New Delhi, October 15 (IANS): Mahatma Gandhi was a finicky master choreographer of his own image, dismissed most works of art around him as lacking a soul, was not a patient or good "sitter", and thus an "indifferent muse". And yet, artists were repeatedly drawn to him, says noted Indian-American Indologist Sumathi Ramaswamy in a path-breaking book that chronicles the manner in which artists have portrayed the Father of the Nation for more than a century.
Gandhi "was a master choreographer of his own image", satyagraha "was itself an aesthetic form and social scientists who ignore this fact really missed a foundational aspect of the Mahatma's way of being and relating to the world", Ramaswamy, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of History and International Comparative Studies at Duke University at Durham in North Carolina, told IANS in an interview about her seminal work, "Gandhi in the Gallery -- The Art of Disobedience" (Roli Books).
For instance, in a conversation in October 1924 with Santiniketan-trained Gandhian G. Ramachandran, he stated point blank that "all true art is the expression of the soul", and dismissed most works of arts that he saw around him as not embodying "the soul's upward urge and unrest", Ramaswamy said.
Art, if it had to count for Gandhi, had to be "useful" - and to be of service "to the people"; hence his emphasis on "craft" rather than "art" per se. So, he also had a rather utilitarian and even instrumentalist idea of what constituted "art". By all accounts, including by artists' reporting of attempts to pose for him, he was not a very patient or good "sitter" and hence "my characterization of him" as "indifferent muse". And yet, artists were drawn to him, again and repeatedly, Ramaswamy said.
"Drawn to him" would be an understatement, given that every artist you can name, from Jamini Roy, to Nandlal Bose, Aparna Caur, M.F. Hussain, Atul Dodiya, Bhupen Khakhar, Paresh Maiti, S.H. Raza, Vivian Sundaram, L.N. Tallur (whose luminous sculpture adorns the cover of the book), Ram Rahman, Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson, to name just few, have produced at least one work on the Mahatma, 130 of which are reproduced in the book.
"One of the things that got me really intrigued in the course of (writing this book) is the fact that drawing, painting, sculpting Gandhi is almost a rite of passage with artists of India - and not just in Gandhi's life time but especially since the 1990s. Both the most famous of artists, and then newest of artists have produced at least one work on him. In fact, at one point, I even began to look for artists who have not produced something a work about him, and wondered if pursuing this angle would be a useful way to think about what is it about the Mahatma that captures the imagination of the artist," Ramaswamy said.
"As to why they are drawn to him - I think there are numerous reasons and the reasons shift over time... minimally they see in him a fellow artist, someone who was seeking to live a life creatively and conducting his life in a creative manner. For artists since the 1990s, especially those on the secular Left, I have also suggested that they are drawn to Gandhi as a means to another end: he becomes a means through which to speak out against the growing intolerance of Indian society, the runaway consumption, the increasing use of state violence, and so on. This is what I mean when I characterize the Indian artist as Gandhi's conscience keeper," the author added.
In doing so, these artists also acknowledge how "this most disobedient of 'modern' icons has grabbed their attention, resulting in a veritable art of disobedience as an homage to one of the twentieth century's prophets of disobedience" the author said -- which explains the book's sub-title.
How did the book come about?
Growing up in India in the 1970s as a committed Nehruvian - Gandhi was not really on her horizon other than as a symbolic personage -- Ramaswamy learned to appreciate him more as a teacher in a US classroom -- "as you may know, and alas, Gandhi is perhaps the only Indian the average US student knows of, so several of us who teach Indian history approach the subcontinent through the lens of Gandhi. It is through teaching that I got hooked, if you will", the author explained.
So, she was primed, in a manner of speaking to begin engaging with Gandhi visually - which she did at first in her monograph "The Goddess and the Nation" (2010) in which she explored the colourful lithographs that feature him as Mother India's devoted son (a paradox given that he is also the Father of the Nation), Ramaswamy pointed out.
While she was working on the project, the Delhi-based curator Gayatri Sinha approached her to do a piece and that led her to write an article titled "The Mahatma as Muse: An Image Essay on Gandhi in Popular Indian Visual Imagination." That appeared in Sinha's edited volume for Marg publications in 2009 titled "Art and Visual Culture in India, 1857-1947".
"In this essay, I explored the paradox of Gandhi serving as the muse for so many artists who produced for the mass-market and yet was himself was very ambivalent about art qua art, and especially about bazaar lithographs (he wrote pungently against these 'caricatures')," Ramaswamy said.
In both these projects, she was firmly focused on popular, mass-produced art, rather than singular high-end gallery works, which is the dominant focus of Gandhi in the galleries.
"As I worked on this latter project, it allowed me to also refine as well as critique my earlier arguments - this is the beauty of being a scholar, one is constantly learning and through that process revisiting older positions," Ramaswamy explained.
What was the impact on the author of writing this book?
"The most important realization I arrived at as a scholar in engaging with the amazing artworks in the book is the realization that Gandhi was a master choreographer of his own image, an 'artist' himself of sorts. As a historian, I would not have thought him so; it is only leaving my 'comfort zone' of the archives and texts that I came to this realization. Doing this work made me realise how much more interesting and intriguing Gandhi really is," Ramaswamy concluded.
The outcome, as is quite apparent, is a book that must occupy an essential space in your bookshelf.