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Columns
June 26, 2014

Prima Donnas of Power

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

Madhu Jain talks about power in its various forms and discovers the scientific truth about why power corrupts

I can’t possibly count the number of times I have gone down Marine Drive, or up depending on which end you start. For a Delhi denizen like me this gently curving boulevard skirting the Arabian Sea, aptly called the Queen’s Necklace, pulls me more than anything else to the city once known as Bombay. Most times I gaze at the sea and its varying moods from a clear blue and sparkling (increasingly rare) to an angry muddy grey mirroring the monsoon clouds. And, occasionally, the elegant facades of the buildings, a few inspired by Art Deco, distract my attention away from the promenade and the sea.

However, what captures my imagination is the rather archaic and mildly dusty display window with an odd assortment of busts and mannequins dressed in Bollywood– inspired outfits. Maganlal Dresswala is a costume shop, a place I visited some years ago when I was researching a story on villains in Hindi cinema. This was the ’90s, the time when the late Amrish Puri reigned as villain number one. When I asked the man there about the latest trend in villainy he said it was politicians. “We now sell our costumes to politicians as well as actors.” Actually, he put it much better: netas and abhinetas. If my memory serves me right, there was a small bust of a politician in Nehruvian mode with a Gandhi topi in the window. The image of which lingered in my memory. The next time in this city by the sea I will go into the Maganlal Dresswala shop.

Enduring impression
Please excuse the winding digression, which brings me to the thrust of this column. The theme of this issue is power and I wanted to focus on its built–in, sell–by date and fragility – how slippery the downward slide from the pinnacle of power (in all spheres) is. And, how lonely it can be down there, once back again amongst mere mortals for fallen leaders, dictators, film stars, singers, writers – the prima dons and donnas of all arenas. It is the reason why the little bust which could have been Pandit Nehru or Lal Bahadur Shastri had made such an enduring impression. There it was, gathering the dust of indifference, a mere prop for a film perhaps.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet all of us of a certain age who studied English literature were made to love and quote, captured the fragility of power best in his oft–cited sonnet Ozymandias. In this short poem Shelley refers to the Pharaoh Ramsses1who ruled Egypt for 66 years. A shrewd self–publicist he ordered many sculptures of himself, and even commissioned the Rammesseum, a huge memorial complex for himself at Thebes (near Luxor) – a temple where he would be worshipped as a god for eternity. This was long before the spin doctors of our times and the virus of mammoth commissioned sculptures and huge hoardings and cutouts of political leaders in many parts of the world went viral.

Struck by the acquisition of the statue by the British Museum, London in 1821, Shelley used it to reflect upon the impermanence of power. While Napoleon had tried and failed to move the statue to France, the British succeeded but with just the upper torso – almost nine feet high – of the granite sculpture. The legs remained on Egyptian soil, and the poet’s words capture the transience of power and grandeur beautifully.

‘I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Nor have time and circumstance been too kind to the statues of latter day leaders seeking eternal fame. From the clichéd images of statues covered with bird droppings – equestrian and on their own two feet – to the iconic image of the huge statue of Saddam Hussein being brought down and stamped upon, to countless others of former dictators and icons destroyed, time has taken its revenge. In India the transitory nature of power can be seen most poignantly in the statues of the British rulers. Many of them were put away in Coronation Park, Delhi or stored haphazardly in some godown somewhere. The British planned to rule forever: Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker had designed much of Imperial New Delhi for this purpose. One of the more poignant reminders, and silent, about how wrong they were is the empty canopy in India Gate. It was for the beautiful marble statue of George V, now missing in action, and probably in a godown.

Arrogance and impatience
I have never been able to understand why perfectly normal people change once power visits them: celebrities, politicians, tycoons can become veritable monsters. Lord John Acton’s memorable phrase ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, coined over a century ago still does not explains the whys and how of the matter. Perhaps, recent scientific research about the brain may provide some answers. Scientists now claim that Acton’s saying is biologically true. The ‘feeling of power’ has been found to have a similar effect on the brain as has cocaine: it increases the levels of testosterone and its by–product 3–androstanediol in both men and women, and with it the levels of dopamine – a fact which might spell addiction. You may get more energy but with it comes the baggage of paranoia, arrogance and impatience. This could explain the irrational behaviour of the powerful, including celebrities, tycoons and leaders.

Power, like most guests, should only be invited for a short stay. Otherwise, it becomes seductive, addictive and takes over.

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