By Suryakant Nath*
Very FEW PUBLIC FIGURES of the last century were - and remain - as instantly recognizable to literally billions of people around the world as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 - 1948). There can hardly be a doubt that Gandhi has a singularity among the most universal icons of Modern India. There is a kind of evocative power in the most famous pictures/statues of Gandhi that immediately calls to mind not only the era in which he lived, but the words and deeds that made him so memorable. The set of iconic pictures that has become more closely identifiable with his life, have almost been packaged and re-packaged to appeal to a nation obsessed with hero-worship. Whether it is the portrait of the Mahatma beside his cherished spinning wheel or the peace march of a loner trying to drowse the flaming passions of partition killings in Noakhali or the quick march with volunteers to break salt law at Dandi in 1930, he has not only been the most visible Indian but his personal items of use have also become easily marketable global symbols.1
Few men in their life and after life have aroused emotions or touched deeper chords of humanity than Mahatma Gandhi.2 Einstein's remark about him in July 1944, "Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth"3 is apt and hardly needs any over-emphasis. While millions venerate him as the Mahatma4(Great Soul), his political opponents see him only as an astute politician. His biggest critics, the British could see him in a gentler light only after the transfer of power in August 1947 when they no more had to engage with him as the arch-rebel. Schooled in self-discipline, Gandhi's life was a continuous process of evolution and growth. While hagiographical narratives by over-obsessed priests of Gandhian cult do not hesitate to place him in the Hindu pantheon,5 most ferocious attacks have been directed to all aspects of his life and legacy both during his life and afterlife.6 So, in many ways, Gandhi remains an enigma. The Gandhian legend which was born during Gandhi's lifetime has enormously expanded after his death.7
The present paper makes an attempt to situate Gandhi within the framework of India's Modern History and, more importantly, to contextualise the imaging of brand Gandhi.
Gandhi's unique place in Modern India's imagination, despite the scarcity of cinematographic representation8, is best conveyed by a study of his image in modern literature, in English as well as in Indian vernacular languages. As early as 1921, he inspired Hindi literature's most celebrated author, Premchand. In his novel Premashram (ashram of love), revolving around agrarian conflict in an Indian village, the central character Prem Shankar is an alias of Gandhi. The appellation, Mahatma, very well expresses the veneration in which he was held by his countrymen. In his close circle of friends and acquaintances he was generally called Bapu or father, which had an altogether different connotation.9 Gandhi's popularity has been such that whatever India's standing in any particular country, the very mention of the name of Gandhi is bound to earn some goodwill for India.10
Popular images ccnjure many different and incommensurable Gandhis: as human, as divine; as prophet of ahimsa, and as slave to the revolutionary violence of Bhagat Singh. These different personae were played out as inner turmoil by Gandhi himself. In popular picture production different images appealed to different audiences which each made Gandhi the repository of their own needs and expectations. A few of the images lie close to Gandhi's own self-conception as a somatic, physically transparent human vehicle of a divinely inspired morality.11
It wouldn't be too much off the mark to say that Gandhi is the only individual in Indian History who is not the historical founder of a religion around whom a distinct iconography has developed. For cartoonists world over, Gandhi's shining bald head, Mickey mouse ears, his walking sticks, pair of round spectacles, sandals, shawl wrapped loosely around his shoulders in the cold months, the time piece tucked into his dhoti, the pet goat, etc., have become a part of Gandhian imaginary.
Although Gandhi gathered nation-wide appeal from 1920 onwards, perceptions of him varied enormously. With the Civil Disobedience in 1930, he started being transformed into the dominant symbol of Indian nationalism. Views of him, never the less, remained unfixed, until his assassination made him the national hero and the object of an official cult.12
Gandhi's 'multiple images' in his lifetime was linked to his broad symbolic register, which left him open to different kinds of interpretations. Gandhi himself was very good at using symbols: he did not leave anything to chance, to improvisations; each of his gestures and postures was geared towards carrying across a message to different kinds of recipients.13 Indian public, which was mostly illiterate and steeped in a culture which was predominantly oral and visual, responded very well to this use of symbols, even though this did not prevent misunderstandings, especially in relation to Gandhi's clothes.14
External appearance, of which cloth was an integral part, is an important indicator to ponder over while appraising his personality and the ways in which he was seen by his contemporaries and posterity. To reach the illiterate masses, the Gandhian message had to be conveyed through images more than words. This becomes much more significant in the backdrop of the fact that Gandhi wasn't a great orator. British Anthropologist, Emma Tarlo has remarked that the external appearance of a mature Gandhi, so idiosyncratic in the Indian context of the time, was a continuous and deliberate process of self-definition and construction.15 At an early stage of his life Gandhi seems to have been sensitive to the close link that existed between clothes, national identity and social status. As a young lad of 18 he seems to have been possessed by sartorial anxiety. At first he tried to become stylish and fashionable.16 Judith Brown says that 'His English experience was an emotional and social ordeal; and he soon abandoned his early attempts at being a late Victorian dandy and lived in London as quietly and as cheaply as possible'.17 Then he adopted a standard western style of dress, which remained his attire throughout his South African stay. For the first time he appeared in an Indian dress in public in 1913 at Durban. As a mark of his manifestation of grief, for miners killed during satyagroha, Gandhi presented himself, head shaven, dressed only in lungi and kurta. In South Africa Gandhi does not seem to have made definite choices.18
But there is no denying the fact that it was in South Africa that the moral and political significance of clothes stuck him. There he learnt that simply appearing in the court in the 'wrong' headgear had the power to send the British into apoplexies of rage. From then on he wore only 'native' dress in court. He developed the publicist's eye for a striking image and the crucial importance of dressing the part.19 It was the capacity within the Indian context, to combine utility with morality that made cloth and clothing such alluring symbols by the saintly pragmatist.
