*Gandhi and the Art of Dying

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"Martyrs of Humanity", cartoon by D. R. Fitzpatrick in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 February 1948

“Martyrs of Humanity”, cartoon by D. R. Fitzpatrick in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 February 1948

[On the occasion of the anniversary of the death of Mohandas K. Gandhi (January 30)]

There is but no question that Mohandas Gandhi remains, more than six decades after his assassination, the most iconic figure of modern India. He was one of the most widely photographed men of his time; an entire industry of nationalist prints extolled his life; and statues of his abound throughout India and, increasingly, the rest of the world.  Gandhi has been a blessing to cartoonists, ever since he signalled his arrival on the political scene in South Africa; and most Indian artists of consequence over the course of the last half-century, from M. F. Husain and Ramkinkar Baij to Ghulam Muhammad Sheikh and Atul Dodiya, have engaged with Gandhi in their work.  What is equally striking is that this immensely rich visual archive, which encompasses such unusual items as caricatures of Gandhi in Fascist publications, anti-Gandhi Soviet propaganda posters, and lewd comics of Gandhi from Tijuana, Mexico, has altogether escaped critical scrutiny –– barring some recent scholarly work on nationalist prints, and an occasional article on Gandhi and photography.

A distinct iconography began to develop around Gandhi’s figure in his own lifetime.  Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that, deities, the great bhaktas, and the founders of religion such as the Buddha aside, there is no figure in the history of India who could be so readily signified, whether by Gandhi’s trademark spectacles, his walking stick, the sandals he himself made, or the time-piece tucked into a corner of his dhoti.  Cartoonists delighted in those large ears that prompted Sarojini Naidu to dub him ‘Mickey Mouse’, and some of the most striking photographs are those where, in the midst of men dressed in overcoats, silk suits, or other formal wear, Gandhi appears singular in the shining armor of his nakedness.  One cartoonist had the good sense to represent the battle between Gandhi and the forces of violence as the struggle between ‘the shirtless’ and ‘the shirted’.

However, the various representations of Gandhi cannot be interpreted as offering a seamless narrative on his unique place in the national imaginary or as a figure of global protest.  What we do not see is just as important as what we do see.  Printmakers, photographers, painters, and sculptors are alert to different considerations.  The photographers of Gandhi, for instance, were naturally sensitive to the play of light and shadows, while printmakers drew on mythic material that they construed as the grounding of Indian civilization. The interpretation of public statuary leads us to a different set of questions:  where are statues of Gandhi placed, with what effect and consequences, and to what end?  The vast archive can also be viewed in the light of other interpretive strategies.  We can speak, for example, of ‘the seated Gandhi’, ‘the walking Gandhi’, ‘the spectral Gandhi’, and so on.  A consideration of ‘the sartorial Gandhi’ would enable us to gauge his life from the clothes that he wore at different stages of his awakening, and arrive at an assessment of how, after he had made a decision to reduce his clothing to the bare minimum, he came to embody, in the most profound ways, the idea of nakedness in its fullness.

It is, as we approach the anniversary of the Gandhi’s assassination on January 30th, of ‘the martyred Gandhi’ that I shall now speak.  Many have argued that Gandhi had a premonition of his death.  There had been several assassination attempts on his life in the preceding fifteen years.  What is unequivocally clear is that he spoke often, especially in the aftermath of Indian independence and the country’s vivisection, of wanting to die –– as he told his grand-niece Manu after the failed attempt on his life at Birla House at January 20th, ‘On this occasion I have shown no bravery.  If somebody fired at me point-blank and I faced his bullet with a smile, repeating the name of Rama in my heart, I should indeed be deserving of congratulations.’  On January 27th, Gandhi, still recovering from the fast that brought peace to Delhi and conviction to Nathuram Godse that the old man no longer deserved to live, told the visiting American journalist Vincent Sheean, ‘It might be that it would be more valuable to humanity for me to die.’  Yet, at other times Gandhi had, with equal assurance, declared that he wished to live for 125 years.

Some still dispute whether Gandhi died with the name of Rama on his lips.  The front cover of the 25 January 1970 issue of Illustrated Weekly of India echoes the confusion and shock experienced by all those around him; unusually, the revolver seems almost suspended between the assassin’s hands, though by all accounts Godse executed the task with firm and efficient resolve.  Indian printmakers went to work almost immediately after Gandhi’s death, likening him to Christ and Buddha:  though Gandhi was no founder of a religion, he seemed to some of his contemporaries to have had a similar impact on those who encountered him or had some awareness of his teachings.  These printmakers borrowed effortlessly, recognizing no cultural boundaries.  Gandhi adored Michelangelo’s Pieta and would have been humbled by the comparison.

