ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Power and Politics of Portraits, Icons and Hagiographic Images of Gandhi

Seema Bawa ( teaches at the Department of History, University of Delhi.

Mahatma Gandhi, an arresting and appealing figure, whose appearance adds to his politics and ideology, was iconised long before his martyrdom. This article on the official and popular iconography of Gandhi explores which visualisations of Gandhi have lived on, why they came to be imagined and constructed, and their roots in traditional and modern Indic iconology. Select works of modern and contemporary artists such as Nand Lal Bose, Ram Sutar, M F Husain and Atul Dodiya are examined to reveal the evolution of Gandhian iconography through its dialogue with concepts of power, nationalism, dharma, sainthood and renunciation.

Figures 1–20 accompanying this article are available on the EPW website.

Recent Indian art is rarely overtly political. It has been, in fact, a little suspicious of “ideology.”1 Political movements, actions and leaders are seldom portrayed. The limited engagement of Indian art with the political relates largely to the emotive impact of political action, rather than politics itself. The politics of protest against oppression, deprivation and exploitation have been periodically invoked, but political leadership and national icons have largely remained outside the ambit of mainstream art. Artistic representations of political icons that do exist, tend to be those commissioned by public bodies, whether Parliament, city administrations or local gram sabhas. Mahatma Gandhi remains the exception, with the creation of several painted portraits and sculptures of him, or symbols linked to him, perhaps because he embodies much more than a political persona for both artists and viewers.

Gandhi is one of few nationalist leaders who are iconic in the real sense—who can both be reduced to one or two attributes as well as expanded to include landscape and other background features or narratives. He can also be represented by permutations and combinations of symbols and motifs associated with him—a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and a stick, large ears and a walking stick, orkhadaon (wooden slippers). This is not true of other famous nationalist leaders. For instance, an upraised arm and a book do not instantly suggest the persona of Babasaheb Ambedkar, any more than an admonishing finger invokes Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, or indeed the purse/handbag Behn Mayawati, though lookalike images (some with little resemblance to the original personage) of all these leaders have been reproduced and displayed with varying degrees of aesthetic realisation.2 Here, iconography uses Panofsky’s paradigm that it is “the branch of history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter of meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form” (Panofsky 1955: 26). In terms of the methodology of art history, this study, while examining Gandhian iconography, pursues what Panofsky terms “content:” that is, “it is the basic attitude of a nation, a period, and a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion—all this unconsciously qualified by one personality and condensed into one work” (Panofsky 1955: 14).

Throughout this paper, by Gandhi I mean Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the historical person, as well as his visual image. More popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi, Bapu or Gandhiji, all these appellations have independent as well as interconnected connotations. Gandhi was iconised way before his martyrdom, in part because visually, Gandhi is an arresting and appealing figure, whose appearance adds to his politics and engages with its philosophical and ideological underpinnings. Contemporary cartoons, caricatures, photo-chromographs, lithographs, photographs and an odd portrait painting corroborate this popularity. When a person is transformed into an icon, he or she has truly arrived. Not only does the icon “in itself” denote the powerful status of the persona involved, important enough to be iconised, but more importantly it implies an inherent transference of power to those who iconise him or her. This power is usually manifested in political and religious forms. Panofsky avers that we cannot construct a mental portrait of a man based on a single action, but only by coordinating a number of observations, interpreting them in connection with our general information about his period, nationality, class, intellectual traditions and so forth (Panofsky 1955: 28).

So far, Gandhi has been understood in terms of the process of iconisation, his image located within mainstream political discourse through popular prints and texts. I attempt to not only collate these arguments but also view the development of the iconography of Gandhi and Gandhian ideology within a wider visual spatio-temporal frame. This paper attempts to interrogate the visualisation of Gandhi in art and its relationship with tradition, memory and popular consciousness through select modern and contemporary Indian works. In the process, there is also an attempt to understand how cultural constructions such as the invention of a modern iconography appropriate—consciously and intuitively—the grammar of representation embedded in the Indian cultural matrix. The paper also seeks to excavate the power of such representation to create a legitimate/sanctioned space for the persona, examining the dialogue between the visual staging and the communication of ideational structures over time, reinforcing notions of sainthood, renunciation and nationalism.

