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