Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government on Friday used artist Tom Vattakuzhy’s “Death of Gandhi” painting on the cover of its Budget document. Last year was celebrated as the 150th birth anniversary of the freedom struggle leader.

State Finance Minister Thomas Isaac said the painting was used to make a political statement. “We are sending out a message that we will not forget who murdered Gandhi,” he told ANI. “This is important at the times when history is being re-written. There is an attempt to erase some popular memories and use National Register of Citizens to divide the population on communal lines. Kerala will stand united.”

The minister was referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party, some of whose leaders have made statements over the past year praising Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse. In the run-up to the General Elections, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Pragya Singh Thakur, who is an accused in a terrorism case, had called him a patriot. However, she backtracked after a massive backlash. Though her own party, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, condemned the remarks, no action was taken against her. Thakur again repeated the remarks in Parliament in November, but soon after claimed that the comments had been distorted by the Opposition.

Last week, former Union minister and Karnataka BJP leader Anantkumar Hegde was served a show-cause notice by his party for ridiculing Gandhi’s hunger strikes and satyagraha, and claiming that India’s freedom struggle had been staged. A day after the controversy erupted, Hegde claimed he had “never said a word against Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit [Jawaharlal] Nehru”.

The artwork

Vattakuzhy’s artwork was widely shared on Gandhi’s death anniversary on January 30 this year, but many people, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Communist Party of India leader Kanhaiya Kumar, did not give him credit.

The artist – who has studied at Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, and Baroda University – told The Times of India that he drew Mahatma Gandhi’s dying moments as there were attempts to tamper with history. “So far, artists have romanticised and personalised Gandhiji,” Vattakuzhy told the newspaper in an interview published on February 5. “At a time when history is at stake, I felt it was important to tell moments through the genre ‘history painting’.”

The painter, who lives in the town of Muvattupuzha near Kochi, chided Rahul Gandhi and Kumar for not crediting him for the painting. “We won’t use a poem without acknowledging the poet,” said Vattakuzhy. “We give credits to filmmakers. That is ingrained in our culture. However, it is different in the case of paintings. It is not just the skill or the hours spent on the painting. In genres like history painting, which is not very prevalent in our country, an artist has to invest a lot of time doing homework.”

Also read:

  1. Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte were the first convicts to be hanged in independent India
  2. Watch: A short film revisits Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination
  3. What Gandhi said and wrote after the Hindu-Muslim riots before India’s independence