EXHIBITION - BAPU (Jan 15-Feb 15, 2009) :

By Gayatri Sinha

For a man who wryly spoke of the persistence of the "darshan dilemma", Gandhi has been probably the most widely imaged figure of the 20th century.

The media used in this exhibition - animation, photography, the moving image, sculpture and painting, Gandhian signs and symbols, mirror the numerous forms of representation that Gandhi has inspired since the early 20th century.

Such popular usages and their resurgence affirm that even in the 60th year since his assassination, Gandhi remains central to some essential questions in social polity.

As a moral force in modern India, Gandhi's position is unchallenged. In a country where political relations are familial, Nehru earned the affectionate sobriquet of 'chacha' or uncle, while Gandhi occupies the primary patriarchal positions of "father of the nation" or Bapu, and "Son of India".

1. With each generation of children growing up in India, this familial relationship is renewed. Gandhi's presence in India has been stimulated by the state machinery - his ubiquitous image reinforced through currency notes and coins, mass invocations and advertising, photographs in government offices and public statuary. All of these combine to make Gandhi part of the metanarrative of the modern Indian state, a figure who brings definition and order, establishing a link with the aspirations of the nationalist struggle and her sovereign identity. While state and official representations of Gandhi have become petrified and repetitive over time, the popular and less predictable images of the bazaar, the Bollywood movie industry, MTV and Youtube continually reinvoke Gandhi in pop avatars. Most recently, Thich Nyat Thin commented on Indian television that Gandhi's relevance was relative to the degree that "we invest in his renewal". 2. The invocation of Gandhian principles however is undefined and relegated to the broad rubric of ethics and sacrifice in Indian public life. Now in the 60th year of his assassination, the death of the idea of Gandhi, of Gandhian principles, is an elemental question. Does Gandhi carry over into 21st century India, with its current obsessions with globalism and the free market? How do we locate Gandhi in the unresolved issues of an Indian modernity? How relevant is Gandhian ahimsa when violence in the public domain reaches threatening proportions?

The Idea of Gandhi

Gandhi's expansive engagement covered every aspect of Indian culture and polity and influenced the decades immediately before Independence. But with the passage of time, his legacy has had a more unpredictable reception.

Gandhi's contrariness,his tendency to be the exception rather than the rule defined his public engagement; within his notion of progressivism was the concept of an 'ethical state', couched in beliefs derived from his faith: "My politics and all other activities of mine derive from my religion". 3. As Independence drew close, Gandhi's idea of India became isolated; his opposition to large industry and heavy mechanized systems had already been recognized as unsustainable by Nehru, the architect of modern India. Deeply critical of the western model of 'material progress' he said "We are dazzled by the material progress that western science has made. I am not enamored of that progress. In fact it almost seems as though God in his wisdom had prevented India from progressing along those lines so that it might fulfill its special mission of resisting the onrush of materialism".

In the context of global ecological decline,Gandhi's position was visionary since it anticipated the ecological disasters of industrialization, and the concentration of cities as centres of consumption. Gandhi advocated village republics, structured around the principle of need, providing inherently their own goods and services. "Gandhi's dream was not of personal self-sufficiency not even family self-sufficiency, but the self-sufficiency of the village community" writes the Gandhian scholar Satish Kumar. In its network of artisans, labour, workers, and traders, the village would serve as a microcosm of India.

With new recognition of the pitfalls of industrial expansion, speculative business and a lopsided development between city and village Gandhi's relevance appears somewhat redefined. The larger world embraces Gandhi; on October 2, 2008 Gandhi's birthday, Barack Obama acknowledged his inspiration, among visionary thinkers, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama - who have acknowledged Gandhi as the single most potent influence of change. Gandhi returns with little provocation to election debates, pop culture, new age gurus, public discourse. On popular merchandise, Gandhi's quotes on satyagraha are revived. The question arises then not of Gandhi's relevance but the nature of his regeneration. We are here confronted with two Gandhis - the museumized 'father of the nation' 'son of India' figure that appears as the imprint of Indian officialdom and on ceremonial events. The other Gandhi, perpetually mutating and in a state of reinvention, is reinscribed into public memory and consciousness, through spontaneous usages. Effectively, every person may have a personal Gandhi, since his protean mission in life touched polity, religion, statecraft with virtually the same intensity as it touched art, social and gender issues.

