Gandhi At Venice
Ever since Mahatma Gandhi fired the imagination of the world as the protagonist of non-violence, memorials to him have sprung up everywhere. From San Francisco to Yogyakarta in Indonesia, the image of Gandhi is interpreted to avail of his invaluable message for the present times. It is only appropriate, therefore, that as the world congregated at the 58th Venice Biennale this year, the India Pavilion on Gandhi was abuzz with contemporary artists’ versions of the Mahatma.
In the exhibition “Our Time for a Future Caring”, organised under the aegis of the ministry of culture, we have interpretations of Gandhi’s immortal message of truth and non-violence by eminent Indian artists. It is important to remember at this juncture that Gandhi considered himself an artist of non-violence — “I am not a seer, rishi or a philosopher of non-violence: I am only an artist of non-violence in the realm of resistance”.
To mark the occasion of Gandhi’s arrest for protesting the British tax on salt, Nandalal Bose, for instance, had created a black and white linocut print of a scantily-clad Gandhi walking with a staff which became an iconic image for non-violence. In reinstating the might of the ordinary person, Gandhi could not have been depicted with greater simplicity or strength. The Mahatma — with just his dhoti, shawl, cap and staff — graced the hallowed sanctuaries of the Raj. Clothed in this costume, he strode past the liveried guards into the Viceroy’s House in 1931. He arrived at Buckingham Palace for tea with King George V and Queen Mary wearing a tattered shawl, too.
Gandhi is invoked in a masterly manner by the artist M F Husain, for instance, who painted him striding forward and without any facial features. Gandhi became for him symbolic of the common man and his ability to survive despite the extreme odds faced in everyday life. Husain’s Gandhi brings to mind the artful manner in which the leader had knitted together his countrymen into a mass movement.
There is a little known fact that, just weeks before the beginning of World War II, Gandhi was to write to Adolf Hitler in July 1939 — making a fervent appeal for peace anticipating the horrifying bloodshed of the war. The petition from one of the greatest proponents of non-violence to one of the most violent historical figures of the world is created as a fog screen by the artist Jitish Kallat and extends its message onto the adjoining floor. In creating an immersive experience which the viewer can walk through, inhabiting and dissipating the unrolling text, the open letter from the past carries its message into the turbulent present.
Atul Dodiya’s Broken Branches, are wooden cabinets which he had witnessed in Gandhi’s ashram in Porbandar where his personal belongings were kept. Dismayed and anguished by the Godhra riots in Gujarat in 2002, these distilled into his work where the cabinets showcase replicas of human bones, prosthetic limbs, hand-painted photographs, spades and hammers, construction tools and other debris of divisive hate. Shakuntala Kulkarni’s armour of cane are an evocative barricade for women to protect themselves, but they are also a cage. Rummana Hussain’s broken vessels with a vivid flow of colour resound with pain and resurgence. Ashim Purkayastha’s stone heaps are a vivid reminder of violence but also a shelter against destructive forces opening the message of Gandhi for contemporary times.
The alchemic transformations of Gandhi’s beliefs into objects of hope and despair in today’s India make for an impactful translation. Even as some in the country mouth laudatory words for Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, in Venice the world watches bewitched, the messages of non-violence from the famed artist of peace.
The writer is an art historian and an independent curator based in New Delhi