The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 1, 2002
Time Off

Colossus follies and human desires
Manohar Malgonkar

IN ancient times any statue which was larger than life-size was called a colossus. As such, the statue of Apollo which stood astride the entrance of the Agean port of Rhodes, fell neatly into the definition. It was a colossus.

That statue was said to have been 71 cubic feet high — or just under 107 feet. Our own Colossus, a stone statue of Bahubali in Karnataka, is 70 feet tall.

Apollo, to the ancient Greeks, was a god of many things, almost replicating the role that the goddess Saraswati plays in Hinduism: He was the god of the arts, music, poetry and something which the Greeks obviously held in special esteem eloquence. His statue at Rhodes, was cast in bronze, and its feet were planted on two opposite promontories so that the arch formed by the legs served as the entrance to the harbour.

Ships in those days must have been very small. Because an upstanding male figure 107 feet tall would look out of balance if its feet were to be more than 40 feet apart. To squeeze through that narrow channel must have been quite a feat to negotiate for sailing ships, no matter how small they were.

Still, Colossus was an engineering marvel of the times: a towering figure made of bronze guarding the harbour’s entrance, as it were. It found a place among the seven wonders of the world.

All of which is ancient history—itself a collection of fables. The great statue of Apollo was destroyed by an earthquake which hit some of the Agean islands in the third century B.C. But even though Colossus the statue, had ceased to exist, the god Apollo remained till well into the Christian era, when the Romans made him one of their deities. In Roman times, Apollo no longer presided over such civilised pursuits as arts and music. The Romans found a different role for him: As the god of oracles.


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Even until the end of the 19th century, ships coming to Bombay had to drop anchor well away from the shore. Passengers and their baggage were taken to the landing place in shoreboats which were called padavs, and the paved jetty where they docked was called Padav Bunder. The East India Company which had begun to rule Bombay since the mid-17th century, transformed Padav Bunder into ‘Apollo Bunder’, and Apollo it has remained ever since.

In a curious way, the humble padav, for its part, may have contributed a spicy little footnote to Britain’s recent history. A highly spirited cavalry subaltern, on his way to join his regiment in India, was about to land on Bombay’s shore. His Padav had touched the docking place, and he had grabbed hold of a steel ring in the dockside wall in preparation for stepping on land when a big wave made the padav plunge several feet. The young man was left dangling, supporting his entire weight by his grip on the ring. In the minute or so it took the padav to right itself, he had damaged his shoulder muscles so badly that he could not carry anything heavy or long. That was how it came about that, in the famous cavalry charge at Omdurman, in which he participated, he took a pistol instead of a sword. He has himself recorded that his using a firearm instead of a sabre may have saved his life.

His name was Winston Churchill, destined to be the 20th century’s greatest British hero, indeed a Colossus, as the Duke of Wellington was of the 19th century.

Every nation has its great men, who are replaced from time to time, and the bigger countries such as India have even regional heroes, like, for instance, Ranjit Singh of the Punjab, Rabindranath Tagore of Bengal, or Shivaji of Maharashtra. Generals, explorers, freedom fighters, artists and poets, scientists and saints who catch the imagination of the public find themselves transformed into heroic figures, and, by what might be called their divine right, beautiful women, become heroines. Except in the Islamic nations, it has always been the practice to honour these heroes or heroines by fashioning their statues in wood, stone, metal or mud.

You only have to take a good look at New York’s Statue of Liberty, to come to this conclusion. O.K. The figure strikes awe, or may be reverence. But it does not look beautiful, and I’m sure that, we were to tell a woman even a plain woman that she resembles the Statue of Liberty, she would feel highly affronted. I have a feeling that even the Venus of Milo would not be thought to be beautiful if she were to be seen as a female Colossus.

These restraints, however, do not seem to apply to the image of gods and goddesses. In India, as in Europe, there have been some really enormous figures of divinities, as witness Bahubali, or the head of Trimurti in one of the caves of Elephant.

Right from the times of the original Colossus, the guild of statue makers seem to have observed a golden rule: Big for gods, true to life for man, but small is beautiful. You only have to compare the Buddhas of Dilwara with those of Bamiyan, or Bahubali with the images of Shantala at Belur as an illustration. Size can impress and cause awe; but it is not an attribute of beauty.

But if gigantism in statues was shunned by their makers, it was hijacked by the tyrant dictators of our own times. So when communism was rampant, they made enormous statues of the heroes of its cult, Lenin and Stalin, and where the communists left off, later tyrants of the same brand took over and one-upped the Russians.

As clinching proof, we have a man who thought so highly of himself that he wanted to literally splatter his entire nation with his statues, some of them rivalling the original Colossus. Kim Il-Sung, of North Korea, whose images are like a rash on the landscape. Ugly and menacing.

And finally, the current inheritor of Kim’s mantle, Saddam Hussain. He, too has ordered a statue of himself which is to be even more gigantic than any in North Korea. It will be recalled that the original Colossus had his feet planted on rocks jutting out of the sea. Saddam’s feet will be shown as resting on enormous piles of the steel helmets of Iranian soldiers killed in battle.


Given this history of the way Colossus had been demeaned by his identification with men such as Kim or Saddam, it seems ironic that the South African Government should have decided to honour their own national Hero, Nelson Mandela by erecting a gigantic statue of him.

Maybe there will be second thoughts; one can only hope so. Gigantism is for men such as Saddam and Kim, not for someone whom the world regards as a second Mahatma.