A Semiotic Storm: The Afterlife of Sir Arthur Cotton

By Gautam Pemmaraju. Gautam is a Mumbai-based independent filmmaker, writer, and researcher working in the areas of history, literature, and art with a special interest in the Deccan. A Tongue Untied: The Story of Dakhani on the vernacular satire & humour poetry of the region is his first independent feature documentary film. He is a member of the Maidaanam editorial collective.

On March 10th 2011, a ‘Million March’ was organized in Hyderabad by the Telangana Joint Action Committee (TJAC) as a broad-based mass agitation demanding separate statehood for the Telangana region of south-central India. It was developed on the model of the Arab Spring protests that took place in Egypt earlier that January.

This long-standing call for a separate state dated back to the reorganization of Indian states on linguistic lines in the early 1950s. At that time, Andhra Pradesh was created as a unified “Telugu state” by merging the majority Telugu-speaking districts of Hyderabad State and the Madras Presidency. The unification had not been straightforward. Tensions between the two former administrative zones, reflecting their very different histories of development and anticolonial struggle, had long simmered.

On the day of the Million March, Crowds swelled on the iconic Tank Bund road that circles the medieval man-made Hussain Sagar lake. A group of protestors began defacing several statues on the promenade. Invoking narratives of economic and socio-political neglect articulated by march organizers, they targeted statues of cultural heroes linked to the Telugu state’s coastal Andhra region. Some statues were even torn down and dumped into the lake.

Arthur Cotton
(Source: General Sir Arthur Cotton by Lady Elizabeth Hope)

One of the sixteen statues that faced the ire of the crowd was that of Sir Arthur Cotton. Cotton was a legendary British military engineer who was responsible for key irrigation projects in coastal Andhra. These projects radically transformed the region’s landscape, fortunes, and socio-economic relations.

Recently, numerous statues have been brought down or desecrated across the world. From actions targeting memorials of Christopher Columbus, confederate general Robert E. Lee, former American president Andrew Jackson and the newspaper editor Edward Ward Carmack by racial justice activists in the U.S.; the dumping of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol Harbour; and the setting on fire of the statue of the Belgian monarch Leopold II in Antwerp for his barbaric actions in Congo; contemporary protestors have channelized “Iconoclastic Fury” towards a reckoning of the brutal legacies of colonialism and racism. In the past, statues of Cecil Rhodes, Saddam Hussein, Marx, Lenin and Stalin, and Gandhi, have been targeted. In the not so recent past too, memorialized emperors, kings and satraps have faced symbolic acts of humiliation, retribution and allegoric erasure.

Ruined Statue of Sri Sri
(Source: Author)

Drawn to the site by the spectacle as well as a curiosity about which of the thirty-three statues on Tank Bund road had been targeted, I took several photographs in June 2012. The medieval Telugu king Krishnadevaraya had been brought down completely. The statues of the 17th century devotional poet Kshetrayya, the literary figure and social reformer Kandukuri Veerasalingam, the playwright Guruzada Appa Rao, and the Marxist poet and film lyricist Sri Sri were damaged. Beyond the obvious political cleavage between Telangana and Andhra, there is much that can be read into this turbulent iconoclasm—a semiotic storm if you will.

The Iconoclastic Fury or The Great Iconoclasm of 16th century Europe refers to the widespread desecration of Catholic churches and art by Calvinist protestors.[1] In Dutch this is known as Beeldenstorm and in German Bildersturm—translated as “image storm” or “statue storm.” In invoking these words, the politico-religious functions of memorialization come to the fore. The plinth of collective memory, myth making and identity, with ornamental civic utility and aesthetics, props up these commemorative acts.

