Wednesday 13 May 2020

Labour Statues of Mamallapuram

மாமல்லபுரத்து உழைப்பாளர் சிலை (Tamil version of this essay)

There is a statue called Triumph of Labour, opposite to the Senate Building of the Madras university and adjacent to the MGR and Jayalalitha graves at the Marina beach in Madras. This was designed by Roy Chowdhry, a former Principal of the Government College of Fine Arts, Egmore. The college is only  a couple of miles away from the statue.

It depicts four people straining their sinews in hard physical labour, trying to move a large boulder with a long rod. It was not only art, but a political statement, a celebration of Marxism and democracy. a tribute to the Labour movement of the early twentieth century.

Labour Statue, Marina beach, Madras

There are several other statues in the Marina beach, mostly commissioned and installed to mark the World Tamil Conference held in 1968. The previous year 1967, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam won elections and formed the government. These statues are celebration of Tamil literature, culture and the Dravidian movement, an alternate to the Congress and the Communist parties that were popular until then in Tamilnadu. Hence there are statues to ancient poets Tiruvalluvar, Ilango  and Avvaiyar, modern poets Subramania Bharati and Bhaaratidaasan, and Kannagi, the heroine of the Ilango’s great epic Silappadikaaram. A statue for the medieval Tamil poet Kamban was added in 1971. 

Three foreigners who enriched Tamil literature were also  honored with statues. They are : Italian priest Constantine Beschi (who called himself Veeramaamunivar in Tamil and wrote the story of Jesus Christ as the Tamil epic Tembaavani,), English Bishop Robert Caldwell, then considered the discoverer of the Dravidian language family, and GU Pope, who translated Tirukkural and Tiruvaasagam into English.

Before the era of British rule in India, statues in public were rare. There are no mentions of such statues in literature and no archaeological evidence. After India became independent, Indians adopted the British custom and festooned the country with statues of politicians in practically every street. In Madras, there are also statues to poets, authors and cinema actors.

While most of these other statues in Chennai may not excite connoisseurs or critics of art, the Labour statue is quite noteworthy. But rarely do visitors come to see this statue for its artistic merit. It is simply something else to on their way to the beach. People who visit Madras to see sculptures visit either the Egmore museum or Mamallapuram.

Art Galleries

Temples are the galleries of art of India, for painting sculpture or architecture. They are the monuments which are renovated least and hence offer the best snapshots of the past. Parthasarathy temple in Tiruvallikkeni is perhaps the temple in Chennai with oldest sculptures, of the Vijayanagar period.

Art historians consider Mamallapuram the cradle of Dravidian architecture and sculpture. (Here Dravidian refers to a style of sculpture as per the Hindu shilpa shaastras, not the language family or the political movement). Some of Mahendra Pallava’s caves precede Mamallapuram, but have few sculptures, all of Gods or dvarapalakas. Few people visit them. From the Pallava era, and even earlier, till now, temples are the primary art galleries of not just Tamil country, but also India. Several historians and scholars, primarily Marxists but also quite a few others, inject political and social perspectives to temples and sculptures, but the fundamental intention of temples continues to be religion. The art serves the religion. 

In the centuries that followed Mamallapuram, when temples in granite proliferated the Tamil country, the sculptures of the Pallavas, Pandyas, Cholas or their feudatories, all depicted episodes from the itihaasas Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Puranas or the episodes from the lives of the Alwaars or Naayanmaars. Only from the Vijayanagar era, ordinary people, kuravan kuratti, scenes of daily life etc started to proliferate.

But Mamallapuram is an exception.

The Worker Sculptures of Mamallapuram

The Great Penance panel in Mamallapuram or Mallai, depicts either Arjuna or Bhagiratha in penance, as Siva appears to grant his book. Devas, Gandharvas, Rishis, Vidyadharas, Kinnaras, Kimpurushas, flock to see this marvelous sight. A number of birds and animals are also featured in the magnificent spectacle. Among these are four hunters, or kiraatas. Kiraataarjuniyam was a great Sanskrit epic, composed by Bharavi around this time. Siva disguised as a kiraata arrives to test Arjuna : the test turns into a war first of words, then arrows, then hand to hand combat. The Penance panel doesn’t feature Siva as a kiraata, but the four kiraatas in the sculpture may indicate this episode. They all carry tall bows, but none bears the carcass of a hunted animal. One carries a jackfruit.

Great Penance panel - Mamallapuram

They are not gods, or royalty or landed gentry, but daily toilers. They are not shown lifting or moving something heavy, straining their muscles, suffering from the heat of the midday sun, or sweating profusely. They are working for themselves, not being exploited by a moneyed class. Nothing for a Marxist to criticize, an union leader to organize, a writer or artist to lament, or a social justice warrior to exploit. There maybe some scope for an anthropologist or an art critic, but they generally seem to have ignored such sculptures.

Kiratas in the Great Penance

A curious aspect is their neutral expression – there is none of the vismaya of the celestials, the languidness of the animals at rest, or the delight of the elephants charging towards the water.