The Image Reinscribed

The artists in the exhibition appear to respond to different aspects of the life of Gandhi. Described by historian Ravinder Kumar as an 'epochal hero' Gandhi appears as a figure of "societal transitions" embodying many of the aspirations and urges of his times. Riyas Komu's work 'Two Fathers', presents Jinnah and Gandhi as relatively young men in early undivided 20th century India, each representing a face of protest against colonial subjugation. Through this even handed placement of the two portraits, Komu envisages them virtually at the moment of their engagement with subcontinental politics. The schism between Gandhi and Jinnah came as early as 1920, when Jinnah quit the Home League Rule and the Indian National Congress. In Gandhi's carefully modulated self-representation, we may read his self construction as a peasant of Kathiawad - the clothes that he imported to South Africa and wore on his return, symbolic of his approach to Yugadharma. Gandhi is widely identified in the public mind with three stages of his life - the young lawyer in western garb, followed by the Indian in home spun dress, exemplifying his identification with pristine village values and a return to pre-industrial purity. There is also the most well identified image of Gandhi in the loin cloth -- the garb of the poor Indian farmer, the fakir or mendicant, the sadhu or the man of faith. It emphasized Gandhi's renunciatory spirit, of cultural and moral values as instruments of political action. Implicit in this twin portrait is the idea of fissure and separation; Jinnah and Gandhi both fathers of nations, in effect still witness to periods of strife and identity crises. As the 'Father of India' and 'Quaied-e-Azam' in Pakistan they represent the long struggle of attrition for moderation, and the embedded tragedy and euphoria over Partition.

Different sites of Gandhi's life and teaching mark the exhibition. Gigi Scaria's work is an invocation to history's looped passages where the past appears embedded in the present. Gandhi's ashram as Sabarmati appears on the video screen, gradually morphing from black and white to colour, and then back again to a monochromatic state ('Sabarmati' 2008, multi channel video installation with sound). Scaria's camera treats the exterior of Gandhi and Kasturba's house at Sabarmati like a still photograph, lending the house and its environs the constancy of a sculptural work and the stolidity of national history. Somewhat removed from this emblematic site of Gandhi's experiments with truth are Scaria's large format photographs of the small sea port of Porbander. As a space Porbander exists in public memory only as Gandhi's birthplace - Scaria seeks to emphasize what he describes as its ''overlooked and rotten'' state. Of labour and toil, in which Porbander resembles other small Indian towns —and its recent vivification during the Bombay attacks, as the backwaters of illegal activity.

The challenge of Gandhi's passage into modern Indian history confronts the active museumization of Gandhi, and his role in the popular mainstream. Like Ambedkar, Gandhi is an omnipresent sculptural figure, installed at city centres, government building complexes, forming a continual reminder in the public gaze of India's nationalist struggle. Jagannath Panda and Vivek Vilasini pick on this aspect of Gandhi as public memorial, denuded with age, virtually until he becomes a blind spot. Panda's well entrenched interest in iconicity draws from his familiarity with traditional Oriya painting; the classical principles of representation are then overlaid with elements of kitsch and play.

A sensitivity to visible decay and degradation often imaged through the city's essential survivors - cockroaches, colonies of ants, crows, birds recurs through Panda's body of work. In the present work titled 'Icon', the references are very particular: like Gandhi's sculpture, banished to the margins, the common sparrow is fast disappearing across Delhi's horizon. The menace of the advancing city is suggested by the uniform blocks of houses, much like ubiquitous middle class government housing in Delhi against which Gandhi stands like a distant outpost. Vilasini's grid of photographic Gandhi images drives home a vision sense of state tokenism in creating a pantheon of nationalist heroes. Vilasini travelled within Tamil Nadu, a state with an iconographic abundance, turning his lens upon India's champion of the downtrodden, the father of the nation. The places that he covers: the central cross roads of small districts are the sites of Gandhi's village republics. What Vilasini came away with is the reductive everyman's Gandhi, fashioned by the village potter or sculptor and over painted in the modern Tamil temple tradition, rendering a caricature of Gandhi's iconic features.

