Mahatma Gandhi, born in 1869 and assassinated by Hindu extremists in 1948, continues to be an inspiration for historians, activists, politicians, economists, philosophers, environmentalists, filmmakers – and artists.
Sumathi Ramaswamy’s Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience reveals the ways in which Gandhi has served as a muse for painters, sculptors and multi-media artists over the decades. The book comprises 131 examples of paintings, sculptures, installations and multi-media works on Gandhi.
One of the aims of the book is to spotlight “the labour of art in producing the phenomenon that we name the Mahatma”, Ramaswamy writes in her introduction. “Gandhi is arguably the most analysed Indian of the twentieth century, and my fellow historians and other social scientists have produced an enormous body of important scholarship on the man and his movement from which I have benefitted,” adds Ramaswamy, who is a James B Duke Distinguished Professor of History at Duke University. “But the deep suspicion of the image that is ingrained across the social sciences, and indeed, an unfounded conviction regarding its irrelevance, has meant that the labour of art in producing the phenomenon that we name the Mahatma has been largely ignored.”
Here are five instances from Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience that pay tribute to and interpret the icon of non-violence.
Riyas Komu’s interpretation of a well-known studio photograph of Gandhi taken in 1906, when he was a barrister in Johannesburg in South Africa, is titled after a key date. 9/11/1906 is a “colonial-era photograph” that is “turned into a canvas of disobedience” to mark the day on which Gandhi resisted the Black Act, which required that all Indians register themselves and carry identification at all times, Ramaswamy writes.
Gandhi’s austere ways, his experiments with diets, and his famous fasts as a mode of protest inspired Dhiren Gandhi’s Sacrifice for Humanity. “In the work, the Mahatma is aesthetically assimilated into a long tradition of meditating monks and self-abnegating ascetics, as he sits in the padmasana or lotus pose, the ribs on his torso stark and visible, his frame skeletal but his gaze steadfast,” Ramaswamy comments.
Atul Dodiya’s numerous works on Gandhi include Evening Walk on Juhu Beach. “Walking for freedom was critical as well to Gandhi’s disobedient critique of capitalist and industrial modernity, an emphatic declaration of autonomy from dependence on its infrastructure, and an insistent assertion that satyagraha was most definitely not passive, but instead a form of active resistance,” Ramaswamy writes.
Among the heart-wrenching responses to Gandhi’s assassination by Hindu extremists led by Nathuram Godse is this undated painting by Maqbool Fida Husain. The artist “imagines the act as it is happening, an ominously cloaked figure in black pointing a gun at the Mahatma, who looms large over his killer, diminishing him even in his very act of falling”, Ramaswamy observes. “...the slain body is thrown out into the void, its work done, its purpose exhausted by the assassin’s bullet.”
The memorialisation of Gandhi after his death, especially in the form of statues, evoked this reaction from Gigi Scaria. The painting “visually underscores the public hollowing out of a haloed figure, the emptying of substance”, Ramaswamy writes. “Placed on a pedestal, the half-completed statue of the sandal-wearing dhoti-clad Gandhi, his wrist-watch prominently on display, stands poised to go somewhere. However, he has nowhere to go in an India that has abandoned him.”
Excerpted with permission from Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience, Sumathi Ramaswamy, Roli Books.