CHENNAI: “Generations to come, it may will be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” Generations have indeed come and gone since these famous words on Mahatma Gandhi by Albert Einstein. Could it be this disbelief and awe that still inspires the nation through all the decades that have passed?
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was no ordinary man. Seventy-four years after his death, he still is everywhere. The man fondly referred to as the Father of our nation smiles at us from our currency notes and towers over us as public sculptures that blend into the landscape of every town and village in our country.
There rarely exists an Indian city that does not have a few streets named after him. And yet, in spite of all the adulation, have we departed far away from his ideals? Have we remained true to his beliefs, though we engrave them all on our buildings? Has he been relegated to a mere government office wall adornment, while corruption reigns within its confines?
Art, it has been said, is the conscience-keeper of society. Artists then have played their role perfectly over time, by keeping these questions alive. From the time he lived amongst us till the present years, Gandhi has been re-interpreted and immortalised by powerful artworks that constantly seek to remind us of all that he stood for.
For his 153rd birth anniversary, let us look at contemporary artists who have brought forth the Mahatma’s memory lest we forget, triggering new meanings and throwing fresh light on the man revered universally for his philosophy on non-violence.
Common man, uncommon art
Atul Dodiya is perhaps the artist of our times with the most number of works on Gandhi. He makes no secret of the Mahatma’s influence on him. In 1999, he dedicated an exhibition of a series of watercolours to Gandhi titled An Artist of Non-Violence. Since then, he has made more than 200 artworks on Gandhi, and his obsession continues. So why Gandhi?
“As an artist, I felt that he was approachable and understood the feelings of common people. As I reflected on him, I began to feel he was India’s first conceptual artist, who used various ways to convey his message,” says the Mumbai-based artist.
Delhi-based artist Gigi Scaria’s interest in Gandhi has a multitude of levels. As a political figure, Gandhi occupies a space that none other can ever attain, he believes. Scaria’s repertoire includes a large number of works on Gandhi in myriad mediums.
In one of his powerful works titled Who Deviated First?, the artist cleverly manipulated the image of Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury’s famous sculpture, Gyarah Murti, which is widely believed to portray the Dandi March, and shows Gandhi leading a group of people.
In Scaria’s work, a digital print, Gandhi still leads while the people following, turn around and walk in the opposite direction, thus compelling us to question if we have abandoned the Mahatma in the comfort of our liberation.
Another video work, titled Raise your Hands Those Who Have Touched Him, has the artist interviewing 18 ordinary residents of Delhi whose paths crossed Gandhi’s.
With responses as varied as “He looked like copper”, Gigi Scaria brings into focus the visual appearance of Gandhi through the eyes of those who had seen him. In his digital work, Flyover, the serene Sabarmati Ashram is placed under a massive flyover, with modern India metaphorically speeding over in its quest for grand goals and cities soaked in concrete.
“In my years of engagement with Gandhi, I have been fascinated by his truth and values which have no parallels in the political history of the world, by the errors he committed, his militant nonviolence and most importantly, his fearlessness. For me, it is interesting to ‘reinvent’ Gandhi at a time when his vision is being abandoned by the state,” he shares.
Strokes of philosophy
For Mumbai-based Riyas Komu, Gandhi is a recurring figure in his works. Gandhi from Kochi, a series of five paintings of Gandhi against a revolutionary red background, attempts to position him as a representation of courage and resistance, unlike his common image as the embodiment of non-violence that we have all been accustomed to.
In his triptych ‘Dhamma Swaraj’, the portraits of Gandhi and Ambedkar are juxtaposed, thus seeking to establish a relationship between Ambedkar’s Dhamma and Gandhi’s Swaraj.
Covering Letter, by Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat, is an installation and video projection featuring a letter that Gandhi wrote to Hitler just weeks before the start of World War II. Mist slowly engulfs the projected letter that begins with “Dear Friend”, a sad reminder of Gandhi’s message that was disregarded by Hitler and of the violent times we now live in.
The artist has also curated a show recently, based on the subject of exchanges between Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten. Gandhi, who was against the idea of the Partition of India, decided to observe silence every Monday as a form of protest and hence, communicated with Mountbatten by writing notes on the back of used envelopes.
Kallat used five such envelopes as the focal point of this show, to not just reflect on the bloodshed that ensued during the partition but also to examine the relationship between silence and speech.
Of homage and perspectives
Using photography as his medium to make social commentaries, Bengaluru-based Vivek Vilasini has often incorporated Gandhi into several of his works. In Vernacular Chants, a series of nine photographs of Gandhi statues, taken in and around small towns and villages, none of the statues bear direct resemblance to the leader, the only consistency being the moustache and the bald head.
In his work titled Gandhi Street, a Gandhi sculpture stands on the roadside with its feet covered in concrete, a result of the road being laid long after the sculpture came into being. In another work, Ways of Seeing, the artist superimposed Gandhi’s image over his own, as a way of paying homage to the influence Gandhi had on his outlook on life.
Cop Shiva, another artist who also uses photography as his medium, captured the act of a school teacher who impersonates Gandhi to spread his principles, in his acclaimed series Being Gandhi. The subject of this series, Basavaraj, coats himself with silver paint and walks on the streets dressed like Gandhi, sometimes even standing for hours, still as a statue, with the sole purpose of keeping Gandhi’s memory alive in the hearts of the people he encounters.
Beyond the routine
Debanjan Roy, the pop artist of our times, has given a completely different twist to the visual imagery of Gandhi, with his tongue-in-cheek sculptures of the Mahatma. In his series Toying with Gandhi, the artist presents him as a life-size toy, involved in mundane activities like riding a motorcycle or relaxing on a sofa, subtly indicating how we have made him an object in our everyday life.
GR Iranna, on the other hand, did away with the eyeglasses, the spinning wheel and other objects easily identified with Gandhi and instead turned to Gandhi’s padukas or Indian slippers made of wood for his art installation titled Naavu (We Together). Gandhi’s long walk for India’s Independence being Iranna’s inspiration, this wall installation of hundreds of wooden sandals that resembles a mass movement, stands as a symbol for Gandhi’s belief in Satyagraha or passive political resistance.
It is true that there seems to be barely any artist whose art practice has not been touched by this great man or whose mind has never entertained a curiosity to understand his relevance today. LN Tallur’s severely distorted yet recognisable sculpture of Gandhi, A Ramachandran’s sculpture exalting him as an icon of peace, K Reghunadhan’s Gandhi sculptures, Subodh Gupta’s ‘Gandhi’s Three Monkeys’ series of sculptures and several other artworks add to the long list of artists who have edified him and continue to engage with the Mahatma as their muse.
In an exhibition titled Gandhi’s Keepers that opened on October 1st at Aicon Gallery, New York, the focus is on Gandhi’s legacy. Kerala-based Tom Vattakuzhy, whose interest in Gandhi began from his days as a student at Shantiniketan in West Bengal, is exhibiting his works on Gandhi as part of the show.
On his return to Kerala after his education, the artist felt the erosion of Gandhi’s principles in the then prevalent political climate, which he says continues to this day. His painting The Death of Gandhi is a stark reminder that the Mahatma is dead in more ways than one. Gandhi’s truthfulness is what Tom Vattakuzhy draws on and feels is relevant in today’s hypocritical world.
While artists continue to re-interpret Gandhi for our times, for a man whose life was his message, it is an art that will carry forth this message long years after his life was tragically extinguished.