A prayerbook lies open against which rests a pair of perhaps one of the most iconic eyeglasses in history. A pair of slippers, a pair of wooden khadau and two wooden bowls with spoons are arranged around them. A small journal and a bronze water vessel complete the picture. Taken by an anonymous photographer circa 1948, this image shows the only belongings Mahatma Gandhi owned at the time of his death.
The director of Houston’s Menil Collection, Houston, Josef Helfenstein first felt enamoured by this image while reading Gandhi’s autobiography as a teenager. To him the captivating image felt like “not only a portrait in absentia of a charismatic person, but an allegory of an extraordinary way of life”. This image opens the show, “Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence”, which will commemorate Gandhi’s 145th birth anniversary at the Houston museum on October 2.
But the exhibition reaches far beyond the life of the Mahatma. More than 130 curated artworks — paintings, sculptures, documentary images and texts — from around the globe will trace the resonance of the ethic of non-violence and Gandhi’s favourite tool of resistance, satyagraha.
The idea of holding an elaborate retrospective of Gandhian thought stayed with Helfenstein years after he read the autobiography. “An idea emerged that this enigmatic image deserved a more thorough examination,” says the director, who has curated the show with Delhi artist Amar Kanwar as consultant. The idea further developed when he had the opportunity to meet Rajmohan Gandhi, Mahatma’s grandson.
The director reached out to museums and private collectors, such as Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Holocaust Museum Houston, Yale University Art Gallery, among others. The theme of violence and its resistance drew out an impressive number of works from across the globe. “We collected beautiful works of art and compelling artifacts and documents — and although they may be drawn from different and sometimes distant cultures, they are not unrelated. Together, they address an ancient and complex topic: how to overcome violence through non-violent means,” Helfenstein says.
Spanning six sections, the show begins with a gallery dedicated to “Gandhi’s Final Moments and the Memorialization of His Predecessors”. A collection by renowned photographers Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson shows Gandhi towards the end of his life and the events surrounding his funeral.
While one section chronicles nonviolent resistance across the world, with works around the Civil Rights era, and the struggle against apartheid, Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, another documents a world torn apart by violence. There is the 1961 photograph by Shomei Tomatsu evoking Japan’s nuclear bombing through images everyday objects; Yve Klein’s painting Hiroshima (1961), Ai Weiwei’s Feet (2002), take up this section.
A section that deserves mention is titled, “The Division Gandhi Sought to Avoid”. “Here, we have tried to capture the devastation that resulted from the Partition of continued…