Portraying the artist of non-violence
Nandalal Bose, one of the pioneers of Indian modern art, who created the iconic black and white linocut of the Mahatma walking with a lathi, wrote this about him: “Mahatmaji may not be an artist in the same sense that we professional artists are, nevertheless I cannot but consider him to be a true artist. All his life he has spent in creating his own personality and in fashioning others after his high ideals. His mission is to make Gods out of men of clay. I am sure his ideal will inspire the artists of the world.”
The Mahatma has indeed been a source of inspiration for generations of artists from MF Husain, Sayed Haider Raza, to Atul Dodiya, Riyas Komu and Jitish Kallat, among others, who have experimented with forms, materials, and mediums to portray the Mahatma and his message.For Mumbai-based Atul Dodiya, Gandhi has been an abiding passion for more than two decades; and for others such as Kolkata-based Debanjan Roy, who has done a series of fiberglass sculptures of Gandhi, the Mahatma has been a medium to raise several social and political issues.
“Gandhi was a great performance artist by default; his actions and lifestyle were highly symbolic and artistic. He was also a complex personality, which artists over the years have deconstructed in their own ways, spawning a wide variety of work with different points of view. Each time he is deconstructed, he throws open the possibilities of reconstruction too,” says Johny ML, a well-known art curator and critic who, in 2010, co-curated an exhibition titled ‘Freedom to March: Rediscovering Gandhi through Dandi’ with Anubhav Nath, director, Ojas Art Gallery.
The exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi had installations, video art, sculptures, photographs, and paintings by artists such as A Ramachandran, Alok Bal, Atul Dodiya, Jagannath Panda, KG Subrahmanyan, among others. They retraced the Mahatma’s route, beginning from Sabarmati and walking through 40 villages along the western coast of Gujarat, before culminating the journey in Dandi. “It was the 80th anniversary of the Dandi March, and the idea was to decipher the idea of freedom at that time,” says Johny ML.
Among the artists, very few can match Atul Dodiya’s body of work on Gandhi. His obsession with Gandhi began in 1997, when India celebrated the 50th anniversary of Independence, and he has since produced over 200 paintings on the Mahatma, often re-contextualising his teachings, and exploring the relevance of his tenet of non-violence. In 1999, his exhibition ‘An Artist of Non-Violence,’ a series of large watercolour paintings, his homage to Mahatma Gandhi, was held at Mumbai’s Chemould gallery. Gandhi has, over the years, also been a subject of his shutter paintings and has featured in his assemblage art.
“During the country’s 50 Independence Day celebrations, I realised that while Gandhi was everywhere— on stamps, government offices— his philosophy of non-violence, and love for fellow human beings, was lacking. That was the trigger for my first Gandhi paintings,” says Dodiya. Painting Gandhi, he says, has been quite a challenge, though. “As a painter, I could easily paint any personality—whether great artist such as Van Gogh, Picasso or Matisse in my own way, but painting someone like Gandhi, a towering political leader and a statesman, his philosophy and thinking in a way that would gel with my artistic perceptions, was not easy.”
What helped, he says, was a statement by Gandhi he came across. “He said I am not a seer, rishi, or a philosopher of non-violence, but I am an artist of non-violence, and I tried to develop the art of non-violence in the realm of resistance.”
That, Dodiya says, made him realise how everything Gandhi did was so visually appealing and conceptual—the structure of his ashram; the kind of clothing he wore; his acts of non-cooperation; the Dandi March; and his lifting a pinch of salt. “Gandhi was probably the first conceptual artist. Once I saw him as an artist, I knew what to do with him as an artist.”
One of Dodiya’s assemblage work ‘Broken Branches’, along with the works of other artists such as Nandalal Bose, MF Husain, Ashim Purkayastha, Jitish Kallat, is currently on display at Indian pavilion at Venice Biennale. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), in collaboration with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, and curated by Roobina Karode, the exhibition titled ‘Our Time For A Future Caring’ is an attempt to evaluate the relevance of Gandhian values in the contemporary world.
Dodiya’s view on the Mahatma is endorsed by Adwaita Gadanayak, a well-known sculptor and director-general, NGMA: Gandhi had a great sense of art and aesthetics, and believed that art should have a higher purpose and should be used for the benefit of society. Artists world over continue to be fascinated with Gandhi because his ideas and ideals continue to be as relevant as ever.”
