The un-Gandhian cane

The crossover of symbols that defined Gandhi — from benign to malevolent — is a revealing comment

Over the last few years, battles over symbols — for long an Indian pre-occupation — have reached a crescendo and show no signs of abating. Perhaps no historical figure has been mined as thoroughly as M.K. Gandhi (although B.R. Ambedkar today comes a close second). No government would dare dislodge his endorsement of all Indian currency notes, no matter what colour or denomination they come in, even though we know that this would have been the most distasteful of associations for someone like him.

We are only too painfully aware that this glut of images of Gandhi, avowed with such passion, frees the Indian people of any obligation to practise Gandhian ways of living, let alone uphold political principles or economic values. Neither a passionate adherence to truth nor an ardent desire for non-violence is the mark of our public life today.

But the reduction of the hallowed figure of the Mahatma to a social worker with a broom, from which no more than a pair of spectacles has been distilled, was an achievement like no other of the present government at the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014. The spectacles have assumed a menacing ubiquity, looming large on bus stops and calendars, even as sewer deaths, manual scavenging and a deep-seated aversion to public hygiene (linked no doubt to caste) continue to remind us of what really needs to be fixed for a cleaner, healthier and sustainable India.

Experiments with clothing

Gandhi himself spent a good part of his busy life experimenting with the symbols — particularly styles of dress — that would enhance his message. His experiments with the national cap pre-occupied him for some years during 1915-1919: from wearing a top hat, a sola topee, a turban, an embroidered Kashmiri cap, he ‘came to the conclusion that the Kashmiri cap was the best. It is light as well as elegant; it is easy to make, it can be folded, which makes it easily portable’ (his words) And he fixed on white khadi for this headgear, which simultaneously promoted handspun, easily showed up dirt, and was one of the most powerful symbols of anti-colonial nationalism. He himself wore it for just two years, but the symbol sent many dedicated nationalist wearers even to prison.

We don’t know as much about his cane, his indispensable walking aid by the late 1920s. We do know that the cane (lathi) as weapon, rather than as loveable third limb, has attained unprecedented importance in our national life. It is this crossover of symbols — from benign to malevolent — that artist B.V. Suresh brought to his installation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December 2018. Like so many young Kannadiga men growing up in the 1960s, B.V. Suresh was not impervious to the attractions of the local RSS shakha for the opportunities it gave the young to collectively exercise/play sport. Like so many young Kannadiga men of his generation, the attractions were very short lived.

A comment on the new India

B.V. Suresh’s installation was no less than a comment on how thoroughly the Indian republic as we know it has been gutted in the last few years. He allowed his alarm — and indeed sorrow — about the new India that is taking shape to be seen and heard in the space of a semi-darkened, large godown space at Aspinwall. The dull, uneven thud of lathis was audible as one approached, but nothing prepared you for the sight of dozens of them pounding the floor on two sides of the room. Two really long bamboos, like scaffolding, shielded a spotlit white Indian national bird: by draping the posts with some diaphanous synthetic material, rather than the more predictable khadi, B.V. Suresh self-consciously averted banality.

For this was no celebratory monument but a cry of despair, a warning, as the two videos that flanked the central arrangement — the now dismembered peacock — combined with the audio of a speech to darkly warn: both the taqdeer (fate) and the tasvir (picture) of this nation will be changed. On the wall facing the entrance, cast in a reddish hue, which allowed the decaying brickwork of the godown to show through, was finally an encounter with the man of peace, striding with his own cane. But here too he slowly dissolved as the Rudra Hanuman image loomed menacingly into view, a masculinist, muscular and militaristic (and angry) portrait that many cars have today made popular.

B.V. Suresh’s installation included two mechanically rotating sets of brooms and cloths, which swept up dust, and re-distributed, rather than removed, it as a comment on the ambiguous achievements of Swachh Bharat. But it is the invitation to reflect on the travesties of our contemporary world that are startling and touching. B.V. Suresh himself said that he did not intend the installation to be overtly political, but one could not think of a more apt instance of fearless speech, a comment by one of the multitudes who today feel increasingly suffocated as writers, artists, teachers, ordinary citizens all, crouching in fear of ‘the people’s’ wrath.

So it was appropriate that the installation was called ‘Canes of Wrath’: ‘Jiski lathi, uski bhains’ — at no earlier time in our independent nation’s life did one feel so acutely the bestial power of the lathi, unrestrained in its authority when wielded as a ‘people’s weapon’ especially against the most defenceless, At no earlier time has Gandhi been rendered so irrelevant as now; would his heirs in the Congress party dare to praise, as Gandhi did in 1915, that first devout Hindu and Indian nationalist, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who declared, “Please publish it abroad that I am not a Hindu” when he was requested to push an overtly Hindu political agenda?

We have a lot to thank B.V. Suresh for, but especially for sharing this deeply contemplative perspective on our present, and the portentous and dystopic mood of the hour.

Janaki Nair is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 9:02:03 PM |

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