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Tank Bund Idol-ism: Crisis of Cultural Politics of a Provincial Regime


March 10th, Tank bund, Hyderabad: the venue of culmination of the ‘Million’ March undertaken by the students, employees, lawyers, artists and other mass organizations as part of the on-going Telangana movement. Daring the restrictions, arrests, repression, the marchers gathered on the Tank bund only to demonstrate their demand for the Telangana state. The anger of the marchers was ignited by the frustration caused by the inordinate delay in the process of formation of the state despite a formal announcement in the both houses of parliament in December 2009.  


The historic Tank bund on the Hussain Sagar built during the reign of the Qutub Shahis in the 16th centurythatlinks the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad has been the venue of the annual fete of Ganesh Immersion during which thousands throng here. The Hyderabad city administration has been known to rise up to the occasion and facilitate the celebration. This time it became witness to the defacing, destruction and throwing into the Musi waters of idols that have adored the beautified Tank bund by the frustrated Telangana marchers. The police despite their huge presence remained mute spectators to the fury of marchers.

Politics of Idol-ism

These are the idols installed on the Tank bund by the cine actor-turned- politician NT Rama Rao (NTR) in the 1980s with the purported reasoning that the installation of the statues of social reformers, litterateurs and cultural figures, would restore Telugu jati of its “self-respect.” The rhetoric of Telugu self-respect was part of the TDP regime’s anti-Congress and anti-Centre politics. NTR went ahead with the installation ignoring the advice and warning by engineers and other public personalities that it might prove dangerous to the structure. Not by accident that all these statues represent figures belonging to the coastal Andhra region with few exceptions from the Telangana and Rayalaseema regions.


Through these installations NTR regime sought to project “Telugu culture” as an unproblematic, uniform, homogeneous and continuous flow by clubbing together cultural and social figures who are distanced by time, tradition and vision. If Nannayya, Tikkana and Erra Pragada were the kavi-traya (poet-triumvirate) who rendered the Mahabharata into chaste Saskritised Telugu between 11th and 14th centuries, then Yogi Vemana was a poet-saint who wrote and disseminated his anti-caste message in simple people’s language; if Arthur Cotton was a British engineer who was instrumental in building dams across Krishna and Godavari rivers during the 19th century basically to augment the revenue for the British colonial government from agriculture then you have the likes of Veereshalingam who sought to translate the modernist social vision through reform movement. With the dalit poet Gurram Joshua and revolutionary poet Sri Sri of the 20th century being accommodated, there is sought to be established a continuity of Telugu cultural enlightenment and glory from the mediaeval period to the twentieth century erasing the differences among them to serve the purpose of the legitimacy of a provincial regime.


The populist electoral triumph of the TDP in 1983 though precluded the possibility of any visible protest, the shallowness of the idea of a fabricated Telugu glory spanning a millennium was rebutted through popular bawdy wit. One of the jokes in vogue when this project was implemented was that all these statues were made to resemble NTR, who played all kinds of roles on the screen without being affected by them instead he effected these idols to serve his philistine purpose.


The pretentious moral indignation of the TDP leaders at the demolition of the party founder’s ‘monumental’ achievement was quite understandable but all and sundry seemed to have joined the controversy that ensued basically to have their share of the media lights and sound bites. With the statue demolition, it is argued, that the self-respect of the Telugus is injured and degraded. It is not only implied but projected that the installation of the statues was a pure cultural act when as a matter of fact it was part of the intense politics played out by the NTR regime, which sought to consolidate the rule of the nouveau riche caste-class of the coastal region which is a product of colonial modernity that continued to thrive as a result of the post-colonial state’s developmentalism. This class, as historically seen elsewhere, has used the language and rhetoric of cultural nationalism to consolidate its dominance and legitimize its rule. The dominant practice in the expression of cultural nationalism is to iconise, idolize, standardize and museumise popular figures abstracting them from their contexts and denuding them of their specificities. NTR regime only replicated this by installing the statues of the cultural icons who were champions of cultural modernity in coastal Andhra. With his pretentious flair for Sanskritised verbose rechristened the Qutub Shahi built Tank bund as “Telugu Velugula Murthi Nikshipta Kala Pranganam” (meaning, ‘the Aesthetic Arena for the Icons of Telugu Glory’) and it is stated to act as “the reminder of the glorious Telugu past, inspirer of the present and guide for the future”.  These icons, seen as inspiring symbols, are said “to fill our imagination with purity” and pave the way for a “society devoid of caste, class and religious discrimination.”[1] The conspicuous Andhra modernist nationalist bias attracted protests from some critical quarters then but given the arrogance of overwhelming electoral success of the TDP and the coastal Andhra predominance in the media they were paid the attention they deserved.

