MAK­ING A MA­HATMA

The ad­vent of pho­tog­ra­phy and the mass pro­duc­tion of im­ages dur­ing the free­dom move­ment pro­vided a vis­ual iden­tity and cult value to na­tion­al­ist lead­ers like Ma­hatma Gandhi

India Today - - 150TH BIRTH ANNIVERSAR­Y - COL­UMN JY­OTIN­DRA JAIN

The ar­rival of the tech­nolo­gies of mass pro­duc­tion of the vis­ual im­age (such as lithog­ra­phy) in In­dia in the last quar­ter of the 19th cen­tury co­in­cided with the rise of na­tion­al­ist fer­vour and the free­dom move­ment. The ex­plo­sive spread of the vis­ual be­came in­stru­men­tal in the wide­spread mo­bil­i­sa­tion of the ideas and mes­sages of the free­dom move­ment. The colo­nial lessons in per­spec­tive and re­al­ism had en­dowed the tra­di­tion­ally flat and ide­alised im­agery with a more tan­gi­ble and sen­sual pres­ence which im­me­di­ately ap­pealed to the masses. More­over, the ad­vent of pho­tog­ra­phy in In­dia from the 1850s— with its power of re­al­is­tic por­trayal be­ing em­ployed by artists to pro­vide vis­ual iden­tity and cult value to na­tion­al­ist lead­ers—fu­elled mass pas­sion and zeal for in­de­pen­dence among the gen­eral pub­lic all over In­dia.

It was in this set­ting that a plethora of pop­u­lar im­ages of Ma­hatma Gandhi—en­com­pass­ing all as­pects of his per­sonal life as well as his lead­er­ship of the free­dom move­ment—be­came the sub­ject mat­ter of pop­u­lar im­age pro­duc­tion, which of­ten mythol­o­gised and iconised him as a semi-di­vine per­son­age.

The early and most renowned litho­graphic presses of the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury in­cluded the Cal­cutta–based Chore Ba­gan Art Stu­dio and the Cal­cutta Art Stu­dio; the Poona-based Chi­trashala Press; the var­i­ous Bom­bay- and sub­se­quently Kar­laLon­avla-based Ravi Varma presses and the some­what later en­trant, the Bri­jbasi Press of Mathura, with branches else­where. Among these, the Chi­trashala and the Bri­jbasi presses en­gaged them­selves strongly with the pro­duc­tion of na­tion­al­ist and Hin­duna­tion­al­ist im­agery. Be­sides these, nu­mer­ous smaller and re­gional litho presses had sprung up all over In­dia, churn­ing out cheap posters, cal­en­dars, prod­uct la­bels and other pub­lic­ity ma­te­rial which brought the vis­ual im­age in the hands of the com­mon man as never be­fore, cre­at­ing and ne­go­ti­at­ing in­ter­stices be­tween the sa­cred, the so­cial, the po­lit­i­cal, the na­tion­al­ist and the colo­nial mod­ern.

The se­lec­tion of im­ages of the Ma­hatma pre­sented here em­anate from this sce­nario of the con­cur­rent rise of the print rev­o­lu­tion and the free­dom move­ment in In­dia presided over by Ma­hatma Gandhi. ■

THESE IM­AGES WERE A RE­SULT OF THE CON­CUR­RENT RISE OF THE PRINT REV­O­LU­TION AND THE FREE­DOM MOVE­MENT IN IN­DIA

1

‘Non-co­op­er­a­tion tree and Ma­hatma Gandhi’, pub­lished by N.D. Sah­gal & Sons, La­hore, ca. 1930s

