All who know Calcutta will find the subject of my sketch, familiar: the rearing bronze horse, the rider, sword-hand resting on his charger's flank, looking searchingly over his right shoulder. In Calcutta, it is perhaps the most brilliantly conceived of all the heroic bronzes of British viceroys and famous generals that once galloped the maidan and are now tucked away under trees in the Victoria Memorial or drawn up in some semblance of review in the old Government House at Barrackpore. This particular bronze, or rather its look-alike, used to occupy the traffic island opposite Park Street until it made way for the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Where wags once offered the vision of General Sir James Outram charging up fashionable Park Street to have tea at Flurys and Trincas or read a new history of his times at the Oxford Book Depot, they may now suggest he is galloping away from the temptations of the street. In fact, he is forever frozen, leading a charge against the besieged residency in Lucknow and he wears the uniform of the Bengal Army which he commanded.
There is the magnificent charger, every muscle and vein faithfully portrayed, its tail streaming behind it. It requires only the slightest imagination to see the sweat coursing down its flanks and foam flecking its face. In Kathmandu, the rider is General Jung Bahadur, first Rana prime minister of Nepal, proud in all his decorations and wearing, perhaps, the legendary pearl necklace purchased from Nana Sahib. Queen Victoria had honoured him with the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. Prince Louis Napoleon, later Napoleon III of France, presented him with his jewelled sword and the Emperor of China had bestowed upon him the country's highest (and most unpronounceable) award, accompanied by the Double-Eyed Peacock Feather and the Sable Coat. The general wears the gem-encrusted crown of the maharaja prime ministers, the bird of paradise plumes arching behind. His penetrating backward glance could be for any number of reasons, since Jung Bahadur, almost endlessly involved in plots and coups and palace intrigues, was forever on guard against assassination attempts as bizarre as any history has contrived. Pointing to a portrait in his palace at Thapathali, he is quoted as saying to his companion, the British author of Journey to Kathmandu, Laurence Oliphanti, 'This is my poor uncle Mathabar Singh, whom I shot. It is very like him.'
A marble plaque set in the pedestal, decorated with the moon and the sun, a khukri, cannon balls, the imprint of feet, a rifle and a sword, bears the legend 'His Excellency Maharaja Sir Jung Bahadur Rana G.C.B & G.C.S.I. Though Ling Pim Mako Kang Wang Sian. Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief, Nepal. Born 19th Ashad 1874 Sambat. Died 27th Phagoon 1933.' Surprisingly, there is also an inscription in Persian, and the sculptor's name, T. Brook, London 1881, is inscribed on the base of the statue.
Which came first, the Outram or the Jung Bahadur statue? Outram's obviously. Though the renowned sculptor J.H. Foley RA omits to add a date to his signature, an inscription tells us that the bronze was cast by R. Masefield & Co. Founders, London, in 1873. The general had died ten years earlier, so I wonder if he ever sat for his likeness. I had always taken it for granted that both the Calcutta and Kathmandu statues were the work of one man, but Jung Bahadur's statue has the name T. Brooks, London, 1881, inscribed on its base: Brooks being one of Foley's assistants, a brilliant copyist or responsible for casting the second bronze from the original mould. Jung Bahadur died in 1877, so once again the statue is posthumous and one is left wondering how the sculptor arrived at so detailed and perfect a likeness. Whatever the answers to an intriguing situation, there is no doubt that these two almost identical equestrian statues are among the finest anywhere.
Jung Bahadur wasn't the only Rana prime minister perpetuated in bronze. They almost all were, and Kathmandu's Tundikhel or Maidan, exhibits some outstanding statuary -one achieving the almost impossible by having the horse rear up on a single hind leg. Famous names in heroic statuary were commissioned abroad. I know of only one exception, a sadly dispirited bronze of a later prime minister that commissioned locally, was considered too inferior to erect among its gallant brethren on Kathmandu's maidan. It stands, rather incongruously, in a temple courtyard.
What was amazing was the feat of getting these cumbersome and vastly heavy monuments to Kathmandu, as they belong to the time when everything imported had to be carried over the mountains between Nepal and India. Limousines, royal carriages, extravagant chandeliers, huge Venetian mirrors, grand pianos and suites of ponderous furniture all were brought in on backs of porters toiling up precarious trails. Fragile chandeliers could find replacements for parts-broken mirrors must have been a headache-but how to replace a delicate finger broken or placate the bad omen of a decapitated prime minister? Carrying an elephant would have been easier.
There is a third in this trilogy of similar equestrian statues; that of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose at the Sham Bazaar crossing. There is no doubt where the inspiration came from. A hundred years separates the original two and the disproportio-nate third, but there must be a moral somewhere in a single inspired work serving the memory of three such widely different but distinguished men: a dashing Nepali prime minister, a British general and an Indian hero of Independence.
(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods, HarperCollins, 1999)