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
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
‘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
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
‘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.
‘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.
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