The relationship of the “visual” with Gandhi is neither static over time nor homogeneous at the level of production and consumption. The nation state’s appropriation of the iconography of Gandhi contrasts with his pre-independence popular connect with the masses, predicated, as it were, upon his deification/avatar status discussed below. There is now an “official” visual version of Gandhi—on banknotes, in offices, school textbooks, posters, official buildings and roads, as well as sculptures donated to international institutions. Perhaps the best-known official versions of Gandhi are the busts by sculptor Ram V Sutar presented by the Government of India to France, Italy, and other nations. A large version of the sculpture is also on display at the Trade Fair, Delhi (Pragati Maidan). The meditating Gandhi has also found official favour, and been installed in Parliament (Figure 1) and in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

The sanctioned image disseminates only select characteristics recognisable to officialdom, and this dissemination by the “socialist”-inspired cultural regime further becomes part of the official imagination of Gandhi. It is interesting to note which elements of Gandhi have lived on and why they have been accepted; some surviving elements are the staff, loincloth, the half-naked, thin ascetic body, the bald head with the spectacles and oversized ears. I seek to examine here how and why this iconography came to be imagined and constructed. This examination may lead us to look at the ancestries and roots of traditional and modern Indic iconography and iconology, along with their connections to the visualisation of Gandhi.

This visualisation derives largely from images of his persona, anecdote, cultural productions such as films, songs and photographs, or oral hearsay, rather than through the written word. The “power” associated with Gandhi is thus predicated more on the pervasive public knowledge or consciousness of Gandhi. Gandhi the idea generally precedes any attempt to ideologically articulate or place him; he “is” rather than becomes.

Heesterman observes that in India, authority or legitimacy for power flows from the social interplay of dharma (right conduct):

Inner conflict of tradition refers to a posited disjuncture in Indian civilisation between the transcendent realm of dharma and the ritual order on the one hand, which reigns but does not rule, and the mundane world of power and interest on the other, [which] manifests itself sociologically in the relation of the Brahmin and the King, who are irreconcilable and yet dependent on the other. (Heesterman 1985: 15)

There is thus a contradiction between royalty and dharma, the latter legitimising the former, but also remaining separate from royal power in order to preserve the Brahmins’ transcendence.

Whenever divine status is ascribed to icons through the creation ofmurtis (statues) andarcas (worship), the objects are spatially enshrined within religious and ritual spaces such as temples,caityas (shrine, object or person worthy of veneration), stupas and monastic sites such asmathas (monasteries). Royalty, too, on a par with the gods, either have their owndevakulikas (royal shrines) or an exclusive space within the templeprasadas (precincts). The relationship between the icon and its placement remains fixed in a dialectic relationship between religious–hagiographic and political spaces.

Colonialism, however, creates new spaces, physical as well as ideological, including public squares, roundels and gardens (East India Companybaghs) to “place” and thereby make visible and disseminate icons of political power and the authority that flows therefrom. These spaces have been appropriated by the nation state along with the rest of the imagery of colonial power and become paradigmatic nationalist–hagiographic and political spaces. Gandhi is able to intersect these multiple axes courtesy his dialogue with religion, tradition, nationalism and the semi-divine status and millenarianism associated with him in
public discourse.

Iconographic Traditions and Gandhi

I believe that the imagery of Gandhi created through his iconography itself carries a symbolic power for audiences, especially the masses. The way postcolonial history has imagined and represented Gandhi is based on this deep, symbolic power relationship.

Visualisation of the national in traditional format, in my opinion, engages with conventional priorities that characterise Indian civilisation’s self-perception. A perception where cultural unity is seen as a loftier objective than political change, and divinity itself (Brahman) is superior to polytheism; while within this unified outer contour, the dynamics of political change and reality of multiple gods are affirmed (Maxwell 1997: 4). Gandhi is an overarching unifying factor in the political, cultural, and spiritual domain.

In Indian iconographic prescriptive literature, the authors of various treatises on painting and sculpture had theoretical knowledge of the twofold origins of painting, in observation and imagination (Vishnudharmottara Purana 1929: 9). In theVishnudharmottara Purana, the creation of four types of pictures is described: (1)satya, or true, realistic, (2)vainika, which may mean lyrical, (3)nagara, of the citizen, gentry, and (4)misra, or mixed (Vishnudharmottara Purana 1929: 8). TheVishnudharmottara, however, does not eschew innovation when dealing with thedrishta (things seen) in ways of seeing, reflecting and emphasising drishta as ever-fresh sources of artistic inspiration. When Gandhi came to be imagined, his iconography was seen to represent satya or true image. In fact, the verisimilitude of the visual simulated the purity of the ideal propagated by Gandhi.

