Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Mahatma (“Great Soul”), Bapu (“Father”), or Gandhiji to his people, and simply Gandhi to the world, was one of the foremost icons of the 20th century. While the scholarship devoted to him has been largely reverential to his monumental legacy, there are some who have questioned his views on religion, caste, and gender. The book Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience by Sumathi Ramaswamy tries to bridge an intriguing gap: How have his life and values influenced the creative practices of visual artists over the years?
Gandhi did not consider himself artistically inclined, and he appealed to his followers not to memorialize him in statues, paintings, or other forms of visual imagery, but rather to promote his values. Paradoxically, he was also an excellent mass communicator who created rich symbolic value through his persona, gestures, and actions — all of which translated into commanding visuals. What makes him stand out as a muse is that his frail figure and frugal accessories have inspired artists as much as his ideas on nonviolent civil disobedience.
Ramaswamy posits that Gandhi’s visual persona was central to his appeal. His clothing mirrored the colonially exploited masses he represented, which once led an imperialist Winston Churchill to disparagingly liken him to a half-naked fakir. Atul Dodiya, one of India’s leading contemporary artists, who has been deeply influenced by the Mahatma, used a rare photograph of him after his public bath before breaking the unjust colonial salt laws, in one of his works. The Dandi March, as it came to be commonly known, marked the high point of Gandhi’s most effective tool of civil disobedience — a purposeful walk of peaceful protest against injustices by his colonial oppressors. These walks have become a popular theme among many artists, some of whom are highlighted in the book.
Less than a year after Gandhi walked India to its independence, he was gunned down by an assailant while leading a prayer meeting. Three bullets, fired at point blank range, ended the life of the man who had championed nonviolence all his life. Ramaswamy discusses artists such as Maqbool Fida Husain, Gigi Scaria, Nalini Malani, and A. Ramachandran, who have recreated the tragic scene, as well as those who have interpreted the event as a moment of spiritual liberation. The contrarian view, as the author points out, was also voiced by many of his contemporaries based on the premise that martyrdom was perhaps an apt denouement to a life as distinguished as that of Gandhi.
Two aspects make the book a thought-provoking read. First is the author’s furthering of the creative argument Gandhi’s seminal act of civil disobedience, based on the principles of satyagraha, was a form of activist performance art with its own set of codes and practices. The other highlight is her focus on how modern and contemporary artists have been inspired by his ideals, rather than anchoring the book in Gandhi’s lifetime.
Lured by the trappings of westernization, India and the rest of the world may have all but forgotten Gandhi but Ramaswamy suggests that many artists have not. Rather, they have reclaimed Bapu as their conscience keeper and used him as a critical mnemonic to question the postmodern world’s toxic cocktail of social discrimination, religious polarization, and rampant consumerism.
Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience by Sumathi Ramaswamy (2021) is published by Roli Books and is available online and in bookstores.
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