How Indian art has engaged with the Mahatma

The engagement of Indian art with Gandhi did not end with the country’s Partition or its Independence, because the attacks on his legacy of non-violence have never stopped

October 03, 2019 07:29 pm | Updated 07:29 pm IST

Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh’s Ahmedabad: The City Gandhi Left Behind

Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh’s Ahmedabad: The City Gandhi Left Behind

In 1930, Nandalal Bose, painter and principal of Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan, composed a linocut of Gandhi walking resolutely yet thoughtful and calm on his way to Dandi to make salt. “Gandhi transformed the Congress from a body of urban elites to a pan-Indian mass organization that appealed to Indians from all walks of life. Nandalal Bose recognised that this shift offered a new role for the artist — that of a participant in nation building,” says R. Sivakumar, Professor of Art History at Kala Bhavan in Shantiniketan.

If Bose rendered the Gandhi of the Dandi March, his younger associate, Ramkinkar Baij represented the Gandhi of Noakhali in his sculptures, walking barefoot with head lowered, through the stench of religious hatred, pleading for calm. “If Gandhi at Dandi symbolised a nation’s resurgent self-assurance, at Noakhali he was the saddened and lonely, yet invincible, an apostle of Peace striding across the graveyard,” says Sivakumar.

After independence, artists have continued in their attempts to capture the mahatma’s deh (body) and antaryami (inner voice) through multiple narratives emerging from his life – political, religious, and spiritual.

The ’50s and beyond

M.F. Husain’s 1954 masterpiece, ‘Zameen’ taking a leaf from Gandhi’s book, whole-heartedly embraced a day in the life of our diverse country, from which the artist was driven out by in 2006. Jitish Kallat’s 2012 installation, ‘Covering Letter’, revisited a piece of historic correspondence in which Gandhi appealed for peace to Adolf Hitler in 1939, just days before the start of the World War II. Projected on to a traversable curtain of dry fog, the Letter, belives Kallat, “speaks as much to the present as to the past.”

Atul Dodiya constructed ‘Broken Branches’ in 2002 as nine wooden cabinets in which objects of hope and despair — bones, prosthetic limbs, tools of destruction and re-building, photographs of Gandhi — come together to capture the tumultuous decade between 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya, leading up to the Gujarat violence of 2002.

Nandalal Bose’s Dandi march linocut

Nandalal Bose’s Dandi march linocut

In ‘Ahmedabad: The City Gandhi Left Behind’ a massive monochrome by Vadodara-based artist Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh made in 2002, a burning autorickshaw becomes the metaphor for the Gujarat riots. Five personal objects of daily use which defined Gandhi’s asceticism were auctioned in 2009: a pair of sandals, pocket watch, plate, bowl and the round spectacles he said gave him the vision to see an independent India. These are randomly placed by Sheikh in a pol or housing cluster in the heart of Ahmedabad.

The only two buildings the artist picks out on the city map from Google Earth are the Satyagraha ashram at Kochrab which Gandhi founded in 1915 on his return from South Africa — two years later, he was asked to shift from there for the ‘crime’ of inviting a Dalit family to stay with him. The other building is Hriday Kunj, Gandhi’s home in the Sabarmati Ashram where he remained until 1930, before setting out on his historic Dandi March vowing to return only after Swaraj had been achieved.

Gandhi is invisible in this work. Elsewhere, Sheikh paints him at the edge of the canvas. “Gandhi identified with the poor and marginalised, the migrants and refugees and there were times when he became an outcast himself, because of some of the radical positions he took. But he never stopped experimenting with the truth,” says Sheikh.

Beauty in truth

Kochi-based painter and sculptor Riyaz Komu is convinced that disruptive action is sometime necessary to ‘see beauty in truth’ which leads to the creation of art. “For Gandhi, action itself was the way of imagining. My art is all about imaging and imagining a more compassionate and inclusive world, accommodating of different political ideologies and religious practices as opposed to the oppressive and divisive one we inhabit at this moment.”

In the 2015 ‘Gandhi from Kochi’ series of paintings, inspired by a 1931 photograph, he is shown against a revolutionary red background. “The government of the day in Kerala found the painting offensive, because it appeared to project Gandhi as a communist,” says Komu, adding that for him, growing up the son of a Gandhian who was also Leftist, it was the normal way of reading Gandhi.

As art continues to seek new ways of showing Gandhi, historian Tridip Suhrud reminds us that the walls of his home, Hriday Kunj, were bare. When asked why, the Mahatma had replied, “There are two aspects of things: the outward and the inward. It is purely a matter of emphasis with me. The outward has no meaning except in so far as it helps the inward.”

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