Shaunaka, author of the 5th-century-BCE textBrihaddevadata (Brhad-Devata 1904)— probably the earliest work with an objective concern with iconography, knowledge of deities as well as mortals and their imagery—argues that the identification of the gods depended on knowing their names, epithets (abidha), forms (rupa), actions (karma), relationships (bandhava), attributes (lakshana), characteristics (linga), weapons (ayudha), and vehicles (vahana andratha). These categories, though applied to the poetic descriptions and allusions of theRig Veda, can also be applied to later iconographies of Hindu gods and deified national leaders such as Gandhi, as some aspects of the cultural consciousness in which the categories originated endure.

Like a deity in traditional iconographic prescriptions, Gandhi is also shown in various postures, of which thesthanaka (standing with a staff) is the most popular. In hisasana or seated figure, his feet are folded to the left, one hand on the ground, while the other is placed on the lap or in thevitarka gesture of lecturing, the face introspective. In the post-independence period, thesayana or recumbent images are not often created, except perhaps asparinirvana (passing away or liberation of a great soul) in some photo-chromographs such asGandhiji ki Swargayatra (Figure 2) where there is a suggestion of the supine body on the pyre. He is also known through the objects that he possessed and used during his lifetime, which are sacralised not only as display items but are also actively associated with his imagery, be it his charkha, wooden slippers, spectacles, or eating bowl and spoon. This is in keeping with the tradition ofmahapurushas or great men, such as the Buddha who stated that one of the ways he should be remembered after his death is through the objects of use known asparibhogakal.3

In examining the evolution/devolution of the iconography, we notice that characteristics that define a divine or political icon in traditional terms continue to inform the construction of Gandhi’s image. Like the divines, he is known not only by his given name, but also by many epithets such as Bapu and Mahatma. He is shown as the national leader, the spinner, the gentle, compassionate paterfamilias, all of which also depict his actions, such as satyagraha, walking on the Dandi March, or spinning, with the multivocal signification of direct action built into them. Further, in photographs and early posters he is often (again in the vein of divine icons) shown in relationship with other leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, his attributes and weapons recognised through the spectacles, khadaon and staff, with non-violence orahimsa his ultimate weapon.4 Besides these objects, the places where he stayed, such as the Wardha and Sabarmati ashrams, with all their enshrined objects, are sites of visit/
reverence, the reverence reiterated through photographic and artistic imagery, for example in the works of Atul Dodiya.

Gandhi as the renouncer draws on the image of the yogi through his widely discussed ascetic practices. Gandhi’s invocation of Rama-rajya and the eponymous wooden slippers, khadaon, reverberated in public consciousness. Gandhi is thus interpreted aspurusha/mahapurusha in popular and visual memory, taking on elements from divine and eponymous characters of Indian tradition. Gandhi becomes the personification of primordial man—purusha, yug purusha andadarsh purusha—and these aspects find articulation in both text/image and imagination. (It may be noted that at least until the 1970s, the TulsidasRamcharitamanas formed part of the popular consciousness of North India and most of South India, both at the elite and popular level, transcending any limited religious context. The connection between the iconographic elements and divinisation of Gandhi through association with Rama, therefore, may have been far more organic.)

In modern and contemporary art, Gandhi has been reduced to an emblem. In fact, representations of Gandhi now come under the Indian Emblems Act.5 There is, therefore, much less freedom of composition, and the figures seen in post-independence Indian art emphasise the satyagrahi, the propagator of ahimsa and the secular Gandhi, though some vestiges of traditional visual discourse remain. I propose to discuss Gandhi as an icon, a metaphor and an ideology in modern and contemporary Indian art through the works of artistes who have had a consistent engagement with Gandhi and Gandhian thought in their artistic and artisanal productions, ranging from Nand Lal Bose to Ram Sutar, and from M F Husain to Atul Dodiya.