Sir Arthur Cotton was an “empire maker” and “empire lover” and “zealously longed for the spread of England’s civilization, her privileges and her blessings over distant lands…”[2] He was also a fervent evangelist, keen to spread the good word and enlighten the heathens in his support of Christian mission work across British India. Although committed to the Church of England, those who just “sit in their pews twice every Sunday” troubled him. His “deepest anxiety and most constant thought” though, had to do with the “fatal heresy of ritualism” or “Popery in disguise” as he termed it. He called instead for the “utmost simplicity in worship.”[3]

Ruined Statue of Arthur Cotton
(Source: Author)

It is interesting to consider here the ritualistic offering of pinda pradanam, rice balls with black sesame seeds, in Sir Arthur Cotton’s name at the riverbanks of the Godavari in Rajahmundry. A provincial city today, Rajahmundry was once a bustling merchant town. During the colonial period it played an important role in the modernization of Telugu literature and art. The city grew in influence due in no small part to Cotton’s construction of the famous Dowleswaram Anicut[4] in the mid 19th century. Local traditions pay tribute to this landmark event, which at first ended the misery of flooding in the region and then transformed large stretches of water-logged jungle terrain into rich, fertile agricultural lands.

Having performed the ritual during the annual Godavari pushkaram of 2015, the state legislator Nimmala Ramanaidu told TV reporters: “if the Godavari districts are fertile and we are eating today, it is because of Arthur Cotton.” As a ceremonial Brahmanical provisioning for the departed soul in the afterlife, this seemingly incongruous act offers cues to modes of appropriation, reverence and memorialization. This identificatio brahminica also points to the historical complex of Sanskritization, Brahmanization, and associated assimilative modes that have shaped caste and social relations over time.[5]

A critical reshaping of societal and caste equations of the coastal Andhra region took place during the early to mid 19th century. The Ryotwari land revenue scheme (1820) introduced by the colonial administrator Thomas Munro in Madras resulted in many Brahmins ceding their land holdings due to the loss of traditional patronage, high taxes, and absentee landlordism. This gave way to the rise of non-Brahmin castes as landed magnates.

Arthur Cotton’s irrigation projects in the Godavari belt resulted in “unprecedented changes in the agrarian economy of Andhra” and largely benefited the non-Brahmin Reddy and Kamma communities.[6] Colonial policy aided the non-Brahmin movement of the region. The rise of wealthy capitalists (and recent ‘Andhrapreneurs’)[7] from the coastal regions of Andhra can be traced back to these changing land ownership and caste patterns.

Water resources have been at the centre of the Telangana-Andhra dispute. Pro-Telangana voices claim the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1956 between the two regions to safeguard the interests of Telangana were violated. Leaders have argued that the failure to divert water from the Krishna and Godavari rivers to irrigate Telangana as per plans of the then Hyderabad government, and the allocation of the ‘lion’s share’ of resources to Andhra, has progressively contributed to the further discrimination and impoverishment of Telangana. Consequently, Arthur Cotton symbolized the enrichment of Andhra at the cost of Telangana for many.

Ruined Statue of Kshetrayya
(Source: Author)

Yet for others, the Tank Bund statue storm was nothing more than vandalism. With all the heft of history and symbolism, the industrialist and then politician Lagadapati Rajagopal raised the issue in the Lok Sabha days later “with deep anguish and heart-burn” that the “cultural vandalism…has parallel only with in Afghanistan when Taliban vandalized the Buddha statue.” For this controversial Andhrapreneur, who was vehemently opposed to the creation of Telangana, the actions were an assault on “Telugu culture.”

In 2014, when the Telangana bill was tabled in the lower house, this same lawmaker caused havoc by using pepper spray on the floor of the parliament. The invocation of the Bamiyan Buddha and Rajagopal’s own actions are enmeshed within an intricate web of a ‘Semiotic Democracy’[8], as these multiple iconoclastic acts played out in the televised public sphere and animated the fractious discourse.

The administrative realm’s favor of Arthur Cotton’s engineering feats can be viewed with a techno-progressive lens. He addressed flood mitigation, water storage and irrigation, and water transit in an economic planning framework, and also provided models for river linkages, seen as solutions to several issues including inter-state water sharing disputes. His “remarkable mastery” over India’s river networks has provided conceptual, historic and practical levers to approach the contested proposals for a National Water Grid. As a visionary engineer and colonial administrator, Arthur Cotton is a compelling archetype for technocratic governance in region. His statue embodies grand schemes of development, emancipation, and poverty alleviation.