Gandhi has also been a favourite of many artists who have used their art for trenchant political and social commentary. Kolkata-based Debanjan Roy, for example, did a number of fibreglass sculptures in 2010 – Gandhi with an iPod, Gandhi with a crow sitting on his head, Gandhi walking a dog, among others. “Gandhi with iPod reflects how corporates have fuelled a culture of unbridled consumerism in this country through aggressive marketing and advertising,” says Roy. And why did he choose Gandhi to convey his views? “Gandhi is the father of the nation and a global icon who everyone can relate to,” he says.
His upcoming show, to be inaugurated in Delhi in October, has seven artworks in silicon, paper pulp, wood, etc., depicting Gandhi as a toy. “Gandhi has been reduced to a toy in the hands of politicians over the years. They only use him to further their politics, they do not practise what Gandhiji preached,” says Roy.
Jagadeesh Tammineni, 31, a Visakhapatnam-based printmaker, has explored the idea of ‘nation-building’ through a woodcut series, which depicts Gandhi as a master craftsman, giving final touches to the tiger, the peacock, the cow, metaphors for the nation with an intricate mechanism. “The act of building a democratic liberal nation is strewn with difficulties. Gandhiji still holds the key,” says Tammineni, whose works were recently part of an exhibition, ‘Mahatma: Self or Nation?’ at Delhi’s Art Heritage gallery.
Unlike most artists who have done figurative artworks on Gandhi, Sayed Haider Raza, one of the masters inspired by the Mahatma, did a series of abstract paintings in 2013, two years after he returned to India from France, where he spent six decades of his life. In 2017, a year after his death, seven of those paintings were part of a show ‘Gandhi in Raza’, held at Delhi’s Visual Arts Gallery and Akar Prakar gallery, in collaboration with Raza Foundation.
In this set of paintings, each a subtle symphony of colours, Raza employed sombre hues, inscribing on them texts and verses symbolising key Gandhian concepts such as Satya, Peed parai, Shanti, Sanati, Swadharam, also the titles of the paintings.“ Raza was so deeply influenced by Gandhi’s life and ideas that while his family migrated to Pakistan after Partition, he chose to stay back. These paintings were his tribute to the Mahatma,” says Abhijit Lath, director, Akar Prakar gallery.
For the past five years, Subodh Kerkar, a Goan painter, sculptor and installation artist, has been working on ‘Phir Gandhi Project’, which seeks to engage with the idea of Gandhi and his contemporary relevance through various artistic media — paintings, sculptures, installations, videos, and interactive multimedia works.
As part of the project, he has converted Gandhi’s ECG into a sonic rendering of what Gandhi’s heartbeats might have sounded like; created an animation of Nandalal Bose’s iconic black and white linocut of walking Gandhi; made bronze replicas of Gandhi chappals of different sizes; documented important Gandhi artifacts and sculptures across the country; and developed an Android app that allows people to see virtual sculptures of Gandhi.
“The project is an attempt to communicate Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings of truth, non-violence and compassion using contemporary art. Gandhi is as relevant today as he was during India’s epic struggle for freedom; his principles are eternal and need to be reintroduced to everyone in order to create a more peaceful and plural world,” says Kerkar, who frequently visits Porbandar, the birthplace of Gandhi. “It is my Kashi, my Bethlehem, my Mecca, my Gaya,” he says.
During Gandhi’s lifetime, many artists such as Mukul Dey, Kanu Desai, JH Amshewitz and Feliks Topolski did stunning Gandhi sketches and paintings, but the Mahatma, one of the most photographed icons ever, never posed for any photographer, painter or sculptor. Nandalal Bose was the only artist ever patronised by him. The Mahatma commissioned him to decorate venues of Congress sessions, including the one at Haripura in 1938, which Nandalal Bose decorated with gates, pillars, a cluster of stalls, thatched shelters, landscaped garden.
He also did about 80 paintings on handmade paper, depicting rural life—hunters, musicians, bull handlers, carpenters, smiths, spinners. These paintings became famous as ‘Haripura Posters’—some of which are on display at Venice Biennale. “National spirit and fervour was the signature of the Haripura posters. Gandhiji had a special interest in rural art and craft and artisans,” says Adwaita, who has done several Gandhi sculptures.