For a man who scarcely covered himself for most of his life, preferred walking barefoot, sported a bald pate and an emaciated frame, M.K. Gandhi cut a wildly photogenic figure. Not only was he the most photographed Indian of his time, he also inspired generations of artists to paint, sketch and sculpt him and create works that drew on his teachings and philosophy.
In Gandhi In The Gallery, Sumathi Ramaswamy chronicles the history of obsession with the Mahatma among visual artists, sculptors and photographers during his lifetime and after his death. Apart from her vast richness of resources, Ramaswamy takes an inspired leap by studying the material thematically. Of the five chapters, the ones that deal with the Mahatma’s body, his love for walking vast distances, and the scenarios (real and imagined) around his death are particularly riveting. Through her careful reading of visual idioms, Ramaswamy shines a light not only on Gandhi but also on India’s political, social and cultural histories.
Revered in India as the Father of the Nation, Gandhi was observed with dispassionate interest by foreigners. In 1920, Frieda Das, the first woman and foreign artist allowed to sketch him from close quarters, was intrigued by Gandhi. “Gandhi is ugly,” she said bluntly, but also admitted, “I see him smile and think him beautiful.” Her Indian counterparts, such as Nandalal Bose (whom Gandhi favoured the most among his contemporaries), were struck by the leader’s pledge of simplicity. The sparseness of Gandhi’s material possessions—fortified by his vow, “I must reduce myself to zero”—posited a visual challenge. How to capture the richness of a life that left so few traces? Artists like Haku Shah, S.H. Raza and Atul Dodiya grappled with it by making Gandhi’s minimalism a part of their aesthetics, by turning the meagreness of his earthly belongings—a pair of spectacles, stick, pen, loincloth—into icons.
The bareness of Gandhi’s body was also often set in contrast with the opulence of others. A chromolithograph from the 1930s shows him semi-naked, sitting casually next to the stiff excess of the royals, attired in their regal best, during a visit to England. For artists, Gandhi’s wasted body supplied a minefield of inspiration. Some striking prints by Dhiren Gandhi from the 1940s draw the eye to his skeletal frame, worn away by the many fasts he kept. There is an air of stoic nobility in his bearing, an aura of Christ-like suffering, almost fashioned by the subject himself. It may not entirely be a coincidence that Gandhi was deeply moved by the sight of a particular crucifix during a visit to the Vatican art galleries in Italy.
The final section of the book, which surveys Gandhi’s martyrdom, is the most haunting. Ramaswamy not only distils the meanings, metaphors and myths that have accrued around Gandhi since he fell to the assassin’s bullets, but also raises ethical questions about the politics of representation. As the world moves away from Gandhi’s teachings—a truth that is brilliantly depicted by Gigi Scaria in a serigraph, where Gandhi marches ahead, as his followers go astray—Gandhi In The Gallery gives us a fresh perspective on the man.
FIRST PUBLISHED05.10.2020 | 01:45 PM IST