This print shows Ma­hatma Gandhi seated out­side his ashram un­der a meta­phoric tree, held in po­si­tion by an imag­i­nary ‘God­dess of Union’ while be­ing pulled down by the ‘pol­icy of sup­pres­sion’, rep­re­sented by a Bri­tish sol­dier. The tree is shown bear­ing fruit—the por­traits of the lead­ers of the non-co­op­er­a­tion move­ment. Sig­nif­i­cant in­sti­tu­tions, events and in­di­vid­u­als of the time, such as the Coun­cil cham­ber, Swara­jya ashram, a jail topped by a Bri­tish flag, rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Hindu-Mus­lim con­flict and busts of lead­ers such as Dad­ab­hai Nau­roji and Ti­lak, Kas­turba, etc. are shown sur­round­ing the tree. It is no­table that the en­tire scene is presided over by Shri Kr­ishna, stand­ing be­hind the seated fig­ure of Bharat Mata (per­son­i­fied as a sari-clad lady), and ut­ter­ing a stanza from the Bha­gavad Gita in­di­cat­ing that he would in­car­nate when­ever there is vi­o­la­tion of right­eous­ness in Bharat.

Fig­ures 2 and 3: Col­lages with fig­ures of Ma­hatma Gandhi and oth­ers, cutout from dif­fer­ent vis­ual sources and stuck on to a back­ground paint­ing in the Nathad­wara id­iom, ob­tained from Shekhawati, Ra­jasthan, ca. 1930s

Fig­ure 2 shows a cut-out from a printed im­age of Gandhi in pen­sive mood, seated out­side a man­sion nes­tled in a bu­colic land­scape, while an im­age of Lord Ram be­stow­ing bless­ings (de­rived from another print) is shown stand­ing be­hind him.

A born Vaish­nava, Gandhi’s deep per­sonal faith in Lord Ram is well-known. Sig­nif­i­cantly, the collage comes from the haveli of a Vaish­nava Agar­wal of Shekhawati in Ra­jasthan.

Fig­ure 3 com­prises im­ages of Ma­hatma Gandhi, Bharat Mata and the flag of the In­dian Na­tional Congress (INC), de­rived from eclec­tic printed sources, placed in a wa­tery and forested land­scape. In the fore­ground, one sees Gandhi com­pas­sion­ately look­ing at a goat (here con­fused with a deer or a stag) while in the back­ground are the im­ages of Bharat Mata and the flag of the INC.

There are man­i­fold known as­so­ci­a­tions of Ma­hatma Gandhi with the goat. In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, he writes about his ex­per­i­ment with eat­ing goat meat as a boy, which caused him so much re­morse that he wrote, “it would seem as though a live goat were bleat­ing in­side me…”. It is well-known that Gandhi had taken to tend­ing goats and drink­ing goat milk. Nu­mer­ous art works and pho­tographs, both in In­dia and abroad, show Gandhi in the com­pany of goats.

Col­lages, as a medium that pile up im­ages from het­ero­ge­neous vis­ual sources on a sin­gle re­cep­tor sur­face, of­ten act as a ve­hi­cle of cul­tural force, promiscuou­sly ma­nip­u­lat­ing im­ages and spa­ces across time, place and genre, ad­dress­ing na­tional and cul­tural ob­jec­tives.

COL­LAGES OF­TEN ACTED AS A VE­HI­CLE OF CUL­TURAL FORCE, PROMISCUOU­SLY MA­NIP­U­LAT­ING IM­AGES AND SPA­CES ACROSS TIME, PLACE AND GENRE

‘Ma­hat­maji meet­ing the King-Em­peror in Buck­ing­ham Palace’,

Print, pub­lished by Shyam Sun­der Lal, Kan­pur, ca. early 1930s

The print ap­pears to be an imag­i­nary ver­sion of the his­toric meet­ing of Ma­hatma Gandhi and King Ge­orge V, as no ac­tual pho­to­graph of this event has come to light. The per­son­ages present are (clock­wise) Saro­jini Naidu, Queen Mary, Em­peror Ge­orge V, Pan­dit Madan Mo­han Malaviya and the Ma­hatma. Two sar­to­rial de­tails here are note­wor­thy: de­spite the Bri­tish de­mur for Gandhi’s in­for­mal cloth­ing, he went to the palace in his usual at­tire, while Saro­jini Naidu is shown wear­ing a tra­di­tional silken sari, shun­ning her khadi out­fit. The pos­ture of the Em­peror bend­ing for­ward to shake Gandhi’s hand and the lat­ter not oblig­ing with the same ges­ture, while seated on a throne more ma­jes­tic than that of the Queen, likely stems from the artist’s fancy.