The Divine Gandhi

The wide distribution in the first half of the 20th century of printed images of divinities or religious personages such as the gods or Sikh gurus, and their acceptance as the “given,” “normative” image, radically changed their imaginings, production and consumption. Such frozen imagery, which does not question either the basis or source from which it derives, became a factor for the legitimisation of power. The imaging of Gandhi, too, demonstrates an alteration in the construction of modern iconographies. While the Gandhi image incorporates cultural conventions, idioms and symbologies, newer ways of fashioning an icon emerge. The wide dissemination of photographic technology (Figures 3 and 4) ensured that henceforth portraiture/narrative related to living personages needed to be “real,” reproducing the appearance and feel of familiar photographic images (Figure 5). This resulted in the creation of a more fixed, normative figure, an icon of what the personage should look like, with deviations often treated as aberrations and leading to protest or suppression of alternative ways of seeing.

Thus, the image of Gandhi was based on traditional ways of imagining and visualising divine and powerful figures embedded in the cultural practices of India; a techne that is seen in the deification of Gandhi during his lifetime and just after his death. Shahid Amin mentions the quasi-deification or unofficial canonisation of Gandhi during his visit to Gorakhpur in 1921 (Amin 1984: 2). He locates several instances in popular nationalist writings where Gandhi’s image is seen as an object of homage and offering, with people seekingdarshan in a visible sign of popular reverence (Amin 1984: 3). The masses are inspired not only by feelings ofbhakti (devotion); seeing and hearing the Mahatma also inspires abhava, a word suggestive not merely of feelings and ideas but also the urge to action (Amin 1984: 24).

Between the Official and Popular

The messianic fervour associated with the persona of Gandhi through devices such as darshana, miracles andavatar (descent of the godhead to earth) were visible in some artistic productions though others remained realistic, rational and mundane.

Perhaps this reflects a divide between the official and the popular visual discourse even before Gandhi’s death. Some images derived from portrait photographs, such as the chromolithograph of Mahatma Gandhi (1931?) from the Ravi Varma Press, depicting him with staff in hand, and Chitrashala Press’s image of a thoughtful, seated Gandhi, that may have been created by artist D B Mahulikar (Pinney 2004: 133) seem in line with the photographic images printed in newspapers and magazines.

The posters that appear from 1931 onwards convert the popular deification of the Mahatma into visual terms by using narrative and pantheistic compositions derived from traditional religious visual language. Pinney illustrates this throughBharat Uddhar, a depiction of Gandhi as a divine figure. This banned image from 1931 constructs a nationalist parable from the familiar story of Markandey illustrated in Chitrashala and Ravi Varma Press’s chromolithographs since the 1880s (Pinney 2004: 114, illustration 83). The parable depicts Shiva saving the young Markandey from Yama, lord of death, astride a buffalo. InBharatUddhar, by substituting Mother India for Markandey, British Rule for Yama, and Gandhi for Shiva, Gandhi was divinised as saviour of the oppressed, complete with a crescent moon set on his head, his body emaciated like that of a yogi.

Pinney further observes that an “unwillingness to affirm Gandhi as an avatar during his lifetime rapidly decayed with the grief of his assassination,” with images demonstrating a transformation in stylistic and thematic terms. The majority of the images henceforth are in the nature of “apotheosis” or “avatar cycle.” The apotheosis type illustrates Gandhi’s ascent to heaven in the manner of 18th-century European imperial heroes, and the latter depict a central form from which various “forms (aspects) from his life emanate or descend” (Pinney 2004: 135).Gandhiji ki Swargyatra, a chromolithograph depicting Gandhiji’s journey to heaven at the time of his cremation (Figure 2), produced in 1948 just after his assassination (Pinney 2004: 138, illustration 105), is illustrative. Printed at S S Brijbasi Press, it was based on a painting by Narottam Narayan Sharma, a renowned and prolific painter in the Nathdwara tradition.6 The painter adapts a familiar ritual and mythological narrative, showing Gandhi’s pyre in the foreground, with Nehru and Patel flanking it in an attitude of reverence, and a panoply of contemporary luminaries along with Brijbasi himself in the background. Gandhi is shown twice: once as a standing presence hovering above the seated grieving mass in a benign attitude, and again seated on a flyingratha (chariot) being borne upwards on the backs of hamsas or swans while twoapsaras (celestial nymphs) hover around him with garlands to display reverence. The imagery is reminiscent of the earliest depiction of adoration of the stupa and Bodhi Tree at Sanchi (Figure 6) and the ascension of Buddha’s lock of hair from Nagarjunakonda (Bawa 2013: Figure 3.1.10) and other early Buddhist monuments. Gandhi is often shown with Buddha in prints, including at least two works—a painting and a tapestry—by Husain, in which the affinities between the two mahapurushas are emphasised through the halo around their heads and their meditative postures.