Fabricated Telugu Jati

What is to be understood here is that the particular cultural and social history of coastal Andhra has been generalized and shown as the history of the entire Telugus and the cultural icons of the coastal Andhra have been abstracted, decontextualised, generalised and projected to be the representatives of the entire Telugu people. The populist cultural politics pursued by the NTR regime in the name of Telugu civilization has its own share of barbarism (a la Walter Benjamin[2]) for it in fact not only sought to erase the specificity and composite character of the Telangana cultural formation profusely influenced by the Urdu language and Islamic culture but also to underplay the internal diversity and contradictions within the coastal Andhra society and its history to serve the purpose of his calculated real politik. NTR through his synthetic notion of Telugu jati sought to perfect the strategy of cooption and erasure. What we are witnessing now in the Telangana movement in a significant sense is a logical consequence of this politics.

It must be noted that the cultural formation, both folk-popular and literary, in Telangana has shown an inherent resistance to the onward march of modernity, while the political and economic spheres have fallen prey to the modernist drive, especially so after the rise of NTR. The agrarian crisis and devastation of rural life in Telangana captured by the poet Goreti Venkanna ( in the song Palle Kanneeru Pedutandi) was the consequence of what the poet calls ‘kanipinchani kutralu’ (invisible conspiracies) of the TDP regime politics[3]; what the father-in-law initiated was pursued by the son-in-law (Chandrababu Naidu) almost bringing it to a finis.


It is in the context of and as a reaction to the politics of this strategy of cooption and erasure, this specific event which is the first of its kind in the decade old history of Telangana movement has to be seen. The politics of the TDP during NTR’s and subsequently during Chandrababu Naidu’s rule had shown scant respect to the legacy of the cultural icons installed on the Tank bund. In fact, NTR was not only a part of but an active player in the noisy debasement of Telugu culture in the Telugu cinema since the late 1970s ( the films he acted during this period are ample evidence of it), the anti-dalit atrocities that his regime and its Kamma caste base catalysed and engineered throughout the second half of 1980s (Karamchedu and Padirikuppam  are still part of our collective memory) and the violent suppression of civil rights during his tenure all constitute the travesty and mockery of the values the Tank bund idols reflected in their life and writings.


Less said is better about Chandrababu Naidu who not only perfected and completed what was begun during NTR’s tenure and in fact paved the way through his policies and politics to a process of social and cultural degradation apart from scripting unprecedented rural crisis. In fact, if ever the history of demolition of memorials and erasure of people’s collective memory were to be written, Naidu would emerge prominently for his regime’s unparallel barbarism. This self-styled ex-CEO of AP who sheds crocodile tears at the statue demolition in fact oversaw the demolition of the memorials built by the local people for their heroes in Telangana in the name of suppressing the Naxalite movement and the erasure of historical memories in Hyderabad with the pretext of making it a global city. He sought to eliminate any source of critical potentiality by unabashedly promoting tourism by substituting it for history and denigrating social sciences as irrelevant and nuisance.


Not to be left behind, Naidu designed the Shilparamam in the vicinity of his pet project of High Tech city to showcase the rural crafts and life to the bored urban dwellers while he drafted policies and enacted them to destroy the AP rural social landscape and caused the starvation deaths and suicides of farmers and handloom weavers on a scale unprecedented in the history of the state.

Million March and Telangana Identity Response

If the immediate almost visceral cause of the attack on the Tank bund idols was their belonging to the coastal Andhra region, then it is absurd to see it merely in that manner. This act which is described as vandalism is the popular reaction at the violence on and displacement of the cultural and social history of Telangana in the heart of Telangana that is Hyderabad. These statues, seen through the spectacles of NTR as the representatives of the cultural history of Telugus are contrarily seen as part of the cultural colonization of Telangana. The demolition in the present context of people’s movement in Telangana can only be seen as a reaction to the colonizing rule of the coastal Andhra elite than as an attack on the statues of the great men most of who may not even be heard of in Telangana region. 


