Artists who’ve kept Gandhi alive on canvas, in raga & with bronze
In 1924, musicologist Dilipkumar Roy met Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Pune. Hearing Roy was a singer, Gandhi requested the younger man to perform for him. Roy arrived the following day with his tanpura, sat at Gandhi’s feet and sang bhajans that made the Mahatma’s eyes glistened with tears. When Roy met Gandhi a few months later in Calcutta, the Mahatma’s eyes were again glinting; but this time, it was with mischief. “Where’s your instrument of torture?” Gandhi asked Roy. He was referring to Roy’s tanpura.
Besides his love for bhajans and a brief period during his early years in England when he took ballroom dancing classes, cultural activities seemed to be an indulgence that had no place in Gandhi’s austere world view. The Father of the Nation was unimpressed by films and once described Charlie Chaplin as a buffoon. He decreed there would be no paintings hanging on the walls of his rooms and when asked why, he said, “I do not need them for my inspiration.” Yet his life and his work have been inspiration to countless artists of independent India.
In 1948, when the news that Gandhi had been shot dead reached Pandit Ravi Shankar, he was about to do a recording in All India Radio. He created — reportedly, on the spot — the Mohan Kauns raga, a variation on the raga Malkauns with elements of the raga Jog. Twenty years later, Pandit Kumar Gandharva was asked to compose a tribute to Gandhi and he composed the raga Gandhi Malhar. Gandharva’s daughter, Kalapini Komkali, wrote that he wanted to create something that would “do justice to the memory of the Mahatma and the values of truth and fearlessness that he espoused”. In the 1990s, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan would compose raga Bapu Kauns and chitraveena maestro, N Ravikiran, would create raga Mohini as tributes to Gandhi.
It may seem odd that four ragas were composed for a man who listened to just a handful of bhajans, but rather than the reality of Gandhi, what has been inspirational for artists are the ideas that he embodied. The man who dismissed paintings as an indulgence was immortalised by Nandalal Bose, whose black and white linocut print of Gandhi — grim-faced, strong-limbed, stick in hand — on the Dandi march was one of the first iconic images of the leader. Bose’s bold and precise lines highlighted Gandhi’s simplicity, steadfastness and strength. These same qualities would characterise practically every sculpture of Gandhi, whether it’s the famous Gyarah Murti by Devi Prasad Roychowdhury that stands at the intersection of Sardar Patel Marg and Mother Teresa Crescent in New Delhi; or the highly conceptual Monumental Gandhi sculptures by A Ramachandran, which show Gandhi’s head rising above a smooth bronze sheath; or any of the cheap Gandhi-themed souvenirs on sale at tourist spots. They all play upon the contrast between the frailty of Gandhi’s visible form and the strength of the man who stood up to and outwitted India’s colonial rulers.
It’s ironic that a man who was so steadfastly against consumerism has today become a brand, with elements like his glasses or the neat curve of his bald head being used as logos, but this has also made Gandhi a constant presence in our everyday world. In contemporary art, Gandhi being reduced to a symbol has been used cleverly by several artists, often to articulate a sense of despair. In a painting titled Mirror by Nityan Unnikrishnan, a key detail is the portrait of Gandhi hanging on the wall. His smiling face is recognisable but disfigured by a dark patch. The people in the room have turned their backs on him. News and images of religious violence fill the room.
The most striking artistic explorations of Gandhi and his relevance in contemporary times have been by Atul Dodiya. From painting portraits to imagining Gandhi in surreal scenarios and including kitschy busts of Gandhi in his installations, Dodiya has been sifting through what the leader symbolised in our changing society since the 1990s. Whether as a laughing face that appears like a brand on the rolling shutter that indicates that this shop is not open for business or as a wisp of watercolour, the Gandhi of Dodiya’s art is the conscience keeper surrounded by the chaos of the past and present.
Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai films may be the most famous on-screen avatars of the Mahatma, but Gandhi was a favourite of filmmakers long before Ben Kingsley made him a household name. In 1921, Kanjibhai Rathod made Bhakta Vidur, a film that was ostensibly about the character from the Mahabharat, but featured a Vidur who wore a Gandhi cap (which Gandhi himself wore only for a short spell despite the literal hat-tip in the name), had a charkha and urged peasants to not pay taxes. The British banned the film.
Gandhi may not have had much time for the arts in his life, but 71 years after his death, his ideas are remembered not by politicians, but by those who practice the arts. Immortalised in sculpture, re-imagined in paintings, invoked in music, Gandhi is alive.