*The Imprint of a Man’s Life:  Visualizing Gandhi’s Biography


Fig. 1:  “Pujya Gandhiji Ki Jivan Caritra”, or The Life Story of Revered Gandhiji: a print from the famous workshop of Hemchander Bharagava & Co., Delhi.

One more Gandhi Jayanti [Birth Anniversary: October 2nd] has gone by and the thought that occurs to me is this:  just how was the life of Gandhi conveyed, in his own lifetime and in the aftermath of his death, to his countrymen and women, across towns and in India’s hundreds of thousands of villages?  What did they, who could not read, know of his life in panchayats and little hamlets?  Did the Patuas or Chitrakars move from village to village and unfold the panels of their scrolls and so make vivid the episodes drawn from Gandhi’s life?  If they did so, the scrolls appear not to have survived.  There is something suggestive, in this regard, about a touching scene in the classic movie, Garam Hawa:  the workers at the shoe factory of Mirza Sahib are gathered around a man who reads from a newspaper an account of Gandhi’s assassination.

There may thus have been many modes by which the life of Gandhi was put into circulation and the mind instinctively turns to biographies.  Of biographies of Gandhi there is now no end, and each generation, so says Ramachandra Guha in justification of yet another life of Mohandas, needs its own Gandhi.  India sent us Mohandas, Mandela is reported to have said, and we sent back a Mahatma, and it is in South Africa that the first slim biography of Gandhi was penned.  Many of the biographies that followed are, as befits an epic life, gargantuan in scope.  There was, at first, D. G. Tendulkar’s Mahatma in 8 volumes; various volumes by Pyarelal appeared at a leisurely pace over the course of a few decades. But these works were published many years after independence, as is true of something like 700-800 biographies of Gandhi in English alone.

Anthologies of Gandhi’s writings began to proliferate around the mid-1920s, and his own ‘lieutenants’, most famously Mahadev Desai and later Pyarelal, were quick in bringing out systematic narratives of his satyagraha campaigns. The two volumes of Gandhi’s autobiography, written in Gujarati and rendered into English by Mahadev, appeared in 1927 and 1929, but the autobiography takes the story of his life only to the early 1920s. Gandhi’s writings began to be disseminated by Navajivan Trust, a publishing house that he had established in 1929, but nevertheless it is unlikely that most Indians would have become acquainted with the contours of his life through published works.

By the early 1920s, print makers, working out from a number of cities, among them Delhi, Kanpur, Allahabad, Lahore, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, had begun to take the narrative of the nationalist movement to the masses.  These prints may have been passed from one hand to another; they may have been framed and placed prominently in homes, but it is also likely that they were affixed to walls, doors, or poster boards in public spaces.  Gandhi figured prominently in these prints, many shaped around the non-cooperation movement, the Salt Satyagraha, or the teachings with which he became associated on subjects such as the constructive programme, swadeshi, and the economic impoverishment of India under colonial rule.  One of the more striking of such prints, from the Delhi-based Hemchander Bhargava & Co., takes as its subject the totality of Gandhi’s life, from cradle to ‘martyrdom’, and offers cues on how Gandhi’s life was stitched into the fabric of the nation.


Fig. 1a:  “M. Gandhi Jivani”, that is “The Life of M. Gandhi.”  This is a variation of Fig. 1: the print is identical, except for the fact that the background blue is a darker shade of blue, and the longer caption of Fig. 1 has been replaced with a shorter and less ornate caption.

Entitled “Poojya Gandhiji ki Jivan Caritra” (The Life Story of Revered Gandhiji; fig. 1), the print invites the viewer to read Gandhi’s life through rites of passage or critical events.  The narrative commences at the bottom left with the infant Gandhi; moving along a vertical axis, the viewer encounters him at various stages of schooling in his native Gujarat and England before he arrived in South Africa as an attorney.  It is there that he developed the idea of nonviolent resistance:  in doing so, he stripped himself of his Western clothes and donned the garb of a satyagrahi.  As the viewer moves along the horizontal axis at the top of the print, the next phase of his life is vividly brought to the fore.  In 1915, Gandhi returned to India with Kasturba, and campaigns at Champaran and Kheda acquainted him with the conditions of Indian peasantry.  By the mid-1920s, Gandhi was preoccupied with the constructive programme, and finally in 1930 he launched the next phase of mass nonviolent resistance with the Salt Satyagraha.

