About a decade before his murder, and writing on the occasion of his seventy first birthday in October 1939, Mohandas K. Gandhi issued “a warning” to his admirers and followers. “Some would like to erect my statues in public places, some others would have portraits, yet others would proclaim my birthday as a public holiday…These are days of dissensions and discord. I should feel deeply humiliated if my name became in any way an occasion for accentuating them. Avoidance of such opportunity is a real service to the country and me. Statues, photographs and the like have no place today. The only praise I would like and treasure is promotion of the activities to which my life is dedicated.
Repeatedly though, and for close to a century since the time he became visible on the Indian national scene after his return from South Africa in January 1915, artists of India have rejected the Mahatma’s appeal to “avoid the opportunity” of memorializing him in art and image! Instead, in what might be characterized as willful disobedience, they have lavished upon him a kind of aesthetic attention that no other political leader of his time (or since) has received. They have been complicit with and obedient to the operations by which a hyper icon has been created and consolidated, even in the Mahatma’s own lifetime and clearly against his expressed wish.
In the decades immediately following Indian independence, Gandhi did not fade in the image realm. On the contrary, his violent passing within a few months of the nation’s liberation from colonial rule has assured him a ubiquitous if banal presence in postcolonial India’s visual landscape. The excessive circulation of his image—something he worried about and over when he was alive, but could do little to stop—has meant that Gandhi is a hallowed but hollow figure in the land of his birth and work, seemingly visible everywhere but nowhere really to be seen, his complex ideas reduced to empty platitudes, his disobedient message tamed and rendered toothless. He has come to be easily appropriated, even by forces completely antithetical to his message and meaning. Surfeit has also led to counterfeit. Under these circumstances, and equally ironically, the artist of India has emerged as Gandhi’s conscience keeper, paradoxically drawing upon the Mahatma’s over-circulated image to attack much that has gone wrong with and in the country: religious intolerance, violence directed at minorities, the growing inequalities produced by the advance of global capital, the overconsumption of dwindling resources, and not least, the unseemliness of his ubiquitous iconicity and mass branding.
Debanjan Roy (1975-) is one such conscience keeper, and a complicated one at that. Born, raised and educated in Kolkata, Roy has over the past decade and more developed across the body of his work what might be called an aesthetic of edgy playfulness to draw attention to the misappropriations and over-appropriations of the Mahatma’s image in the production of Brand Gandhi. There is something disorienting about the Gandhi we encounter in Roy’s drawings, prints, and sculptures, but that is precisely the point the artist intends to make, for his grand project is to get us to reflect upon what we have done with and to the Mahatma over the decades, and particularly with his image. Thus, in India Shining VI: Walking the Dog, rather than practicing the sartorial and somatic disobedience that was key to his rejection of modern materialism, Roy casts Gandhi as a worldly flaneur, clad in baggy pants and trainers, talking on his cell phone instead of using the occasion of his walk to engage in inner contemplation and reflection as he was wont to do. Is Roy seeking to shock us and make us uncomfortable, underscoring how far the Gandhi of our times has moved away from his own ideals and dreams? Has the great experimenter with truth become, like the rest of us, an experimenter with the technologies of our times? In other life-size objects from the same series that Roy mostly produced between 2007 and 2010, and were similarly fashioned from fiberglass and aluminum and painted a shiny red automotive red, the Mahatma indeed appears to have been seduced—like the rest of us—by modern gadgetry as he sits poised over a laptop, listens to his Ipod, speaks on his cellphone, or wears a pair of headphones, all along wearing a big smile on his face. We too may chuckle some, but we also surely come away after looking at these works with a feeling of decided undecidability. The Mahatma trenchantly wrote against the dehumanizing force of modern technology. So, how and why has he so willingly succumbed? On the other hand, Gandhi was not above riding a car, using the telephone, or peering through a microscope, as the photographic evidence shows us. Was there a contradiction between thought and practice in his own time, a contradiction that in his afterlife has been turned against him for our purposes?
Roy’s works keep all such possibilities in edgy play, as he toys with the image of Gandhi, stretching, pulling, and taking it to the extremes to see where it lands—and where we go in our minds and thoughts as we view the result. Consider a life-size sculpture that Roy unveiled at the India Art Fair in New Delhi in January 2018. A kurta-clad Gandhi in white sits comfortably with his back resting against a golden cow, taking a selfie, sheer delight etched on his face! On the one hand, the work reminds us that for all his seeming otherworldliness, the Mahatma was super conscious of his image, and not above choreographing critical moments in his life of activism to generate what we might today call media effect. It is also the case that the Mahatma’s opinions about the cow and cow protection were uncomfortably similar to those on the Hindu right who have seized upon this hapless bovine to pursue a murderous agenda in a manner that would have completely horrified Gandhi. On the other hand, is Roy also suggesting that the only way in which we can now relate to the Mahatma—and cope with his untimely values and ideals—is to reduce him to a mirror image of the selfie-taking generation of our times? As he toys with Gandhi thus, he thus toys with us as well, needling us to also wonder about the Mahatma, and about the artist. Is Roy an admirer, or a detractor? Or something else?
One answer to this conundrum might be to consider a series of four enigmatic works in acrylic that Roy exhibited in 2009 in New York at the Aicon Gallery at the opening of his show, Experiments with Truth. In each work, Roy “opens” up and explores Gandhi’s head and face, and names what lies under the skin with surgical precision. Is he looking deep down in the very innards of Gandhi’s brain for what makes the man tick? Is there something special underneath? When we discover that at the physiological level, Gandhi is like the rest of us, these paintings make us marvel even more so at what the Mahatma was able to achieve. On the one hand, he seems like the rest of us, on the other, clearly, he was quite singular for his time, and since.
