General was hugely popular during his rule and known to have laid the foundation for the present district administrative structure. In 2010, the 9th World Tamil Conference saw a number of changes being inked including the renaming of roads and erection of signboards in Tamil. This conference also requested for the removal of Munro’s statue from its current location close to the Gymkhana Club in Chennai. However, the statue stands its ground to this day. 

New entrants     

The statue of Chitra Tirunal Raja Bala Rama Varama, the last ruler of Travancore, was erected in Madras in 1939 in the park opposite Raja Annamalai Mandram on the Esplanade. The statue even makes a passing appearance in the 1942 film, En Manaivi. His 1936 temple entry Proclamation that opened the doors of temples to all Hindus irrespective of caste in Travancore was seen as a social reformation. With the passing of years, however, the statue stood forgotten, even disrespected, and in 1991, following Raja’s demise several of his admirers moved the statue and its pedestal to its current location behind Ananthapadmanabhaswamy temple in Adyar. 

Raja Bala Rama Varma's statue near Ananthapadmanabhaswamy temple in Adyar

In February, a life-size statue of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, which was unveiled at AIADMK headquarters in Chennai to commemorate her 70thbirthday. But the party’s birth anniversary celebrations were mired in controversy, with many pointing out that the statue bore little resemblance to the late leader. Following the uproar, Jayalalithaa’s statue is now being reworked by its sculptor.

The conviction with which people revere statues in the state runs deep. Setting aside the practice of idol worship, statues in honour of leaders, literary figures and other prominent personalities have always been central to people’s sentimental and ideological associations. Removing or damaging these memorials have resulted in radical movements and this has been proven time and again.

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