Harold Dwight Lasswell, a political scientist and communications theorist, defined propaganda as the management of eclectic attitudes by manipulation of significant symbols. Based on this definition of propaganda, Gandhi can be said to have made use of significant symbols to drive his ideal of a united India free of British rule.20
Gandhi was certainly an unlikely candidate for all-India prominence in the early twentieth century.21 The image of himself that Gandhi attempted to project was very much a constructed one; if for nothing else, Gandhi was, at the least, sensitive to a certain equation between simplicity and saintliness. He was a strange and unÂprepossessing figure for his contemporaries.22 Tarlo also points out that this decision to stick to khadi had more to do with identification: as long as the poorest Indians were not able to use khadi23, he would wear only minimal clothing out of solidarity with them. In the long term the development of hand-spinning and hand-weaving was an integral part of India's fight to recover its dignity. Through his own semi-nakedness, he was trying to put across a message of self-sufficiency and emancipation from British domination.24
Many view Gandhi's adoption of austere style of dressing as a manifestation of his saintliness. The image that Gandhi attempted to project was very much a constructed one; it did not fit in with the existing tradition and in fact was a typical example of 'invention of a tradition', which probably characterised all nationalist movements of the 20th century. Gandhi's appearance had little to do with that of the Indian peasant. Nor did he adopt the dress of an ideal Hindu saint. For the Indian public, Gandhi relied a great deal on his image as a renouncer, a satiyasi, the sort of person who has often played an important role in religious revival and social reform movements. His image of a man with a high moral standing, practice of Brahmacharya, performing of the humblest and the most polluting job of cleaning latrines, by no means calculatedly political, established a whole brand of Gandhian symbolism. For the Indian masses, he was the perfect and infallible leader, who through the sheer magic of his example inspired the masses and threw the British out of India.25
Of course, the west has a very different, though not always contradictory, image of Gandhi. At times some try to tear away Gandhi from his Indian roots and make him a kind of Global hero who draws a response in all cultures. This vision is partly premised on a similarity between the trajectories of Gandhi and Christ.26 The iconic image of Gandhi is of a man of God steeped in austerity, sexually-renunciate, meditating in his ashram, whom the assassin's bullet providentially turned into a martyr. He is a heroic as well as a tragic figure which is to be worshipped from afar,27 because he is inaccessible in his sheer perfection. However, the evidences point to the fact that the real Gandhi was very different. He was a man tormented by sensuality till the end of his life, endowed with a tremendous appetite for life, an enormous capacity for work, blessed with a great sense of humour and aware of his lapses. The contrast between this icon and the flesh-and-blood-individual is the result of selective memory.28
Gandhi has also been the pre-eminent Indian icon of protest. For the west, Gandhi's historical role as the organiser of the greatest anti- colonial movement has been pushed to the background by extraÂordinary acceleration of history where decolonisation has become a distant past. For the Indians, however, Gandhi's historical role in shaping the nation continues to give rise to heated intellectual debates. The Christian message of love and universal brotherhood has not only reinvented Gandhi to a terror-stricken world but also appears to carry a message of hope for the mankind. Perhaps, except Che Guevera, no other global figure has been so widely appropriated for political purposes than Gandhi.
Even though, the building of the Gandhian image had commenced in the 1930s and the 40s, the post-independent India has been rife with a variety of interpretive representations of Gandhi: in form of postal stamps, currency notes, sign posts, statues and more importantly in khadi. He has also been visually depicted as an intriguing subject of communication through popular cinema. The extra-ordinary diversity of images of Gandhi in his lifetime is partly the result of his openness. There are few public figures among Gandhi's contemporaries, in India and abroad, who have not had, at some point, something to say about him.
