Decoding Gandhi through art

A purely anatomical approach to the Mahatma reduces him from an enormous idea to merely a freedom fighter

Published - August 12, 2017 04:02 pm IST

Statue of the Gyarah Murti in New Delhi by Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury

Statue of the Gyarah Murti in New Delhi by Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury

Mahatma Gandhi was perceived by people, including writers and artists, in basically two different ways: first, as a great man who participated in and led the struggle for the country’s freedom and won it for us. This perception of Gandhi is reflected in the various images commonly seen as forming Gandhi’s persona—him spinning the charkha or wearing khadi, his attraction for simple living, his ideas of non-violence and his practice of ahimsa, and many other such obvious attributes and qualities of the man. For want of a better term, let us call it a kind of anatomical approach to Gandhi.

Artists, writers and others who follow this approach make portraits of Gandhi, they spin the charkha, wear khadi, practise vegetarianism and do many of the things associated with Gandhi’s life and personality. Early artists such as Ramkinkar Baij and Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury who made sculptures of Gandhi, the Dandi March and more; or modern artists such as Atul Dodiya, besides several others, are followers of this approach.

Dodiya made a series of Gandhi paintings where he painted his canvases using old and historic photographs of Gandhi with virtuosity of a high order. This approach essentially keeps the memory of Mahatma alive in the minds of people and to some extent inspires young people to follow this artistic approach to the man. I suggest that there are some merits to this way of looking at Gandhi but to my mind it also has its limitations. We will leave those out in this article; we can come to them some other time.

But there is another way in which Gandhi was approached in art; another way of understanding him that I will call the decoding approach. This approach was followed by painters like Nandalal Bose, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza and Jagdish Swaminathan, to name just a few. These artists tried to decode Gandhi’s acts and thoughts, something our politicians from across the spectrum tried hard not to do.

Hussain's painting ‘Gandhi-Man of Peace’

Hussain's painting ‘Gandhi-Man of Peace’

Understanding Gandhi

These artists were able to decode Gandhi because they were talented and patient enough to see what Gandhi was trying to convey. They might not have written about their reading or understanding of Gandhi, but their works show clearly and explicitly what Gandhi was suggesting through his words and actions. They could see what the charkha actually stood for.

What was it that Gandhi was trying to communicate through the charkha? He was suggesting that the various indigenous ways of living and creating are still vital and that one should try to revive their potential, not out of nostalgia of any kind, but to be able to revitalise our own creative and constructive energies. He also meant that Indians would have to engage in serious dialogue with the traditions of the country and avoid being mere imitators of the then dominant powers of the world, that is, the colonising powers of Europe.

This approach was drastically different from what we have called the anatomical approach which, in a sense, reduced Gandhi to a mere freedom fighter. Instead, these other artists saw Gandhi as a thought process, as an unfinished task; the task of getting this civilisation to decolonise itself.

It is common knowledge now that the great painter from Shantiniketan, Nandalal Bose, was very close to Gandhi. He was given the charge firstly, of setting up an exhibition of Indian paintings during the Congress session at Lucknow; then the charge of decorating the entire Congress ‘nagar’ during a Village Congress in Faizpur; and lastly, decorating the space for Haripura Congress, a task set by Gandhi himself.

The only instruction Gandhi gave Nanda babu was to “build the township (at Faizpur and in other places too) using only rural material and employing country craftsmen.”

Nanda babu carried out this instruction to the letter in his work in all these places.

It is no coincidence that Bose, in his own creative work, tried to develop a dialogue with people from his birthplace of Bengal and with tribal traditions of creating, which led to the body of work we know him for today.

Raza, on the other hand, was somebody who had seen Gandhi from a very tender age and was somehow so deeply affected by his presence and ideas that he did not leave India to go to Pakistan at the time of Partition.

‘Sanmati’, acrylic on canvas by Raza M.F.

‘Sanmati’, acrylic on canvas by Raza M.F.

Not only this, he carried Gandhi’s spirit throughout his life, which was as if gifted to him by a school teacher who told Raza to look at a dot drawn on the wall. Raza was a child then. In this dot or bindu , he saw a possibility of engaging deeply with the creative and philosophical traditions of India.

Ethos of a painter

Raza was also profoundly influenced by some of Gandhi’s writings, which to him were like statements on the ethos of a painter. He wrote a few of these on his canvases. “Truth resides in the heart of everyman. It should be found there and the way one is able to perceive it, one should act accordingly. Nobody has a right to force others to act in accordance with his perception of truth.”

Painter, poet, writer Jagdish Swaminathan questioned modern and Western-influenced modes of painting and became deeply interested in miniatures and tribal paintings that came out of India, which led to his famous ‘bird’ series and his last paintings, where one could clearly see the subtle dialogue between modern anxieties and tribal joys. We should not forget that Swaminathan created the unique museum of tribal and folk arts at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, where his aim was to exhibit tribal and folk paintings along with modern and urban artistic works, therefore creating a new definition of ‘contemporary’.

Hussain went to Khajuraho to study its sculptures and to find his own idiom of painting. It was here that he rediscovered the line with which to draw his figures. It is here that he found the famous ‘Hussain line’, slightly thick and yet sensuous, like the sculptures of Khajuraho.

All these painters would not have achieved what they are now known for but for the subtle invocation of ideas from Gandhi’s life and words. Gandhi’s presence made these painters and many other artists and writers search for their own civilisational moorings.

The author writes poems, short fiction and plays, and also edits Samaas, a journal of literature, arts and civilisation.

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