KOCHI: The coming together of two formidable intellects sparked an engrossing conversation at a seminar on the ‘iconography and instrumentalisation of Mahatma Gandhi’ held here on Thursday, when distinguished theorist Ashis Nandy and eminent historian Vinay Lal shared their views.
The erudite chat was the centrepiece of the latest entry to the popular ‘Let’s Talk’ seminar series of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF). Titled ‘Gandhi and the Politics of the Image,’ the event more than lived up to its billing as a packed conference room at the BTH sat in thrall of the two scholars in their element.
Prior to the discussion, Professor Lal, an authority on the architecture of nonviolence and its most ‘famous exponent,’ delivered a talk on the visual afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, delving into the myriad imageries around his figure, both before and after his assassination near seven decades ago. “We are today almost seven decades after Gandhiji’s assassination, in a phase of reinterpreting and re-framing in the larger Indian history, beyond the myth-making. There are many Gandhis - as many for his proponents are his detractors,” said Prof Lal.
On the insights a contemporary student of Gandhi might be able to derive from a study of these images and prints, Prof Lal said, “there exists a dialectic between the individual, singular Gandhi and the masses: his positioning, state of dress and ‘expression relative to the other people’ in images hold the key to understanding the idea of Gandhi himself as he was viewed through the printmaker’s eye.”
After offering an overview of the visual practices that have informed representations of the Mahatma, Prof Lal made a more extended analysis of the ‘sartorial Gandhi Entering adult life vastly overdressed and ending it vastly undressed’ and and the ‘martyred Gandhi entering the canon of martyrdom and passing his legacy to be reworked by his contemporaries and antecedents for their own purposes.’
In the discussion that followed, Nandy noted, “many images of Gandhi are neither artistic nor realistic since this reduction is a way of installing such a larger-than-life figure into localities and homes as a permanent yet personally manageable, even negligible, presence of some kind.’
“Images often provide us with an opportunity to reconcile traditions. For example, I cannot think of a more discordant image than situating Gandhi next to Vivekananda,” said Nandy.
The event was hosted by the KBF with the support of the Backwaters Collective - a prominent academic community of which both Nandy and Prof Lal are members - and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.