The viewer, at this point, moves vertically down the right side of the print.  Gandhi made his way to London for the Round Table Conference to negotiate the terms of India’s future; he also met with the King-Emperor. In the mid-1930s, he installed himself at an ashram in central India.  Visitors to his ashram almost invariably found him spinning. He appeared to have withdrawn, once again, from the struggle for political emancipation; however, the print can also be read as inviting the viewer to reflect on the relationship of political independence to economic independence and social change in Gandhi’s thinking.  He launched the final phase of the freedom struggle with the call for the British to ‘Quit India’.  With this, the print-maker turned to some of the people who filled the last years of Gandhi’s life:  Nehru, children, and his grandnieces Manu and Abha.  The two young women were his constant companions and sometimes dubbed his ‘walking sticks’.  Finally, Gandhi’s life is brought to a close with his assassination:  the martyred Gandhi is placed squarely in the center of the print and both dominates and anchors the entire narrative.


Fig. 2:  “Bapuji ki Amar Kahani”, the Immortal Story of Bapuji.  This artist is described as the Chitrakar Lakshminarayan Sharma, and the publisher is Picture Publishing Corporation, Bombay.

Other similar prints of Gandhi’s life story circulated as well.  From Picture Publishing Corporation in Bombay we have a print, created by Lakshminarayan Sharma, with some significant, indeed extraordinary, variations (fig. 2).  The narrative is structured in a like fashion, but the Indian tricolor, which is noticeably missing in the first print, occupies a good portion of the lower third of Sharma’s print and offers a different framing device.  The baby’s cradle is draped in the tricolor, as if to suggest that Gandhi was ordained from birth to lead the country to freedom; on the bottom right, Gandhi foregrounds the flag and the words, ‘Sampurna Swaraj, 15 August 1947’, suggesting that he successfully shepherded the country to its destiny.  Most significantly, Gandhi lies in complete repose, his body adorned by the tricolor.  The script at the bottom enumerates the date of his death; the smoking gun suggests that the satyagrahi met a violent end.  “He Ram” are the words that Gandhi is thought to have uttered as the bullets pierced his body and he fell to the floor, but both the assassin, Nathuram Godse, and his younger brother Gopal would dispute that Gandhi said anything at all.  The text to the right, “Bapuji Ne Diya Jalaya / Uski Jyoti Barayen Hum” (‘Bapuji lit the flame, It is for us to further that light’), read in conjunction with his draped body and the globe that he has conquered with his stride suggests not only that Gandhi has merged into the nation but that he belongs to the world.

There is much else that is captivating in Sharma’s print, but it is in the juxtaposition of the two prints that we can discern what is remarkably different in openly pronouncing Gandhi the “Father of [the] Nation.”  I have had various occasions to remark, elsewhere in my published work, that Gandhi was just as much Mother to the Nation as he was Father of the Nation.  It is not even remotely accidental that Manu’s greatest testimonial to Gandhi is a little book called, Bapu, My Mother.  The print from Picture Publishing is, if we may put it this way, far more masculine in its sensibility and representational apparatus. It excises not only Kasturba, who was Gandhi’s life companion for something like 60 years, from the narrative but all women.  One can dispute the degree to which Gandhi was comfortable with idea of women’s complete autonomy, but it is inarguably the case that Gandhi played a critical role in bringing women into the public sphere.  There is not a hint of this in Lakshminarayan Sharma’s rendering of Gandhi’s life story (fig. 2).  The Bhargava print (fig. 1), by contrast, is sensitive to the place of women in Gandhi’s life, and in its recognition of the role of women in the Salt Satyagraha it offers more than just an affirmation of how women came into the freedom struggle. Gandhi sought not only to liberate India from colonial rule but to emancipate politics from its association with an unforgiving masculinity.

A biography is seldom only a chronological narrative of a person’s life; these prints are no exception.  We may, in conclusion, take a few illustrations of how the print from Hemchander Bhargava’s workshop seeks to offer a decisive interpretation of Gandhi’s life.  It is attentive, for example, to the sartorial Gandhi:  as we encounter Gandhi along the different stages of his life, we find him stripping himself of clothes and trying, in his own words, to reduce himself to zero.  Of Gandhi it can be said that he commenced his adult life vastly over-dressed and ended it, by the reckoning of some, vastly under-dressed.  His dhoti and shawl are not just blood-stained; blood drips down.  The nation, too, has been stained by the dastardly act of the assassin; the country is drained, dripping with the blood of the innocents.  The loss of blood points to the sacrifice of the Mahatma, but was this sacrifice in vain?  Was the martyrdom of Gandhi necessary so that he could begin life anew?