The conflation of Gandhi with the map of India is a well established trope in Gandhi imagery, traced to his imaging as son of (Mother) India in popular posters, and the Nathdwara collage-paintings of the mid early and 20th century. In an inversion of roles, the youthful Bharat Mata appears to urge and guide Gandhi the mahatma-statesman, as son of India, who will deliver her to freedom. Gandhi appears standing on the globe or walking across the map, in the well known reference to the Dandi March, the act of marking Indian Territory and the earth itself, in an act of repossession. Artists like D.P. Roychoudhury Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij, closer in time to the independence struggle have depicted Gandhi in the act of walking, leaving his historical imprint. Here Sachin Karne collapses the aerial view of the map of India under the impress of Gandhi's feet, rendering him a physical and moral force. Karne's play with the partial figure is extended to his mirror work; it is in the viewing that it becomes complete; the spectator is invited to walk alongside Gandhi, in the participatory act of nation building.

Such gestures enter the frame of mimesis with Ram Rahman's 'Gandhi striding down Madison Avenue in an India Day Parade' (2002) bringing the iconic walk into the domain of contemporary culture. Rahman's own natural tendency is to see the street as a social leveler, where in the conflation of religion and politics, the icon appears as historical residue. Torn posters, wayside signs, toppled statues and hawkers usually compete for space in his photographs, and nostalgia for a forgotten heroism opens up the space for political critique.

Gandhi striding down Madison Avenue also enters the performative space, of play acting or impersonation. Navjot's video and photographs further draw on mimetic performance and documentary footage on Gandhi's violent assassination. Gandhi appears as he is most remembered, in grainy news footage, surrounded by the seething hordes, in attitudes of negotiation, studied protest or contemplation. In her work of the last decade, Navjot has worked on the recognition of violence of civilizational proportions. Through video and photographic works, Navjot compels societal realization of violence reinvoking Gandhi and the message of peace as an instrument of change. Gandhi said "I want her (India) to practice non-violence being conscious of her strength and power".

Gandhi endures in the public domain through iconic symbols as much as an overarching image. Two leading Gandhi memorials, at Birla House in New Delhi, and the Sabarmati ashram memorialize the objects of use - his 'khadavans' or wooden slippers, his charkha or spinning wheel, his walking staff, Gandhi's spectacles and most commonly the three monkeys. In the popular lexicon of moral conduct, the three monkeys - commonly sold as touristic artifacts at Gandhi ashrams - are the most visible symbol of Gandhi's highly self conscious role as the interpreter of moral values in modern India. As symbols, Gandhi's memorablia also invite subversion and engagement with other iconic and mythic figures that stretch forward and back in time. In the Ramayana, the monkey God as bhakta, sets Lanka afire with his tail in an episode of singular heroism. But as a symbol of the right wing Bajrang Dal, the monkey comes to symbolize forces of violence and moral inertia, or those that persecute religious minorities in the name of a once 'pure' India. Vasudha Thozhur's paintings usually spring from a particular event and then gain in making more complex references. She writes "Every stage in the unfolding of an event and its fallout calls for an alertness to the unique pattern that characterizes it and an expression of it would optimize the possibilities of appropriate intervention. Every representation carries with it the burden of that responsibility".

Thozhur's painting titled 'Terminus Erraeus' evokes the monkey common to the streets and roof tops Gujarat: her reference to the distortion of religious ideologies and the violence against minorities plays into the image of the three monkeys. They serve as a sign of a mute political structure, that in the land of Gandhi's birth, his doctrine of ahimsa or non violence has been violated. Anandajit Ray and Manisha Parekh draw upon other symbolic associations. Parekh, who works within a minimal framework that reminds us of her tutelage under Nasreen Mohammadi makes and fashions sculptures from sutli or a hand spun yarn. Gandhi's strong association with spinning, and natural fibres, twisted and shaped by the hand was not without contradiction. Gandhi believed that the message of the spinning wheel was "much wider than its circumference". He argued "The revival of hand-spinning and hand-weaving would make the largest contribution to the economic and moral regeneration of India".

