While Nandalal Bose immortalised Gandhi walking with his stick in the iconic linocut of him during the Dandi March, the Santiniketan artist was also commissioned by the leader to produce posters that would adorn pandals at the 1938 Haripura session of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi reportedly had requested Bose to paint the everyday, leading to the now popularly known “Haripura posters”, a suit of temparas where the Bengal artist turned to the folk idiom to depict Indian life. “Gandhi often shared his thoughts with the artist and Nandalal had made works for the Congress sessions even before this. Through these works, Gandhi wanted to appeal to the people. We talk about public art, these perhaps were among the earliest public artworks in India,” says Adwaita Gadanayak, Director General, National Gallery of Modern Art, that has the works in its collection. Currently showing at the Venice Biennale, we see women engaged in cooking and pounding rice, and men as blacksmiths and gardeners. “The posters also showcase how art contributed in the freedom movement,” says Gadanayak.
“Unfortunately, in India today, we don’t think enough about Gandhi. We should think of Gandhi every day because he had so much to say about quotidian life,” says Nalini Malani. The artist has turned to Gandhi on numerous occasions. If Hamletmachine (2000) made a
reference to Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930 while reviewing Hindu nationalism, Mother India: transactions in the construction of pain (2005) addressed violence and how Gandhi addressed the plight of widows. More recently, Gandhi is seen as a protagonist in Malani’s animation videos, where she turns to his philosophy. Making a comment on the current consumerist society, that Malani points out is driven by anger and competition, the screen is lit with Gandhi’s words: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.” Another video recalls how Gandhi had stated, “The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.” Malani notes, “One might be critical of some of his ideas — for instance the focus on religion vis-a-vis spirituality — but we must also reckon that he spoke about tolerance and understanding, sustainability and climate change, which are all pertinent to us today.”
In his exhibition at Aicon Contemporary in New York, artist Debanjan Roy presents Gandhi as a “veritable toy”, who is reduced to being “a plaything by those with a vested interest”. “Gandhi as a image is overused since his lifetime,” says the Kolkata-based artist. Titled “Inappropriate: The Toy Gandhi” in the show we see Gandhi in numerous forms — from him as a silicon figure standing with a broom to a soft toy that shows a more familiar depiction of him spinning the charkha. He smiles at people as the American Munny Doll. Roy documents the different stages of his life on painted Russian dolls. “People recognise Gandhi as the maker of a great idea — non-violence. While we use his image all the time, we are not willing to adapt his way of life,” says Roy. Those following his work would recall his previous portrayals of Gandhi hooked to his laptop and iPad. “In this day and age everyone falls for corporate tyranny… we need someone like Gandhi says Roy.
Known for his engagement with history and the relevance of our past, Jitish Kallat’s works prod viewers to look beyond the apparent. Forming the basis of his installation and video Covering Letter (2012), is a letter written by Gandhi to Adolf Hitler weeks before the German invasion of Poland, which marked the beginning of World War II. Gandhi begins the letter with the salutation, “Dear Friend…” urging Hitler to resist “reducing humanity to a savage state.” “He is making a radical appeal for peace, anticipating the brutal bloodshed that the impending war would unleash,” says Kallat.
The Mumbai-based artist first saw the letter in 2009 at the Gandhi museum in Mumbai. “There was a sense of perplexity in the way that Gandhi words his address; he greets Hitler, one of the most violent individuals of that era, as a friend,” says Kallat. While appropriating it in his work, Kallat decided to allow the viewers to be part of this conversation. They can walk through the traversable curtain of cascading fog on which the letter is projected against the descending mist, “simultaneously inhabiting and dissipating the moving text”. Currently showing at the Venice Biennale, Kallat notes: “It can also be read as an open letter from the past destined to carry its message into our turbulent present, well beyond its delivery date and intended recipient,” he says.
In several of his interviews, the late modernist SH Raza recalled how it was his reverence for Gandhi that led him to stay back in India when the rest of his family migrated to Pakistan during the Partition. As an eight-year-old, he had accompanied his father to listen to Gandhi address a public meeting in Mandla during the freedom struggle. The personal encounter left a lasting impression. “I thought I would be betraying the Mahatma if I left the nation,”stated Raza in an interview to The Indian Express. After spending six decades in Paris, two years after the artist came back to India he began working on a series dedicated to Gandhi in 2013. In subdued hues, the first canvas carried the last words of the Mahatma — “Hey Ram”. Another canvas, divided into white and brown, Peed Parai, is painted with the bhajan Vaishnav Jan To Tene Kahiye, and there are words from a speech by Gandhi in Thoughts of Gandhiji. “Everyone should follow his dharma and painting is my dharma,” said the artist, who passed away in 2016.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 2, 2019 under the title ‘Portrait of Gandhi’.
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