Very early on, when as a child you are still understanding life around you, at home I was introduced to the Gandhian approach to living — not to waste food, electricity, water, not to throw away clothes until they can’t be worn. We were told how lucky we were that we could afford these things. All of this was a part of living when I was growing up in a Mumbai chawl in the early ’70s. At school, too, we were taught about tolerance, peace, being good to fellow human beings. We would celebrate all religious festivals together.
When I was 15 or 16, my uncle gifted me Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth (1927), in Gujarati. When I first read that book, I felt, “what a fearless man”. That is the first impression of Gandhi I had, and the one I still carry. I was scared of his fearlessness. I felt I would never be able to be as fearless — speak truth when needed, protest injustice like that. The power that he had was unbelievable. I was nervous everytime I thought how would I follow his profound belief in truth, love and non-violence.
After I completed my studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and returned to India in 1992, I had several ideas about creative freedom. But within two months, I saw images of Babri Masjid demolition on TV, there were riots in Mumbai and serial bomb-blasts that killed innocent people. I’m a strong believer that there is no communal tension between the people of the country and a lot of it is probably politically motivated. Gandhi had spoken in detail about communal tension and had emphasised how we should live in harmony.
As an artist, whenever I looked at Gandhi’s photographs, I felt that he was approachable and understood the feelings of common people. As I reflected on him, I began to feel he was India’s first conceptual artist, who used various ways to convey his message and reach out to people — look at the sheer act of picking salt at Dandi. Aesthetically, he began to encourage me.
In 1997, when India was celebrating 50 years of Independence, I felt it was high time we implemented his philosophy in our lives, and it was the responsibility of contemporary artists to talk about him to the audience. I did a series of paintings, including Lamentation (1997) that brought together Gandhi and Picasso. For An Artist of Non-Violence (1999), I moved away from my usual oil on canvas to paint watercolours, which were minimal and seemed more appropriate for Gandhi’s attitude towards living. Based on a work by Gujarati poet Labhshanker Thaker, Bako Exists Imagine (2011), which had a young boy, Bako, engaging in a dialogue with Gandhi.
In the last two decades, I have done over 200 paintings on Gandhi. In the series Mahatma and the Masters (2015), I brought together Gandhi and modern occidental artists, such as Mondrian and Duchamp. I juxtaposed the quest for India’s Independence with the demand for creative freedom. Currently showing at the Venice Biennale, Broken Branches (2002) was an emotional response to the hopelessness of violence.
Gandhi still continues to inspire me. He haunts me, and I don’t think we can allow and afford the Gandhian philosophy and ideology to vanish.
As told to Vandana Kalra. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘He was India’s first conceptual artist’
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