Gandhi was also a world historical figure and his death was registered across the globe.  In the United States, the eminent cartoonist D. R. Fitzpatrick, long associated with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was reminded of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  His cartoon, ‘Martyrs of Humanity’, points to the place that Gandhi had come to occupy in the American imagination.  One doubts very much that the nation-state meant to Gandhi what it meant to Lincoln, but the image provokes precisely such questions.  Two decades later, another assassination would shake the world.  More so perhaps than any other cartoonist, Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times captured the poignancy of the killing of another architect of non-violent resistance.  In his famous cartoon, published in April 1968, an avuncular-looking Gandhi stretches out his hands towards Martin Luther King in a show of solidarity and says, ‘The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.’  Men such as Gandhi, who knew better than most the art of dying, have to be assassinated repeatedly.

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(First published under the same title in Sunday Times of India, 27 January 2013, p. 9)

10 thoughts on “*Gandhi and the Art of Dying

  1. Gandhi, iconic myth-making, yes, but I cannot help but agree with your concluding ‘Men such as Gandhi, who knew better than most the art of dying, have to be assassinated repeatedly.’ Does the world need now not so much an iconic protector of nations as of nature?

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  2. Thinking over your last sentence, I don’t believe men like Gandhi need be killed repeatedly. Gandhi as a veteran of Nonviolence and freedom movement of India, is followed by millions worldwide not at his request. We see him as the light that protects us in darkness what the nature couldn’t.

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    • I don’t doubt that “millions worldwide” hold Gandhi in deep respect if not reverence. I don’t know what it means to say,
      however, that he is “followed” by such millions. Followed in what respect? By suggesting that men such as Gandhi need to be assassinated repeatedly, I affirm precisely what you are saying, namely that, try as we might to bury him, we are unable to do so. He looms large, indeed even has a spectral presence; we cannot banish him. By the same token, though Nathuram Godse assassinated him in the flesh, is it not the case that he is killed in the spirit every day?

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      • In a socio-political system, if one decides to follow or rever Gandhi seriously or consistently, it has enough implications on the society and the politic and those can’t be described in simple words.

        Yes, Gandhi lives today not in flesh and blood, but in spirit and ‘d continue to inspire and guide individuals who wants to see a change, I meant.

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  3. Do you have any proof to show that Nathuram Godse was a member of the RSS and your subsequent statement that he ‘resigned’ from the RSS? In fact there is no documentary procedure for enrolling anybody into the RSS. The fact is that Nathuram Godse once attended the RSS and after a few years, he disagreed with many of the ideas of RSS and was vehemently opposing RSS in his magazine Agrani. The judicial commission appointed to probe the murder of Mahatma Gandhi was aso of the opinion that Nathuram Vinayak Godse had dissociated with the RSS from early 1930s. Please correct your statement in your article about Mahatma Gandhi, Godse and the RSS.

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    • Please respond to what is said in this article. Rangaswamy is
      referring perhaps to another article of mine, on another site,
      with which readers of this blog might not have any familiarity.
      In the event, Godse’s long-term association with the RSS is well documented, nowhere
      more decisively so than in the interview given by Nathuram’s younger brother,
      Gopal Godse, to Arvind Rajagopal published in Frontline, January 28, 1994.
      Here are the first crucial lines of the interview:
      Q. Were you a part of the RSS?
      A. All the brothers were in the RSS. Nathuram, Dattatreya, myself and Govind. You can say
      we grew up in the RSS rather than in our homes. It was like a family to us.
      Q. Nathuram stayed in the RSS? He did not leave it?
      A. Nathuram had become a baudhik karyavah (intellectual worker) in the RSS. he said in his
      statement that he left the RSS. He said it because Golwalkar and the RSS were in a lot of
      trouble after the murder of Gandhi. But he did not leave the RSS.

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  4. Hi Vinay,

    I am interested in finding out the painter for the last image where Gandhi is seen to have hit by the bullet fired by Godse. Could you please let me the source or the painter of the above mentioned image. Thank you.

    Best,
    Anurag

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    • I don’t remember the name of the artist and would have to look him up in my files, but you can find the image on the internet.
      He is a British war artist and contemporary to our times.

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      • My apologies, Anurag: I just realized that you are referring to a different image, the last one on this blog piece which was first published in the “Illustrated Weekly of India”, sometime in the 1960s as I recall. The image appeared on the cover of the magazine. Again, I’d have to look this up in my files, which I cannot do so now

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  5. Thank You so much Vinay. Deeply appreciate your response. Please do let know if you get to confirm the source whenever in the future. Thank you once again.

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