*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)


*Gandhi’s Photograph and the Politics of the Frame

The popular Hindi film brings to mind the framed portrait of Mohandas Gandhi, ‘Father of the Nation’.  Hindi films are often described as formulaic, and perhaps not without reason:  their ingredients, many imagine, are utterly predictable, and indeed one of the pleasures of watching such films may reside precisely in the fact that often one is aware of the dialogue even before it has been uttered.  The plot generally holds no suspense, and that may be one reason why the Hindi film thriller is, barring an exception or two, still an anomaly.  Whatever the merits of the argument, I have been struck by something else in viewing hundreds of films over the years.  In the Hindi film of the 1960s through the 1980s, as in real life, one could almost always expect to find the framed photograph of Mohandas Gandhi, most often in the police station, the government office, or the receiving room of the senior politician’s headquarters.  Occasionally, one would encounter the framed Gandhi in the home of the pious teacher, the dedicated social worker, or the plain old-fashioned patriot.  The framed Gandhi, if one were to watch mainstream Hindi films from the decades of the 1960s to the 1980s with a modicum of attention, seems to have been nearly as essential to the Hindi film as songs, the staged fights (orchestrated by the ‘fight master’), or the suffering mother.  One might argue, of course, that the Hindi film was merely following the script set by the state:  the protocol apparently required that Gandhi’s photograph be hung visibly in the most prominent office of a government institution.

It is tempting to think that, from his lofty position on the wall, Gandhi is there to inspire men and women to do good; but perhaps he is also there to cast a look, as we shall see, at all that transpires in his name and under his photograph.  Though the ‘Father of the Nation’ did not much believe in surveillance, and was notoriously indifferent to considerations of his own security, eventually surrendering his life to an assassin who had absolutely no difficulty in penetrating the Birla House gardens where Gandhi held his evening prayer meetings, the framed Gandhi appears to peer down from his lofty position on mere mortals.  However critical one may be of Gandhi at times, even his worst enemies would have a hard time thinking of him as a ‘Big Brother’.   Even Gandhi’s authoritarianism, for such is how it is has been described by some of his critics, was tempered by a radical catholicity of thought.  Nevertheless, perhaps the framed Gandhi is there to remind the thinker or doer that Gandhi Baba’s eyes are cast at their deeds:  his blessings will be showered on those who act ethically and his admonitions will caution those who are set on the path of wrong-doing.  One can understand why Indian embassies and consulates throughout the world prominently display the framed Gandhi:  whatever India’s standing in any particular country, the name of Gandhi is calculated to earn India some goodwill.  Similarly, the person who puts up Gandhi’s photograph may be attempting to acquire cultural capital, suggesting to others that the admiration for Gandhi points to some element of nobility in his or her own personality.  If we are associated in people’s minds with the friends we keep, there is reason to suppose that the photographs of venerable elders on display are meant to signify something about us to others.

The gesture of the framed Gandhi can, of course, be read in myriad other ways.   It is customary for states to hang framed photographs of the highest officials – often elected, just as often self-appointed, as in the case of ‘presidents for life’, or otherwise chosen to preside over the destinies of their people – but Gandhi occupied an anomalous position in the immediate aftermath of independence, holding no office and yet being bestowed with the epithet of ‘Father of the Nation’.  But, in India, framed photographs of the gods and goddesses are even more common than the photographs of netas, ‘leaders’ of the nation.  Let us, for a moment, overlook the fact that many of those canonized or celebrated as netas have been scarcely deserving of that honorific, and it is no surprise that the word ‘neta’ is commonly and justly viewed as a term of abuse and vilification.  Netas are often those who plunder the nation.  Holding no elected office in either independent India or even in the Congress party after his one-year term of presidency of the Congress in the early 1920s, and having no riches or possessions to his name, Gandhi cannot be bunched together with the netas, small and big, who populate the Indian scene.  But Gandhi was equally reluctant to being deified:  he openly disowned the idea of being a Mahatma, and would have shuddered at the thought of being assimilated into Hinduism’s gods and goddesses.   Gandhi occupies, we may say, a position betwixt the politicians and the gods, and yet a position that is akin to neither.  Perhaps that old and tiresome question, of whether he was a politician in saint’s garb or a saint who muddled his way through politics, will never go away.

One keen observer of Indian politics who has always remained aware of the framed Gandhi is the cartoonist R. K. Laxman, famous among other things for his creation of the ‘common man’.   In one cartoon after another, Laxman lampooned the netas, bureaucrats, and the sycophants who came to define ‘politics’; significantly, the framed photograph of Gandhi looms large in his work, as the three cartoons reproduced here amply demonstrate.  Laxman was keen to underscore the hypocrisy of politicians, leaders, and party office holders, though ‘hypocrisy’ is perhaps a banal and even relatively benign word to characterize those who, under Gandhi’s portrait, did not hesitate to offer or accept bribes, engage in horse-trading, engineer ‘disturbances’ in the interest of advancing the party’s electoral prospects, and so on.  Still, Laxman may have missed out on one element in his representation of the Gandhi looming behind the frame.   As I have had occasion to write elsewhere, there is no constituency in India – liberals, Marxists, constitutionalists, Hindutvavadis, militants, feminists, Dalits, Punjabis, Bengalis, communalists, gays and lesbians, most of all Gujaratis, and then countless more – that does not love to hate Gandhi'The Framed Gandhi', cartoon by R. K. Laxman.  He has been framed for every imaginable ill that has afflicted India:  some hold him responsible for the partition of India; others for upholding caste, relegating women to the household, and allowing the bourgeoisie an easy ride; and many others for betraying his fellow Hindus.  There are even those who find the hand of Gandhi behind the culture of gherao, strikes, hartal, and the evasion of law.  And one could continue in this vein.  So, when we frame Gandhi, we do far more than enclose his photograph or portrait behind glass.  Our habit of framing Gandhi has more to it than meets the eye.