The statue, as the scholar Pramod K Nayar argues, “is the material manifestation of a group identity in contemporary India, and a marker of the claim to recognition and rights.” In a paper that keenly examines the semiotic potency of Ambedkar statues (and their desecration), he points out that the temporality of a historical figure is altered when cast as a statue “bringing him into the realm of the timeless or the sacred, like an icon.” Its desecration becomes an act of ‘profane semiotics.’

In the case of Ambedkar, Nayar adds that such desecration attempts a foreclosure of “the chances of greater public histories” that may emerge around him, and is thereby linked to the systemic denigration and violence against Dalits. The periodic desecrations of Ambedkar statues across India trigger outrage and violence and contribute to deepening fissures. It is interesting to note that among the statues desecrated on Tank Bund road by pro-Telangana agitators that day in 2011, there was also the widely acclaimed “Father of Telugu Dalit poetry,” Gurram Jashuva.

Colonial era land reforms also adversely impacted Adivasi and Dalit groups. Exploitative money lending and non-tribal settlement of land lead to great social unrest in the region. Additionally, polygyny for land ownership, inadequate and iniquitous survey and settlement procedures, and other administrative practices, enabled increased appropriation and occupation of Adivasi lands by non-tribal communities. Arthur Cotton’s “megalomania”[9] had furthered the alienation of land for many and the bourgeois control of land by some. Despite legal safeguards that would come in place, these fissures deepened over time and became further complicated by future development projects.

Restored Statue of Arthur Cotton
(Source: Author)

Arthur Cotton’s statue was restored in October 2012, cancelling the cancel so to speak. In all this, a consistent thread of monumental theatre and cinematic spectacle is to be found. The performative aura of NT Rama Rao, the erstwhile chief minister of unified Andhra Pradesh and a former Telugu screen idol, pervades the Tank Bund statues and the adjacent urban beautification project.

It was under NTR’s direction in the mid-1980s that these statues of great Telugu heroes were first erected along Tank Bund Road. They were part of a larger populist vision to restore the pride of the Telugu people that was being diminished, as he saw it, by a hegemonic central power at Delhi. In the process, he also elevated those figures who had contributed to the making of “standard Telugu,” as based on Andhra dialects, against the “vernacular” Telugu dialects of Telangana.

NTR’s government strengthened the hold of wealthy capitalists from coastal Andhra across the state and paved the way for his son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu’s own radical transformation of the political economy and urban landscape of Hyderabad city and united Andhra Pradesh. The medieval sultan Quli Qutb Shah built Hyderabad, but it was Naidu, as he claimed in 2018, who built Cyberabad. The legatees of Arthur Cotton’s zealous engineering had wrested control of land, labor and language.

I end with this image of NT Rama Rao’s statue at Thullur, near the now abandoned capital city of Amravati. In its striking pose, it embodies all this semiotic churn.

N.T. Rama Rao (1923-1996)
(Source: Author)

[1] Enzo Traverso, Tearing Down Statues Doesn’t Erase History, It Makes Us See It More Clearly.

[2] Lady Hope (Elizabeth Reed), General Sir Arthur Cotton, His Life And Work, pg. 548.

[3] ibid. pg. 557.

[4] The Godavari Delta System irrigation project was refurbished in 1970 and renamed Sir Arthur Cotton Barrage.

[5] MN Srinivas’ work is greatly relevant here. See his essay, A Note on Sanskritization and Westernization.

[6] S Inna Reddy, Social reform movements in Andhra (1920-1947).

[7] Harish Damodaran’s India’s New Capitalists and James Crabtree’s Billionaire Raj are recommended reading for readers interested in the rise of India’s recent ultra-wealthy capitalists.

[8] John Fiske’s idea has found interesting extensions in Sonia Katyal’s work titled Semiotic Disobedience.

[9] David Hardiman, The politics of water in Colonial India.

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