(First published in a shorter version in the Hindu Sunday Magazine (6 October 2018) as “The Imprint of a Man’s Life”; the online version called “Gandhi and the Printed Image” can be accessed here: https://www.thehindu.com/society/gandhis-story-in-images/article25113640.ece)


*The Rhetoric of Relevance and the Graveyard of Gandhi

(Also published on the website of HIMAL Magazine)

As India prepares to mark the anniversary of Gandhi’s death, the tired old question of Gandhi’s ‘relevance’ will be rehearsed in the press.  Once we are past the common rituals, we are certain to hear that the spiral of violence in which much of the world seems to be caught demonstrates Gandhi’s continuing ‘relevance’.  Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the Presidency of the United States furnishes one of the latest iterations of the globalizing tendencies of the Gandhian narrative.  Unlike his predecessor, who flaunted his disdain for reading, Obama is said to have a passion for books; and Gandhi’s autobiography has been described as occupying a prominent place in the reading that has shaped the country’s first African American President. Obama gravitated from “Change We Can Believe In” to “Change We Need”, but in either case the slogan is reminiscent of the saying with which Gandhi’s name is firmly, indeed irrevocably, attached:  “We Must Become the Change We Want To See In the World.”  Obama’s Nobel Prize Lecture twice invoked Gandhi, if only to rehearse some familiar clichés – among them, the argument, which has seldom been scrutinized, so infallible it seems, that Gandhian nonviolence only succeeded because his foes were the gentlemanly English rather than Nazi brutes or Stalinist thugs.

Let me, however, leave aside for the present both the question of Obama’s Gandhi and the liberal’s Gandhi, and turn rather briefly to some more general problems in the consideration of Gandhi’s place in world history.  The Gandhi that is known around the world, and to a substantial degree even in India, is principally the architect and supreme practitioner of the idea of mass nonviolent resistance and the prime example of the ‘man of peace’.  The general sentiment underlying this view is clear enough, even if one thought of bringing to the fore evident objections to such a characterization of Gandhi.  One might argue, as some historians have, that the role of Gandhian nonviolence in the achievement of Indian independence has been overstated, or one could adopt the view, a more nuanced and interesting one, that ‘peace’ was not particularly part of the vocabulary with which he operated.  The centrality of ahimsa (nonviolence) and satya (truth) to Gandhi’s way of thinking aside, if one had to add another set of terms that might signify his practices and thought alike, then one would perforce think of brahmacharya (celibacy, closeness to God), tapasya (sacrifice, self-suffering), aparigraha (non-possession), and so on.   Though silence was an integral part of his spiritual and political discipline, Gandhi studiously avoided speaking of shanti (peace).  One of the many reasons he did so is that peace has all too often been used as the pretext to wage war.  Describing the barbarous conduct of the Romans some 2,000 years ago, the historian Caius Tacitus put it rather aptly: ‘They make solitude [desert] and call it peace’.  I suspect, moreover, that if Gandhi had been alive to see how he has been packaged, sold, and denuded of all insights and vitality by the practitioners of what are called ‘peace studies’, he would have been rather pleased at his insistence on nonviolent resistance rather than on peace.

Supposing that Gandhi is a supremely world historical figure, what is being invoked is the principal figure in the twentieth century associated with peace and nonviolence.  But this Gandhi, many will be surprised to hear, is a somewhat impoverished figure, one who cannot easily be reconciled with the Gandhi who was an emphatic critic of nearly all the critical categories of modern political and humanist thought.  Let me, by way of illustration, take up very briefly two ideas that have reigned supreme in our times.  Most political thinking in the West over the course of the last century has been riveted on the question of ‘rights’, and recent political movements in the West have, in addition to the rights of the individual, vigorously asserted the rights of groups, whether defined with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or some other marker of identity.  Gandhi, at least in the received view, might reasonably be seen as falling entirely within this framework.  One can surely describe Gandhi as someone who initiated the modern campaigns against colonialism, racism, and xenophobia, and in this respect he can be viewed as an advocate of the right of people to live an unfettered life of dignity.