(This piece is available in an Uzbek translation here:  http://eduworksdb.com/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/)

An Estonian translation of this article by Martin Aus can be found here:  http://techglobaleducation.com/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/

*Gandhi’s ‘Relevance’: One More Round of Humbug

It is that time of the year when reverence will be paid to Bapu, the ‘Father of the Nation’.   There will be prayer meetings at Rajghat, the national memorial to Gandhi and, in a manner of speaking, his final resting place.  The prayer meetings will be led by the President, Prime Minister, and other dignitaries of the state.  October 2 is Mohandas Gandhi’s birthday, and the politicians, leaders of society, and other well-wishers and do-gooders in India will be lined up to garland statues of Gandhi, utter a few homilies to the great man, and proclaim his (ever-increasing, it will be affirmed) ‘relevance’ to the world.   And then some of these leaders and politicians will head home – home being one place where the laws of prohibition, a cause dear to Gandhi, cannot be enforced on Gandhi Jayanti – to chat on their cell phones, strike a few business deals, and cook up a few new ways of screwing the much-celebrated ‘common man’.

According to some of Gandhi’s detractors, the old man ought more appropriately to have been designated as the ‘Father of Pakistan’.  His assassin was unquestionably of that view, and many others in India have thought the same though in Pakistan it will be impossible to dislodge the Qaid-e-Azam from his pedestal.  Whatever similarities and differences there may be between Pakistan and India, the laudatory and hagiographic view of Jinnah has not yet taken the kind of beating to which Gandhi has been subjected in India, notwithstanding the halo of divinity which surrounds Gandhi in official pronouncements.

The characterization of Gandhi as ‘Father’ of the ‘Nation’ hides much more than it reveals in many other respects.  It has been argued that Gandhi could be ‘father’ to the nation, but found it difficult to be a father, or at least a good one, to his own sons; but perhaps the more interesting way of putting the designation of father into question is to probe whether he was not also a mother to many.  His assassin, and Nathuram Godse’s admirers among some who serve in high office in Gujarat, never doubted that the effeminate Gandhi was not fit to lead an emergent nation-state in a world that shows no mercy to those who are soft.  Gandhi just didn’t have enough manliness about him, a point that Narendra Modi, who fancies himself a ‘Chota Sardar’, seeks to make by flaunting his masculinity and flashing a sword.  There was, as I argued many years ago in the pages of Manushi, too much of the ‘mother’ in the ‘father’ to make Gandhi palatable to the restless modernizing elements in Indian society, and we are not surprised that one of his constant companions in the last years of his life wrote a book entitled, Bapu, My Mother.

In 1998, when India went nuclear, some stalwarts of the Shiv Sena were heard stating with euphoria, ‘We have shown them [Pakistanis and enemies of other varieties, including, one should assume, secular and ‘pseudo-secular’ Hindu liberals] that we are not eunuchs.’  Assuming, then, that the use of nonviolence did not render him into a eunuch, and that Gandhi did not fail his sons at every moment, did Gandhi abide very much by the idea of the ‘nation’?  Architect of the independence struggle that he was, Gandhi continued to harbor much ambivalence about the nation, or certainly about the nation-state.   His presence in Delhi on 15 August 1947 might have sanctified the idea of the nation-state, but Gandhi chose to be in Calcutta where he was attempting to broker the peace between Hindus and Muslims – more ammunition, of course, for those who always thought of Gandhi as too attentive to the needs of the Muslims.  Gandhi presents an extraordinary anomaly of a political figure who, though having led a country to freedom, had almost no emotional, cultural, intellectual, or spiritual investment in the idea of the nation-state.

So, when the prayers are sung and platitudes fill the air at Rajghat, it also becomes necessary to inquire what it means for the samadhi of the ‘Father of the Nation’ to be at Rajghat, the Ghat of Kings.  There is a civilizational touch, no doubt, in the idea that a commoner – for, in the last analysis, Gandhi held no office and was singularly devoid of possessions – alone commands the place of King of Kings.   At least in principle the idea of celebrating Gandhi’s life by inscribing his presence at Rajghat is congruent with the notion that Indian civilization has honored renunciants, and men and women of wisdom, more than kings.   But Rajghat has become a crowded place, and its other occupants are, with one exception, all previous office-bearers, Prime Ministers and President of India, distinguished and otherwise.  That exception is the wannabe King of Kings, Sanjay Gandhi.  One does really begin to wonder how Mohandas Gandhi landed up in Rajghat.