It is perhaps fitting that Roy’s body of work brings such issues to the fore because he is from Bengal after all, and artists from that part of India were among the foremost in Gandhi’s own time to pick up their brush and bring the Mahatma to paper and canvas, or sculpt him in bronze and stone. Mukul Dey, born and raised in Calcutta, sketched him as early as March 1919 when he visited Gandhi in Madras (now Chennai). Abanindranath Tagore, a scion of the famous artistic family of Bengal, produced what is most likely the first painting of a relatively youthful-looking Gandhi in conversation with his own uncle Rabindranath and the missionary Charlie Andrew, based on a meeting between the three in Calcutta in September 1921. From the hand of the London-based Lalit Mohan Sen emerged what is likely the earliest woodcut printed in a Western newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, in 1922. Nandalal Bose was possibly the only artist who received the Mahatma’s official approval and patronage. Bose’s Bapuji 12.4.1930, which captured the Mahatma at what was perhaps the most important moment of his career as a disobedient activist during the famous Salt March of 1930, is easily the most iconic image of Gandhi as a lone spare figure, walking on bare feet with a staff in hand and a determined air about him. Since that time, numerous other Bengali artists have sought to portray Gandhi in various media as a singular heroic man whom they cloak with an aura of saintliness.
As an artist born and trained in Bengal, Roy is heir to this tradition, but also marks a critical departure, for his works do not wear the habitual reverence with which his fellow Bengali artists have approached the Mahatma. All the same, he stands out as one among the few of his generation from Bengal who remains artistically interested in Gandhi. Indeed, as Bengal seemingly turned its back on the Mahatma especially with the rise of a powerful Left movement, its artists too appeared to have lost interest. But not Roy, and indeed the striking shiny red paint with which he cloaks his life-sized sculptures might well be a powerful announcement that Gandhi belongs to Bengal as well, despite its swing to the Left, and that indeed, there are resonances between the egalitarian utopias envisaged by both.
Roy’s life-size Gandhi sculptures wear their political message lightly in many cases, but not always, a striking work in this regard being Absence of Bapu, exhibited in an Akar Prakar-show with the same title in Chennai and Ahmedabad in 2010. In this work, Gandhi’s paltry possessions—his reading glasses, a book, his sandals and kadau, and a statuette of the three monkeys—are carefully arranged on a fiberglass white mattress, and guarded over by an armed soldier in fatigues. The Mahatma himself, strikingly, is nowhere in the picture. The work suggests we are good at memorializing Gandhi even while going on with our everyday business in a most un-Gandhian way, even leading a life of violence in his name. Once we have absented Gandhi thus, he can become a plaything with which to trifle and put to one’s own uses and ruses. In 2009, Roy produced three prints titled Roy’s Art in which he mimicked the hugely popular calendar art of India’s teeming bazaars and market places to visually underscore how leading politicians of our times pay homage to the Mahatma even while (mis) using him for their own purposes.
And so, we finally come to the current series where after a decade of toying with the Mahatma—and with us—and not least, after castigating venal politicians who have toyed with his image for their dubious purposes, he literally cuts him down to size in his Toy Gandhi project, drawing upon toy-making traditions of India (with one non-Indic source of inspiration being Russia) and fashioned from a variety of media (wood, fiberglass, silicon, clay and paper, sola pith, etc.). Historically, it is difficult to ascertain when toy-size replicas of the Mahatma began to circulate, although we know from the archival evidence that effigies were made in his own lifetime. In our own time, toy-sized Gandhi figurines adorn school rooms and office spaces, have been placed in dioramas in the various Gandhi museums sprinkled across the country, featured in Dasara festivities across southern India (variously called kolu, golu, gombe), and so on.
On the one hand, Roy’s latest series gestures to such relatively innocent practices that make up national life, all the while reminding us of the mass commodification of Gandhi’s image. So, we might chuckle when we see Gandhi clad in Superman’s outfit, but why, we should certainly ask, are his muscles all bulked up? Did the Mahatma not insist that “Strength lies in the absence of fear, not in the quantity of flesh and muscle we have on our bodies.” The feminists among us will nod with approval when we open up the “Russian Doll” Gandhi to see the comely features of Kasturba emerge, for what would Bapu have been without the woman he referred to as Ba? Roy is indeed among only a handful of contemporary artists who have in their practice engaged with the figure of Kasturba, an early work that he completed in 2009 even fusing their faces, thus suggesting that we cannot—and should not—think of the Mahatma without recalling his loyal and devoted wife who by his own account inspired his disobedient turn.
On the other, the edgy playfulness in such works gives way to others that are clearly less benign, such as “Soft Toy” Gandhi, “Bobble Head” Gandhi, and “Marionette” Gandhi, which are a menacing reminder of the games people have played with the Mahatma, making light of his difficult message of non-violent disobedience, tugging at him to the point that even his iconic recognizability begins to unravel. There is enough of the Mahatma in the series for us to identify the referent—the dhoti, the staff, the Mickey Mouse ears—but just about. All the same, we walk away also feeling unsettled because that well-known face and figure seems not altogether all that familiar. The final—ironic—takeaway from the Toy Gandhi series might well indeed be that the Mahatma can only be toyed with at our own peril, his message undone, his image destabilized, his name reduced to a merest trifle.