At dusk on January 30, 1948, three powerful gunshots shred through the silence at Birla House in New Delhi, silencing the strongest voice of the Indian national movement. As Mahatma Gandhi died, with ‘Hey Ram’ on his lips, he breathed new life into the recently freed nation. Over the past 70 years, the dying moment of Gandhi has been narrated, debated and reflected upon in numerous ways. Fortunately or unfortunately, when Gandhi’s body crumpled towards the ground after Nathuram Godse pumped three bullets into him, no camera was present to capture the precise moment, leaving to imagination one of the most defining moments of Indian history.
In a recent lecture organised by the University of Chicago Center in Delhi, historian Sumathi Ramaswamy presented her ongoing project titled, “The optics of a dying moment in the life of a nation.” Her project studies in great detail the way in which visual and material culture has kept alive the dying moment of the Mahatma. “Historian E.M.Barry suggests that nations are frequently founded on assassinations. Ironically committing patricide, Godse might have ensured a long afterlife of Gandhi. I am interested in understanding what role does art play in keeping alive the moment of Gandhi’s death,” says Ramaswamy.
The pieces of art studied by her range from the pictorial to the lithic to the sculptural and the digital. They encompass both bazaar art including posters and pamphlets as well high art produced by some of the foremost artists of our time. Focusing on the way extant photographs of Gandhi and his accessories were repurposed over and again to dwell upon his dying moment, Ramaswamy’s project underlines how art has continued to center around the aspect of ‘lastness’- “Gandhi’s last days, the last possessions, the last walk and most importantly the last utterance.”
Gandhi’s death in bazaar art
As Ramaswamy explains in her lecture, there is no standard way in which Gandhi’s death is visualised in art. For instance, there exist chromo-lithographs from the time immediately after his death in which Gandhi is shown to stand tall and smiling as blood oozes out of the three wounds and drips on the map of the nation. There are others in which Gandhi is shown to be in Mother India’s arms as she looks down upon him with tears streaming down her face. There exists few others too that draw parallels with the death of Christ and Buddha, suggesting that Gandhi too, died a similar fate. “These are drawn from well known images in the Gandhian photographic archives,” explains Ramaswamy.
Gandhi’s death in high art
High art produced by academic painters are also known to have created several visual representations of Gandhi’s assassination. For instance, as pointed out by Ramaswamy, the Orissa born, Calcutta trained painter, Upendra Maharathi contemplated the scene of the murder, adding to it figures of Buddha and Christ.
“Consider the work of this Bombay-based, Goan artist known as Cruzo who brings Christian overtones to this visual imagination of the moment as Gandhi lies flanked by Abha and Manu. His spectacles and sandals abandoned, blood from his bullet wounds quietly dripping to the ground,” says Ramaswamy.
Atul Dodiya’s “voracious eaters” and Krishen Khanna’s “news of Gandhiji’s death” are other such works which focus on the assassination despite Gandhi’s absence in them. “The absent body is also presenced by the Mahatma’s few possessions like his spectacles, his sandals and his stick,” says Ramaswamy. The last walk and the last utterance of ‘He Ram” are other elements that continue to enthrall the artist’s imagination. “In his own time, Gandhi was a proponents of the Hindustani language. But in the wake of the partition, even in the works of Muslim artists like Syed Haider Razak, it is the nagari rendering of the words that is produced luminously on the canvass, visually affirming that Gandhi died the most faithful and Hindu of deaths,” says the art historian.
Interestingly, many artists have also brought in the figure of the assassin, Nathuram Godse to visualise the dying moment. “Although no photograph exists of the two of them together, as per the logic of lastness, the two are brought together,” she says. Most enigmatic of such works, believes Ramaswamy, is the one produced by the Calcutta-based Debanjan Roy. In his work, Gandhi is produced in the company of Godse to the extent that “their faces fuse and partly merge even as the blood red colour streaks across the paper.” “Is Roy drawing our attention to the strange intimacy that Gandhi’s assassin attempted to establish with Gandhi?” asks Ramaswamy as a means to interpreting the work.
Gandhi’s death, in so many ways complicates our understanding of the birth of the nation. Brushing off the myth of a non-violent national movement, the moment of assassination along with the partition, which, of course, forces us to reflect upon the violent origins of Indian nationalism. Ramaswamy’s project propels us to think upon what role does visual and material culture play in our understanding of Gandhi’s death and subsequently the nation it gives birth to. “I am very careful and I want to get the perspective of the artist, but for me its what the image does that is more important because of the fact that once the artist produces it and releases into the world, he really loses control over it and it can be put to very contrary use,” she says.