On the 141st anniversary of his birth, Gargi Gupta looks back at the many avatars of the Mahatma in the artist’s imagination
It’s that day of the year again when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is on everyone’s minds. This year, he seems to loom especially large in the imaginations of our contemporary artists, going by the number of shows — five at last count — pegged on the “father of the nation” that are on now, or due to open within the next month or so.
Opening today is “Gandhi-giri” at Gallery Art Positive in Delhi’s newly emergent art district of Lado Sarai, a collection of large oil-on-canvases by Jaipur-based artist and one-time Bollywood art director Gopal Swami Khetanchi. Tangerine Art Space’s “Who has seen Gandhi?” is another show being previewed today at the Bangalore Raj Bhavan, which will have several big-ticket artists such as M F Husain, K M Adimoolam, Arunkumar H G and Vibha Galhotra.
Vishal K Dar’s debut show “BROWNation” opened at Gallery Espace in Delhi last week, and comprises a set of politically-charged new media works- videos, installations, digital prints — in which the image of the Mahatma occupies centrestage. Then there’s “Cine Verite Redux”, a group show which ended at Bangalore’s Gallery Sumukha this week, which had Ravikumar Kashi’s rather striking photographs titled “I Found Gandhi”, depicting the image of a seated Gandhi reflected endlessly in thin strips of mirrors, a la the famous mirror fight scene in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.
‘Gandhi-giri’ at Gallery Art Positive, Lado Sarai, New Delhi, till October 31
‘Who has Seen Gandhi’, at Gallery Kynkyny, Infantry Road, Bangalore, till October 15
‘BROWNation’, at Gallery Espace, New Friends Colony, New Delhi, till October 23
‘Freedom to March…’ at Lalit Kala Akademi, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi, November 12-18
Later in November, the capital’s Lalit Kala Akademi will be the venue of Ojas Art’s “Freedom to March: Rediscovering Gandhi through Dandi”, a large show with works by 23 artists — among them noted names like Atul Dodiya, Vivek Vilasini, A Ramachandran, Rameshwar Broota and T V Santosh.
Retracing — metaphorically as well as literally — Gandhi’s route from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, the works at this show will deal with, to quote the curatorial note, “multiple metaphors: Salt March as envisioned by Gandhi, Gandhi's Salt as we perceive it today and most importantly our perception of the Mahatma and the relevance of his teachings today”. Twenty of the artists actually followed Gandhi’s route to Dandi, except that they did it by car.
This is a rather broad statement of intent that could fit most representations of Gandhi in contemporary art. It fits Dar’s “A Great Deal More Than A Pinch of Salt”, another work that alludes to the Dandi march. Comprising a single, outsized weighing pan piled high with chunks of unrefined salt, the installation has two small human figures perched atop — one bent forward as if caught in the act of picking up something, his hands and feet almost touching those of a figure below which reaches up in a gesture that is almost a mirror image. It is obviously Gandhi picking up a fistful of salt at Dandi, a gesture which, for Dar, “was a defining act for Indian independence, it was what first made him a superstar”. But Dar’s is no naive tribute; by placing the entire mise-en-scene on a weighing scale, Dar is “revisiting and re-evaluating the significance of Gandhi's act”. And note the single pan — “there really isn't anything to measure it against”.
This combination of critique and playing around with the image of the Mahatma or artifacts associated with him is a characteristic of many recent Gandhi works. Ashim Purkayastha, for instance, did an entire series called “The Man Without Specs” some years ago, in which he painstakingingly reproduced revenue stamps and other government paper which had Gandhi’s visage — but without the spectacles. Gandhi’s spectacles have interested Bangalore-based Kashi as well, who has used them extensively in his works, delicately etched in ink over his paper-pulp sculptures. “The aura objects acquire when they become associated with someone interests me,” says Kashi. “Look at the fuss made when Gandhi’s pocket watch and other personal objects were being auctioned abroad. We seem to be so worried about his things, but what about his ideas? It’s as if he’s been put on a pedestal.”
This contrast between the reverence accorded Gandhi, the ubiquitousness of his image and the complete irrelevance of his ideologies in public life, is another strand running through much of the contemporary artistic responses to Gandhi. Its most stark, even gruesome, representation is Jitish Kallat’s “Public Notice-2” (2008) where the text of Gandhi’s speech, delivered on the eve of the Dandi march, is written out on the gallery walls in alphabets fashioned out of little fibreglass “human bones”. A similar sense of irony stirs the works of Atul Dodiya, who has used Gandhi as a motif since 1999 when he showed a suite of watercolours at a show called “An Artist of Non-Violence”.
In this connection, it is interesting to look at another recent exhibition of paintings on Gandhi. Aurangabad-based artist J Nandkumar’s show which went up at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai on August 31 was to have been on view for a week but was closed down in three days. The reason? The Nehru Centre found his painting “Gandhi after Pune Karar” reportedly “in bad taste” because it depicted Gandhi wielding a trishul which pierces the body of a man lying at his feet. The reference here is to the Poona Pact between B R Ambedkar and Gandhi, in which an agreement was driven on the issue of separate electorates for the untouchables. “Nandkumar... makes a daring attempt to deconstruct the image of Gandhi through his personal understanding that has a legacy of Dr Ambedkar,” writes Y S Alone, assistant professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in his catalogue essay on the show.
Alone finds resonances here with a work by Ramkinker Baij, the celebrated modernist sculptor and teacher at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, in which a skull is placed under the feet of a tall, towering figure of Gandhi. “It was a very systemic intervention by a sculptor whose ideas were rooted in the pragmatic understanding and not in romanticising the icons of so called freedom struggle,” writes Alone in a article in the journal Art Concerns. But who remembers Baij’s work today? More famous is a linocut by his contemporary and Gandhi-acolyte Nandalal Bose — stick in hand, dhoti folded to above his knees, looking down as he embarks on his march to Dandi.