The Theory of Absence of Presence in Art

Victoria Terminus, now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, has seen 133 years of warships, brutalities, freedom, celebration and suffering, it has even seen the transition of Bombay to Mumbai. It was an architectural marvel named after Queen Victoria, the Queen of England, and her figure carved in stone was placed in a niche at the center of the building to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of her reign as the Empress of India. It was a symbol of the British Empire in the landscape of India.

Even though the Queen had never visited India throughout her time as the Empress, her power and authority sure had a presence through sculptures.

This statue was later removed from its niche by the Government of India after Independence but was never replaced.

The act of removal, the vacuum, acts as a space of active protest. It challenges the language of monuments themselves. The fact that they do not represent the history of power and domination but rather subverts the same notion through the absence of presence.

The artwork 'Victoria Terminus’ is the exact replica of the plinth where the sculpture of the Empress stood. It is made out of jesmonite, a material capable of resisting impact and painted with Chili, a vibrant spice with a prominent smell that is spicy and intolerable when consumed in great amounts, representing pain and violence.

Does the replica negotiate with the authenticity of preserved history? The stories of both original and replica are grounded in the meaningful voice of something lost to the country. The absence of voice extends into the way the plinth is regarded as a silent witness. While the voice is faded and neglected in the original, the replica in a gallery allows space for reflection and speculation.

Victoria Terminus by Kinnari Saraiya

Recognize the complex relationship of the two names mentioned in the sentence above, one being the Queen, The Empress of India and the other, an Indian. The two tied together, through the history of colonialism.

The East India Company was established for the exploitation of trade with India of spices in the late 1500s. What started as trading opportunity between two countries turned into a full administrative control of territories by the Crown that later came to be known as The British Raj. What replaces imperialism is globalization. Continuing past into the present of India is the trading of spices. The painted chili makes the sculpture look vibrantly red, almost as if it’s burning in spicy heat, a plinth that would turn the Queen to ashes if she was stood on it.

The original plinth, built in 1887, is an indication of the past and the replica, constructed in 2020, tells a contemporary human story of the past from a post-colonial standpoint.

Plinths throughout history have glorified important people in power but when the same plinth is snatched of its royal person, it recontextualizes public monuments.

It is natural to first attend to what is there, the architecture, the landscape, the figures. However, there is often just as much meaning in what is absent. Absence is, in reality, abundance. The presence of absence conveys the poetic power of the particular in our understanding of the universal. The presence of absence, essentially the absence of presence in this artwork is the presence of a spotlight pointing at the absence of Queen Victoria’s figure. While the spotlight guides the viewer, it also becomes the viewer. The spotlight standing on a tripod shines, not on but just above the plinth, illuminating a blank space. This artwork is not about what you can see, it’s what you cannot see. Just as public sculptures of the Victorian era communicate a history that is in favor of those in power, while no one talks about the people on the backs of which this history is created.

This negative space by no means is a negative connotation, in contrast it’s the positive reclamation of power by the oppressed.

The legitimacy of the Raj was increasingly tied to the success of the carefully managed image regime that was maintained through the presence of public sculptures and constant silent architectural reminders of the British. What the artwork Victoria Terminus successfully does is exploits this image regime to expose the untold horrors behind it in a subtle but powerful manner. It questions whether truth and presence are directly linked.

The traumatic histories that Queen Victoria symbolizes remains deeply felt in the physical and social fabric of the city, and this vacuum was a blunt but effective means of rejecting her persistent presence.