The making of the Gandhian image can be broadly said to have undergone three distinct phases: the Absolute, the Historical and the Ordinary.29 At the absolute (abstract) level, Gandhi as an idea, an 'absolute inspiration' gained unassailable currency in guiding the conscience of the masses. Tuned on the Gandhian mould of a fakir persona, the dominant prototype of the nation was coloured with values of austerity, non-violence and self-restraint. Gandhi was dramatically placed at the head of our nationalist identity-building project by the end of the 1930s. During the independence struggle and the post-independence decades Gandhi was imagined as a father figure. The 'spiritual spectre' of a Gandhi photograph lurking from the back drop in many police stations and court room sequences in Hindi films over the last seven decades, reflect the symbolic significance of the 'Gandhian appearance' in our collective conscience.
More often than not, the framed Gandhi was to be seen in the government offices, schools, colleges, home of the pious teacher, the dedicated social worker, or the plain old-fashioned patriot. Mainstream Hindi films generally capture the pulse of popular sensibilities by projecting the protagonist as someone essentially following Gandhi's footsteps calling the youths to offer self-less service to the nation or to speak up for the poor or the oppressed. For example, a large poster of Gandhi is in the back ground when Vijay in Yash Chopra's Deewar (1975) decides to fight against injustice and resist extortion to which Bombay's dock workers are subjected to. It is tempting to think that, from his lofty position on the wall, Gandhi was there to inspire men and women to do good.30
The photograph of Gandhi, in a way, also underlines the irony of modern India: as a reminder to the guilty that this is the land of Gandhi or to the paradoxical failure of the institutions as to what ideally they were supposed to become and what they have actually turned into!31
The next stage in the socio-cinematic construction of the Gandhian image was in the historical-biographical level where Gandhi as an 'iconic personality' was put through a discourse of contestation and negotiation in comparison with other historical personalities. Gandhi-Nehru, Gandhi-Jinnah, Gandhi-Bose, Gandhi-Tilak, Gandhi-Tagore, Gandhi-Ambedkar and Gandhi-Ranade were some of the favourite case studies of comparison which tried to engage/situate Gandhi in the anti-colonial movement vis-a-vis the contribution of the other leaders of the same historical setting. Gandhi's role was not being viewed in isolation but in juxtaposing his contribution in the light of the contributions of other significant characters which shaped and influenced the history of the sub-continent.32 However, while comprehending the broad spectrum of imagination one has to keep in mind that these categorisations were not water-tight compartments and that there were overlaps.
The Marxists, Feminists, liberals, modernists, Dalits, Pacifists, Social Workers, vegeterians, each have their own Gandhi. Every outfit undertakes Gandhian methods of dharna, hartal, fast, gherao in their effort to offer satyagraha for attainment of their political goals. He is framed for every imaginable ill that has afflicted modern India. The blame for upholding of caste system, relegating women to the house hold, allowing the bourgeoisie to have an easy ride, betraying the Hindus, partition killings and many more issues have been squarely ascribed to Gandhi.33
Third and the last image of Gandhi is of the everyday Gandhi or the ordinary Gandhi which points to the various individual and personalised narratives of Gandhi. This image of Gandhi makes him amenable to various kinds of individuated appropriations which make him accessible and not other-worldly.34 As an ordinary individual, Gandhi is seen engaged in a mundane-everyday scale, where he is visualised as a companion, a play mate, and a friend of the protagonist. Here Gandhi is not merely visualised as a serious moral thinker who has dabbled in to ethical politics but as someone who had serious failings as a common man, who could be the butt of jokes between friends, as a father who couldn't appreciate his anguished son, a man afflicted by guilt etc. The third and the last image of Gandhi, distances itself from a hagiographical mode and tries to look for answers to the more important questions surrounding his complex and contradictory individual persona.
Gandhi was and is still a coveted ideal, a historical-iconic embodiment of values, an inspiration for the educated as well as unÂeducated masses in post-independent India. He emerges in multiple roles of an eloquent communicator, an unrelenting national debater, a steadfast satyagrahi, an experimental spiritual leader, a broad-minded moralist, and an amicable ideologue. As a historical icon he is not only eulogized but also subject to critical dialogue with the compatriots like Ambedkar, Sardar Patel and Bhagat Singh. Often he is made to face some of the most uncomfortable questions arising in the historical context.
In the common parlance, Gandhi has become a relational category which allows ordinary citizens in contemporary India to experience Gandhian ideals in the ordinary realm of everyday life. This, in itself, transforms Gandhi from the text book material to everyday material. The various images of Gandhi are perceived in the context of issues of history,35 biography, nation-building, in its tryst with modernity, its manifold contradictions and negotiations. Gandhi inspires both guilt and ethical strength. He was not carried on the shoulders of any definite ideology, not even nationalism. He can therefore be continuously reinvented according to the needs and fashions of the times and this reinvention has been going on incessantly.36 Although it has been 68 years since he was assassinated on 30th January 1948, Gandhi lives in the hearts and minds of people to this day, not just in India but globally.