And, yet, if one should thus be tempted to assimilate Gandhi into a pantheon of the champions of human rights, one would doubtless be obscuring his profound skepticism towards the discourse of rights.  Rights are ordinarily claimed against the state, and those desirous of staking claims look up to the state to safeguard their rights. Gandhi recognized the state as, not infrequently, the most egregious violator of rights, and generally had little if any enthusiasm for the modern nation-state.  Indeed, Gandhi is distinct among modern political figures in decisively rejecting the narrow association that the idea of citizenship has come to have with the demand for rights, and in reinstating the concept of duty.  At the height of a struggle with the ruler of his native Rajkot late in his life, Gandhi averred that “in swaraj based on ahimsa, people need not know their rights, but it is necessary for them to know their duties.  There is no duty but creates a corresponding right, and those are true rights which flow from a due performance of one’s duties.”

We can also, in a similar vein, turn to Gandhi’s unflinching skepticism towards ‘history’ as a dramatic example of his repudiation of the liberal traditions of learning of the modern West and of the categories of thought marshaled by modern knowledge systems.  The story of how Indian nationalists responded to the colonial charge that Indians were deficient in the historical sensibility has been told often enough and need scarcely be repeated here, but suffice to note that nationalist thought was heavily invested in the idea of history and the commitment to history took many forms.  Whatever the ideological differences between armed revolutionaries, liberals, constitutionalists, Indian Tories, and Hindu supremacists, they were all agreed that that an Indian history, for and by Indians, was the supreme requirement of the day.  Here, as in so many matters, Gandhi struck a lonely path, departing from the main strands of nationalist thought.   It would be trivial to suggest that Gandhi did not lack an awareness of the past; but had he lacked such awareness, it is far from certain that he would have viewed his ignorance as a shortcoming.  Gandhi’s indisposition towards viewing the Mahabharatra, Ramayana or the puranic material as a historical record is pronounced; but he went much further, as in this pronouncement from 1924: “I believe in the saying that a nation is happy that has no history.  It is my pet theory that our Hindu ancestors solved the question for us by ignoring history as it is understood today and by building on slight events their philosophical structure.”  Though I myself am a teacher of history, Gandhi’s profound misgivings about the enterprise of history strike me as just and even prescient.  Among other considerations, such as his manifest concern about the pernicious attempts to transform Hinduism from a religion predominantly of mythos to one of history, he was also fully aware that nineteenth century ideas about history, and the inevitability of human progress, were but forms of social evolutionism.  Gandhi resisted the idea that the only history that India could live out was someone else’s history.

My point here may be encapsulated in the following way:  Gandhi has an inescapable presence in intellectual and public spheres, and in the knowledge industry, but in the most predictable ways.  The shapers of opinion and the framers of knowledge have entirely neutralized him, or, in the provocative language of Hind Swaraj, for which ‘world history’ has absolutely no use, rendered him effete.  (Elsewhere, I have written extensively on the cultural politics of sexuality surrounding Gandhi’s life, and my use of ‘effete’ is quite deliberate and self-reflexive.)  There is room for him as an Indian nationalist who articulated some unusual ideas of nonviolent resistance, forged a mass anti-colonial struggle against the British, fought to bring peace to communities torn apart by violence, and agitated for various social reforms.  It is unnecessary, for the purposes of this argument, to point to those critics who would describe him as a reactionary, a friend of the industrialists, an enemy of Dalits, an opponent of class warfare, and so on.   Recently, Mayawati and the Slovenian philosopher-clown Slavok Zizek have found common cause in describing him as more violent than Hitler.  Gandhi’s admirers have, it appear to me, sanitized him enough, and evidently have little patience for his withering critique of modernity, his strictures against Western systems of education, his sexual Puritanism, or his indifference to what I could describe as the regime of modern aesthetics.

Thus, on the eve of the anniversary of his assassination, the question of his ‘relevance’ strikes me as supremely irrelevant.  We should think rather of liberating Gandhi from everything that has beautifully conspired to constrain him.  First there were the Gandhians, a largely unattractive and insipid if well-intentioned lot who, like many practitioners of formal religions, followed all the external signs but showed little of the creativity of Gandhi.  Then there have been the infernal statues, towards which the pigeons have shown an admirable irreverence that would have made Gandhi laugh.   As the Gandhians aged and the statues had normalized Gandhi, the peace studies practitioners came forward with their institutionalized programs of study for peace administrators and conflict managers.  This narrative has many other chapters, but it should by now be transparent that the rhetoric of relevance has been the graveyard of Gandhi.