A stone’s throw from the Penance panel is the Govardhana Panel. Krishna lifts the mountain with his hand, with Balarama Subhadra and a host of the Yadavas and their cattle all taking refuge under it. The most remarkable aspect here is the utter normality of village life while a storm rages all around. Here a cowherd milks a cow, a lady vends her buttermilk, another carries a pile of straw on her head, a man plays the flute, his wife warns him that it is disturbing the sleeping baby, and so on. All people at work; but the primary intent of the sculptor is show the Grand Deed of Krishna, not the toil of the workers.

center: Krishna lifting Govardha
right : Lady carrying pots with buttermilk

right: Yaadava milking cow
left: Lady carrying straw

The Dharamaraja ratha, tallest of the Five Rathas, features several marvelous sculptures in the second and third floor, mostly of Siva and some of Vishnu, and their devotees. Among these are five temple workers – a priest (archaka), an attendant with a bell in his hand (parichaaraka), a cook (svayampaka), a water bearer (a lady with a pot) and a musician (oduvaar). Four of these are on the eastern wall, the lady with the pot is in the western wall. 

As temples became bigger, they acquired a larger band of workers, but none of the later Pallava or Chola temples ever depicts a single such worker.

In some temples of the Nayak era, sculptures of kings, queens, ministers, generals and donors are etched on some pillars. But in the ancient and medieval era, not a single poet, administrator, artist, architect, businessman, scientist, scholar, were apparently considered fit to commemorate with statues in temples. We have no idea what Kamaban Tiruvalluvar Ilango Avvaiyaar and others looked like. We don’t even know the names of the sthapathis and silpis of most of the temples, leave alone portrait sculptures. Perhaps some were featured in paintings in palaces or palm leaf manuscripts or other forms of painting, now lost.

In this respect, the statues of the workers, commoners as depicted in Mamallapuram remain unique.

If you liked this essay, check out other such essays by me 

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Moral Numbers

Once upon a time, the world only had numbers, but creative and brilliant mathematicians then discovered several types of numbers, each with its own distinct and remarkable name. So we have irrational numbers, negative numbers, and imaginary numbers, and their counterparts. At some point mathematicians realized that fractions are also numbers, so non fractions were named whole numbers. While all these numbers exist in nature, animals and plants and fungi ignore them, and mathematicians have to make special efforts to persuade people to take notice of them. And share their joy with those swimming in apathy about theoretical classes of numbers. So they named the numbers people use as Natural Numbers, and flooded textbooks in schools and colleges with the delights and joys of unnatural numbers, all in the name of education.

In Europe several of these people who taught mathematics early were Christian priests or their trainees. In India, higher mathematics were the field of jyotishas or ganakas, technically astronomers but usually astrologers, substantially a large number of whom were brahmins. Indian jyotishas either cruelly and haughtily withheld the mathematics of unnatural numbers from the teeming masses or were so kind that they spared them horrors of sums and homeworks and entrance exams, until the benevolent British decided that all children should suffer equally, a principle they borrowed either from the Prussian inventors of elementary schools or the American inventors of equality.

To  add to the merry confusion, around the seventeenth century, non religious Europeans, still often funded by various churches, started learning mathematics with a vengeance, and formed societies where they shared their discoveries. They invented new categories of numbers like transcendental numbers (without the advantage of Vedanta! Before Osho! Horrors!), sets, fields, quarternions, boolean numbers, and so on. They also discovered friendly numbers and perfect numbers. Shockingly they never bothered to invent moral numbers. Whether this is a failure of Christianity, of atheism or sadists, it is not clear. What is astounding is that Indian mathematicians or philosophers didn’t 
discover moral numbers either.

A Mystery

How could Punyabhumi, Jambudvipa, the mother of history and the grandmother of religion, as Mark Twain described her, with such a long history of mathematics (and morality), not have discovered, or at least invented, Moral Numbers? We put morality in everything. Our panchatantras effused the animal kingdom with morality. Our philosophers moralized the living daylights out of everything from death to drinking, to brushing teeth and revering palm leaves. Today Indian intellectuals are compensating for some of these absurd traditions, by disrespecting almost everything that our ancestors venerated. Never mind.  Varahamihira wrote half a book simply on the morals to be observed about combs and couches, while the planets and stars oversaw their fortunes. And thanks to the printing press, high taxes, a socialist constitution, a massive population, and a desperate desire to get certificates that we are at least as educated as the next person, everyone is taught all kinds of mathematics! So many types of numbers – except Moral numbers.

