When he started reading about politics and political thought, artist Debanjan Roy recalls being fascinated with the image of Mahatma Gandhi. Gradually, he developed an inclination to study his persona and projection. “Over the years, the image of Gandhi has been used by so many people for personal agenda or to reach out to the people at large. I was always intrigued by this, and also how there is hardly anyone following his ideology and ideals,” says Roy. In his own work, he chose not to idolise Gandhi but humanise him instead. “On his birthday in 1939, he had stated that rather than having his statues erected everywhere, he wished people would promote the social and humanitarian work he did,” says Roy, 46. After receiving critical acclaim at Aicon Gallery in New York, his exhibition “Toying with Gandhi” is showing at Akar Prakar in Delhi. “Gandhi is perhaps the most overused political person. He has become a veritable toy, used to fulfill vested interest,” says the Kolkata-based artist.
Roy’s references are traditional and familiar toy figurines from across the world. If as an American Munny Doll, Gandhi holds his trademark stick, in Super Gandhi he wears the colours and cape of the Mattel superhero, ready to fight the world. “He is a hero with super thoughts. He handles tricky and difficult situations by talking to people,” says the art postgraduate from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.
While his work was first noticed by the art fraternity in his 2002 solo “The Voyeur” at Birla Academy of Art & Culture in Kolkata that featured woodcuts, acclaim came a couple of years later, with works where Roy appropriated Gandhi and transported him to the present. In the India Shining series (2006 onward), viewers saw Gandhi dressed in pants and trainers, his life-size figure seen talking on his cellphone. On other occasions, he was on his laptop and with his headphones. Visitors to the 2018 edition of the India Art Fair would recall his poignant sculpture “Gandhi Taking Selfie with the Cow” that subtly referenced the political arguments in India and had Gandhi engaging with new-age gadgets.
This exhibition also makes a comment on the current socio-political discussions. Standing with a broom, Bobble Head Gandhi emphasises on the need for a Swachh Bharat, and Chowkidar Gandhi is a spin on Chowkidar Narendra Modi and the Congress slogan ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’. “I am not a social reformer but as an artist I want to showcase and discuss what is happening in our country. When I worked on the India Shining series, the aim was to question the campaign that projected India as a global superpower. While the ground reality is that we have millions who do not get a daily meal or basic utilities, how can we claim to be a superpower,” says Roy. In another much-talked-about acrylic on paper work, Roy merges the faces of Gandhi and his assassin Nathuram Godse. “I feel every human being has a god, human and demon,” says the artist.
There is recognition for the contributions of Kasturba, wife of Mohandas Gandhi. In a set of Russian Matryoshka dolls, one is dedicated to her. “Even Gandhi acknowledged how he learnt satyagraha from Kasturba. I feel Kasturba was an important force behind Gandhi, and him becoming Mahatma,” says Roy.
Is there defiance in the sheer act of Gandhi embracing technology that he was so wary of? Roy does not think so. “He was not really against the use of gadgets. Moreover, he was not rigid and open to changing his own stance,” says Roy.
The exhibition is at Akar Prakar, 43, Defence Colony, Delhi, till November 8, 11 am to 7 pm