Atul Dodiya, Sea-Bath (Before Breaking the Salt Law), 1998. Watercolour on paper, 55.8 x 76.2 cm.
Atul Dodiya, Sea-Bath (Before Breaking the Salt Law), 1998. Watercolour on paper, 55.8 x 76.2 cm.

Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art Of Disobedience

New Delhi, October 30, 2020

Artist of non-violence. That was an apt description of Mahatma Gandhi, who gave the world the philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience. For Sumathi Ramaswamy, the James B Duke Professor of History and International Comparative Studies and Chair of the Department of History, Duke University, North Carolina, USA, this subject was the reason to explore a new book on Gandhi.

The author has spun a fascinating story by deriving information from artists who have invested in Gandhi through paintings, sculpture, videos and digital platforms.

What was the reason for Ramaswamy to come up with a book on Gandhi? How is this book different from the many we have read on the Father of the Nation?

“Without a doubt, I can say that this is the first monograph that charts historically the investment by artists of India from his own time into the present in the figure of Gandhi,” explains Ramaswamy. “There is no other such monograph. As I note in my preface and opening paragraph of chapter 1, in the vast scholarship on Gandhi, virtually no attention has been paid —other than in a few essays — on this investment.”

The author emphasizes, “I also think it is important to pay attention to this investment — not only because it is a lacuna in the scholarship, but even more importantly, because the artist has emerged as the key 'conscience keeper'. At a time when Gandhi has been reduced to a platitude, artists of India are continuing to re-interpret him for our times, find new meanings in his message. Not least, in contrast to even my own past scholarship on the subject, I have focused on what we might call gallery artists rather than artists who produce mass-produced images.”

Gandhi has been much-loved by various artists. Has he been a delight for the artists? Ramaswamy says, “I have argued that the artists see in Gandhi a fellow creative spirit—even an artist himself, as several of them claimed; but also, an inspiring muse, and a critical prop to think with about current dilemmas and problems. The last chapter of the book explores this last argument: I suggest that during his own life time, artists seem to have been interested in Gandhi as a living person, the Mahatma, the symbol of the nation etc. But since his death, but especially since the 1990s, he is not so much an end in himself but the means to another end: they draw on his figure and his example to critique the rejection in contemporary India of Gandhian ideas of pluralism and non-violence, the unseemliness of his ubiquitous icon and branding, his absence while seeming to be everywhere. In the words of Riyas Komu (some of whose images I consider), he is 'beacon, warning, and provocation'.”

The book, published by Roli Books, is embellished with some stunning images. Some have stayed with Ramaswamy. “Well, most of the images that are reproduced in the book are the ones that I am most taken with, and thought worth exploring further/writing about! My archive of images is really vast — and the book presents only a representative sample — I have not attempted to be comprehensive at all—Gandhi has been painted, sketched, sculpted by almost every known artist—and large numbers of unknowns.”

She continues, “I can name some favorites — this is not a comprehensive list; each work in the book helps me think a new idea: I love Atul Dodiya’s work, and in particular the images from his Bako series. I am inspired by GR Iranna’s Naavu which was showcased in the Venice Bienniale. Both these images summon up Gandhi without resorting to the figure of Gandhi. I am very moved by Gulam Sheikh’s Ahmedabad: The City Gandhi left Behind: it is both haunting and also sharp in its suggestion that a place that Gandhi called home has been turned into a most un-Gandhian space. I am intrigued by Gigi Scaria’s Who Deviated First — both funny and thoughtful. And of course, entranced by the cover image, Eraser Pro, by L N Tallur. Actually, I can go on and on—but that is why I wrote the book in the first place!!! Because these images and art works stayed with me, made me ask new questions — those that had not been asked before by scholars, especially social scientists like me.”

Her extensive research led to this delightful tribute to Gandhi. About the best part of the research, she says, “Doing history for me is like being a detective: finding clues — the trail of bread crumbs, if you will — the missing pieces, and putting these together. I love this part of immersing oneself in the mystery of the past, and trying to 'solve' a puzzle. As well, in this particular project, I loved meeting the living artists, talking to them, learning from them about what they learned from their engagement with the figure of Gandhi. When the archive — in this case, the work of art — takes me to new places, pushes me to ask new questions that I had not asked before, that makes me happy. There is a peculiar thrill about it that all fellow scholars will recognize.”

How relevant/important is Gandhi to this generation? Ramaswamy observes, “Well, there are some routine answers one can give by turning to Gandhi’s faith in non-violence, tolerance, plurality, simplicity, a life of non-materialism, etc. All this is critically important, especially in our times given the rise in bigotry and hate crimes, violence towards women and minorities, and runaway consumerism — the degradation of our environment, and also basic human decency. But for me, as both scholar and individual, I am most drawn to Gandhi’s argument about 'disobedience' — hence also the subject of this book — that when there is a gap between the ethical conscience and the historical/political reality around you, follow your conscience. Think outside the box — think creatively for ethical and humane solutions to the problems confronting us.”

For lovers of literature on Gandhi, this would be a welcome addition to their collection.


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