What Gandhi saw as a sign of self sufficiency was criticized by Tagore who critiqued the philosophy of the charkha: "one thing is certain, that the all embracing poverty which has over-whelmed our country cannot be removed by working with our hands to the neglect of science". Six decades after this critical debate on the economic and moral fibre of India, Manisha Parekh's work 'Spinning Time' reminds us of the persistence of village economy, of hand crafting as an alternate mode of survival, of the India that lies beyond the aggression of the 'global' metropolis. Her work links in with what she describes as "an economy rather than a poverty of materials", a practice informed "not by big statements but a recognition of the small, the ordinary". The tension between village and industrial economies is further played out in Anandajit Ray's work. Anandajit Ray's sculpture cobbles together a Gandhian sign - his glasses - now overblown to assume spectacular proportions - with used tyres, resembling in the process the pushcart or rickshaw - the essential means of locomotion for India's poor.

As the architect of India's freedom, Gandhi also occupies extra- national contexts, that emerge from the shaping of modern India, as much as from the passing of his image into multiple levels of iconicity. Among practicing artists who have reinterpreted Gandhi in post national debates, Ashim Purkayastha assumes the role of dissident interlocutor of Gandhi's foundational ideas. For if Gandhi placed nation above family, community and regional affiliation, Purkayastha shows up the fragmentation of this ideal. Purkayastha's work 'Unknown Families, Unknown Watermarks' draws from familial experience; with the partition of Bengal, a road virtually ran through several Bengali family networks, severing them forever. Ashim's father's and mother's homes were consigned to different nations by the faultlines of history. Here the artist interrogates the patrimony of the father of the nation. Ashim has in the past suggested historic myopia in Gandhi 'Man Without Specs' and a series of paintings that reconfigures Gandhi on judicial papers, used for land transaction.

Through the imaging of migrant families, the sorrow of dislocation and loss lingers like a miasma. Ashim paints them with a speculative critique that implicates the Indian state. The watermark on Indian revenue papers and currency notes appears to run and bleed over the paper. We are confounded in our response to the Indian who is not at home in India, by the symbol of the state that has lost its definition.

Gandhi's role as moral preceptor also invites existential critique. In Surendran Nair's eponymous painting 'Tathaagat', Gandhi is imaged as the preceptor of Buddhism, a faith synonymous with simplicity and reform. Myth and history conflate to create a metaphor for the avatar of peace. Clad in the clothes of the Kathiawadi farmer, the garb that he chose on his return from South Africa, Gandhi doubles up as Krishna holding up Mount Goverdhan, a metamountain that contains the structures of ancient and reformist sub-continental faiths. In the foreground appears a yote, symbol of the migrant and the wanderer, uncommitted to any entrenched dogma. The utopia of possibility here, of Gandhi as contemporary reformer and way-shower is however belied by the twist injected into the narrative. Krishna's spectacular act of rescuing the dwellers of Ambadi, and protecting them from Indra's fierce deluge is rendered somewhat hollow. For the singular act of divine heroism only yields minimal protection - for a hawai chappal, temple bell, a beaver's nest: signs of so common use that they render the heroic gesture empty. Surendran Nair's vision has tended to bridge classical iconography, the body of the redeemer or the saint, with middle class everyday objects, to tease and lead the viewer to the question of value and faith in our times.

Gandhi wrote copiously, expressing his opinions on every subject, declaring that he was "not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent". The present exhibition seeks to engage with some of these aspects of consistency and dissent, with historic legacy and contemporary relevance, even as the image of Gandhi undergoes continual redefinition.

Gayatri Sinha is an art critic and curator based in New Delhi


  1. Edgar Snow, who interviewed Gandhi a few days before he was assassinated, wrote in his essay 'The Message of Gandhi' "Every Indian lost his father when Gandhi died."
  2. Thich Nyat Thin in conversation with Shekhar Gupta, Walk the Talk, NDTV, October 5, 2008.
  3. Young India, 24.11.1927
  4. Foremost perhaps is the notion of Gandhian morality and sacrifice, that is reinvoked in moments of crisis. C. Rajagopalachari in the aftermath of Gandhi's assassination said "May the blood that flowed from Gandhiji's wounds and the tears that flowed from the eyes of the women of India everywhere they learnt of his death serve to lay the curse of 1947, and may the grisly tragedy of that year sleep in history and not colour present passions." C. Rajagopalachari, 20 March, 1948 quoted in India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha, Picador India 2007.
  5. Young India, 11.8.1920
  6. Note to the author by Vasudha Thozhur 10th October 2008.
  7. Young India 17th September 1925

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