Monuments celebrate victory. NTR fashioned his electoral success as the victory of Telugu atmagauravam against the Delhi durbar. The monuments on Tank bund are meant to celebrate the Telugu tejam with NTR himself as its personification. In other words, these idols more than the celebration of the greatness of the poets and reformers projected NTR’s arrogant longing for immortality. Historians are yet to document the barbaric efforts at the erasure of Telangana culture and identity. In the meantime, capturing the imagination of the poets and balladeers this has become the leitmotif of the literary-cultural flourish in the present Telangana movement.


Thus seen, violence and destruction however undesirable is also politics. To consider all acts of destruction as criminal is to be superficially legal, morally pretentious and historically deceptive. To paraphrase Milan Kundera[4]: a criminal is a conservative who relies on the present order and through crime wants to be part of it. A rebel, by contrast, fights the established order to transform it. Not all acts of violence are criminal. It is the context, substance, goal and politics that should go to define its character. It is the misfortune of the cultural figures on the Tank bund that they should be appropriated by the neo-rich of coastal Andhra, the class which is the cause and basis of the debased politics and culture in the state. The corrupt and money driven politics, the sex and violence saturated Telugu cinema, sensation and rating driven print and visual media, daily dose of scandals about the loot of public property and land grab, the political elite’s low public morality and low quality of public debate are a demonstration of this. It is for this reason this class and its elite enjoy an abysmally low public trust and respect. The frustration and suicides of youth in the Telangana region are an evidence of their duplicity, public deceit and double standards.


The act of demolition, however one wishes it away, could only be interpreted as a rebellious act against the unethical politics represented by the TDP and Congress and their role in the year long political impasse in the state. For their act symbolizes the fight against status quo and search for something new. It is this way of seeing that informs the standpoint of the Telangana cultural and intellectual leadership, which was hesitant in the beginning and turned outspoken later, towards the acts of rebellious Telangana youth.

What is to be done?

In response to the orchestrated moral outcry, the government came out with a promise to renovate and reinstall the statues. Given the high passions in Telangana, it must be realized that renovation and installation of the statues is not what should be the priority.


It is no exaggeration to suggest that the popular cultural appeal of these icons in Telangana region is undoubtedly blemished: if the claimants of their legacy have caused the damage then the marchers could only be said to have removed the veil on it. Any attempt on the part of the political establishment at this juncture to forcibly reinstall them on the Tank bund would only do more harm to the image and memory of these great men. When all others were playing to the gallery, it is surprising that a suggestion to restore pre-idol serenity to the Tank bund should come from the floor leader of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen in the course of the debate in the state assembly.


What deserves and requires the utmost and urgent attention is the healing of the wounds on the Telangana popular psyche and winning of the people’s confidence by restoring the process for the Telangana state formation which the political class has in full knowledge upset thus betraying the people’s collective aspirations.


As some sane voices in both Andhra and Telangana have suggested, it is necessary to understand that the real tribute to the great men who adored the Tank bund is to respect and pay attention to their ideas, ideals and life’s mission which the political establishment as everybody knows has scant regard for. The resources that are promised for the statue reinstallation should be spent on publishing their works and making them widely available. That would be the real tribute they deserve and would in fact have desired.


Idols can stoke up emotions and are prone to demolition. Contrarily, ideas promote critical thinking. That is perhaps why the rulers worship idols!

[1]See, NTR’s speech on the occasion of inauguration of these idols, reproduced by the Telugu daily, Eenadu on March 11, 2011.


[2]  One is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s thesis: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Benjamin, ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations, 1968.


[3]For a detailed discussion on this aspect , see, Srinivasulu, K. (forthcoming), ‘Discourses on Telangana and Critique of the Linguistic Nationality Principle’, in Sudha Pai and Asha Sarangi (Eds), Interrogating States Reorganization: Culture, Identity and Political Economy in Independent India, Routledge.


[4]Milan Kundera, The Curtain, Faber and Faber, 2007, p. 87.