An objection may be raised. Why do we need morality in numbers? We have them in our laws, judgments, customs, in habits, food, drink, dress, entertainment, sports, cinema, music, literature, application forms, other forms, tax policies, goods and services, loans, write offs, grants, donations, fees, fines, in construction, inauguration, economics, economic opinions, in newspaper editorials, social media essays and tweets, public speeches, private speeches, outrage, occasionally even in religion. The sciences we learn or teach are free of morals, at least they are amoral, rather than immoral, but we compensate by loading our scientific institutions with morals. So much so, that we value their moral standing and probity more than any scientific output. Only our mathematics, sadly lacks morals, and that I think because we havent invented moral numbers. We can forgive Aryabhata and Bhaskara for this lapse, but our future generations will not forgive us if we don’t create a new system of morality among numbers, and propagate them for the benefit of Mankind.

After all if some numbers can be perfect, some irrational, and some even imaginary, surely some numbers can be moral?

But how do can we separate numbers into moral and immoral (and perhaps some amoral or doubtfully moral). What if some numbers prefer to be moral in public and immoral in private? We will then have a whole class of hypocritical numbers. A property so far confined to people and words. But since we have had centuries of experience with these, we can perhaps deal with numbers which are hypocritical too. But we may be jumping the gun.


Isnt morality subjective? Like truth, justice, fairness, even honesty etc which are all subjective. Unless of course you believe in particular set of truths and consider everyone who doesn’t accept these as immoral by choice? Eureka! Why would this principle not apply to numbers also? And consider the possibilities of academic research in mathematics, which so far has been unfairly confined to people who are excellent in mathematics! How exclusionary – to leave our journalists, politicians, preachers, philosophers, writers, artists, who all usually avoid any mathematics that isnt financial?

That is the beauty of it, a beauty GH Hardy and Paul Dirac and S Chandrasekhar would have appreciated. The case for moral numbers is that they will not only help us understand morality, they will help humanity achieve equality. We live in a terribly unequal world, where rewards frequently go to competent or hard working people. This must be rectified as soon as  possible. Why confine equality to equations?

But how would a mathematician discover which numbers are moral? Is there something inherently moral about some numbers, but not others (a dangerous possibility of inequality, which is immoral, but we must theoretically consider this)? We must also consider that the morality of numbers may be independent of the mathematicians who investigate them or even the areas of mathematics where they could prove to be useful (or useless). We may discover that morality is not binary – or discrete as mathematicians like to call them – but has many shades of grey. There may a Fuzzy Arithmetic, a counterpart of Fuzzy Logic, just waiting to be discovered. Fuzzy Logic was first propounded by an Aryan called Lofti Zadeh, and it would be fitting if Fuzzy Arithmetic came from our beloved Dravidian land. It would be so poetic, if our beloved Madras aka Chennai which gave the world three language families, could also give the world several new number families. And even our omnipresent Malthusians and Ehrlichians wouldn’t object on the grounds that this doesn’t come under family planning.

I have drowned you, dear reader, in words, in an essay purporting to be about numbers. Wrong, I know. But I am merely trying to drench my ankles as I wade into a sea that may not even exist, and I will only know if the sea is watery when my ankles become wet. Sadly, until now, my ankles like this essay, are dry. Now, Tamilnadu is hardly a dry state – but so many of our fellow citizens have parched throats in this never ending Corona Virus Lockdown.


The Lockdown, similar to what Isaac Newton suffered in his early twenties, has inspired this flow of thought. Unlike I Newton, owing perhaps to a lack of apple trees in Madras, I have not discovered a single law of physics in these forty days. I thought I must at least explore the possibilities of mathematics. A notable Indian author wrote a famous book called the Algebra of Infinite Justice, which was sadly lacking in algebra, but compensated by being finite. Is it not our duty then to explore such other topics as the Calculus of Limited Economics, the Geometry of Tangential Discussions, the Statistics of Sesquipedalian Solipsistic Sophomoric Soliloquies, the Probability of Profoundly Perfidious Perspicacity, the Differential Equations of Indifferent Inequalities, and so on? Some mute inglorious Milton in Meenambakkam, some Cromwell in Coimbatore, surely is working on these. Will moral numbers help them or the current mathematics suffice?

So moral numbers may not be merely theoretical mathematics, but applied to. This would have disappointed Hardy and Dirac. But the word application is music to the ears of lawyers, bureaucrats, and software developers, so let us not worry too much. In fact there may be some basic Pythagorean theorem of morality, whereby the happiness of some people may be equal to the sum of the discontent of the neighbors on two sides of their houses. It may be quantifiable as a number. Happiness and discontent are currently not measured with numbers but only by vague notions, but once we assign numbers to them, we can compute them, develop a quantitative economics about them, securitize and monetize them, tax them, collect distribute them based on other principles, and so on. Surely this will lead to greater happiness and contentment. What a marvelous similarity this would be to the world’s central banks, which simply print more currency notes whenever economies start floundering, and thus increase the world’s overall wealth. One of these days we will all be billionaires. Perhaps, Happionaires too.

I will wait for reader’s suggestions before revealing some of my other ideas on moral numbers. I have visualized a small set of operations, equivalent to arithmetic operations, but I still haven't figured out how to determine which numbers are moral and which aren't.

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