Play­ing card (front and back), ca. early

20th cen­tury

The front of the card shows a por­trait of Gandhi as the ace of spades, the high­est in the hi­er­ar­chy of cards, placed within an oval frame with the in­scrip­tion, ‘Ma­hatma Gandhi’ (top) and ‘Bel­gaum 1924’ (bot­tom). The back has the In­dian tri­color ris­ing from the Ashokan lion cap­i­tal, the In­dian na­tional sym­bol, with the slo­gans ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Jai Hind’.

It is re­mark­able that be­sides the main­stream re­sis­tance move­ments, such as Swadeshi and Satya­graha, led by na­tional lead­ers, there arose a whole gamut of re­gional pop­u­lar para­pher­na­lia of vis­ual sym­bols and de­vices of the kind of play­ing cards re­pro­duced here, which truly dis­sem­i­nated the mes­sage down to the grass­roots level.

THE UP­PER HALF OF THE IM­AGE (ABOVE) IS IN­FLU­ENCED BY EU­RO­PEAN PAINT­INGS DE­PICT­ING THE AS­CEN­SION OF JE­SUS

7

‘Our Saviour’, Print, artist and pub­lisher not spec­i­fied, ca. mid-20th cen­tury Sim­i­lar in con­cep­tion to Fig­ure 6, this im­age ap­pears to stylis­ti­cally be­long to the artis­tic id­iom of the Gu­jarati Gand­hian artists such as Rav­is­hankar Rawal or Kanu De­sai and prob­a­bly pub­lished by Bri­jbasi.

6

‘Gandhi’s As­cent to Heaven’,

Print, pub­lished by S.S. Bri­jbasi, 1948

This print is a re­pro­duc­tion of a paint­ing by the Nathad­wara artist Narot­tam Narayan Sharma. The en­tire com­po­si­tion is partly based on the ac­tual scene of Gandhi’s last rites and partly stem­ming from the imag­i­na­tion of the artist and the pub­lisher. The highly drama­tised sce­nario com­prises Gandhi’s cre­ma­tion in the fore­ground, flanked by Pan­dit Nehru and Sar­dar Pa­tel pay­ing homage to the Ma­hatma. The mid-ground is oc­cu­pied by other em­i­nent lead­ers of the free­dom move­ment. The up­per half of the pic­ture has a fig­ure of Gandhi, with folded hands and soar­ing sky­wards, above which he is shown seated in a vi­mana (a ce­les­tial ve­hi­cle), car­ried by two white pi­geons and flanked on ei­ther side by an In­dian na­tional flag and a sari-clad and winged an­gel. The up­per half of the im­age is clearly in­flu­enced by the range of Eu­ro­pean paint­ings—from the Re­nais­sance on­wards—de­pict­ing the theme of as­cen­sion of Je­sus as he de­parts from Earth to the pres­ence of God in Heaven.

ALL IM­AGES COUR­TESY JY­OTIN­DRA JAIN

Jy­otin­dra Jain is a for­mer direc­tor of the Na­tional Crafts Mu­seum and pro­fes­sor at the School of Arts and Aes­thet­ics at JNU. He has au­thored sev­eral books, in­clud­ing Ka­lighat Paint­ing: Im­ages from a Chang­ing World and In­dian Pop­u­lar Cul­ture: ‘The Con­quest of the World as Pic­ture’. He is cur­rently ed­i­tor of Marg Pub­li­ca­tions, Mum­bai and Tagore Na­tional Fel­low at JNU

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