Devlok, a work painted by an unknown Nathdwara artist, depicts Gandhi in front of an assemblage of deceased nationalists as they are felicitated by ancientrishis (seers) while the trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva watch benevolently, and apsaras holding garlands float above. Gandhi’s avatar status is also accentuated in works that appropriate the popular “pictorial forms of avatar representation” in prints widely distributed in the late 19th century. In these prints, Vishnu is at the centre, surrounded by emanations of his various avatars, or else the avatar occupies centre stage and events from his life orleela unfold clockwise through vignettes (Pinney 2004: 142, illustration 109). In Dinanath’sEvolution of Gandhi, published by Kannayalal Lachoomal of Delhi, the circle of Gandhi’s life, with his birth from a lotus marking the beginning of the circle followed by other signature moments, emphasises his divinity.

Recent portrayals of Gandhi, while using familiar religious symbols, question the divinisation of Gandhi. Surendran Nair’s large canvasTathaagath Tathaagata Tatha GaathaThe Wounded Majesty or the Anatomy of Fate, 2008 (Figure 7) is one such work. It depicts a man resembling the mid-career Gandhi, not the usual bald or emaciated figure, clad in dhoti-kurta, holding his cap in his left handlike akamandala (the sadhu’s water-pot). In his right hand, he holds a staff with adamaru (drum) on top (again an allusion to both Shiva and themadari (street performer performing with monkeys). Behind him, like a vahana stands a goat, an allusion to his practice of drinking only goat’s milk. He stands in the shadow of the snow-clad mountain that he balances on an umbrella spread above his staff (like Krishna holding up Govardhan). The hill is embellished with structures of all faiths—a mosque, the Bahai temple, the Dharmarajika Stupa and others, alongside India Gate, complete with the Amar Jawan Jyoti—as on ode to Gandhi’s secular, egalitarian ideals. The contemporary India that rejects Gandhi, or at least marginalises his legacy, is depicted as an alter-world on the underside. Objects hanging from the underside of the umbrella highlight the rejection: these include a bell and achowrri (fly whisk) for the divinisation of Gandhi, and a long-handled sickle, also a lone rubber chappal, a snake charmer’s been (wind instrument), a stone, a hook and some creepers. These embody the stultification of Gandhi by circumscribing him within a hagiographic code or by rejecting his ethos. Analysing Surendran Nair and Atul Dodiya, Geeta Kapur believes that they construct pictorial allegories from recognisable icons. She says that painters not only paint Gandhi like a contemporary icon, but also inscribe themselves in the tradition of dedicated image-makers and, adopting the popular mode, mediate the passage to the “sacred and beyond, where the calendar image may be seen to serve the purpose as well as a ‘good’ painting in dispersing the message” (Kapur 2000: 390, illustrations 23, 24).

The deification of Gandhi is more explicit in the sculpture by Amanpreet Singh at Delhi University, where the right hand is raised inabhaya mudra (gesture of protection) while the left holds hislathi (bamboo stick) (Figure 8). The abhaya mudra has been the defining mark of divine figures since the 1st century CE, be it the Buddha or the Devi.

De-sacralising Gandhi

The Bengal School artists closely associated with Gandhian ideology at times ventured out of their pastoral, revivalist agenda to engage with the freedom movement (Kapur 2000: 271). Nand Lal Bose at Shantiniketan admired Gandhi and Gandhian ideology (Mitter 2007: 81) and remained in contact with Gandhi while incorporating into his art practice Gandhi’s belief that art should have a higher moral purpose. Bose was one of the first to create an enduring secular image of Gandhi (Figure 9) in his linocut (a medium quite suited to the image per se, given that it can produce multiple copies at relatively low cost). Gandhi is shown against a black surface through white lines, seemingly in motion, walking, one hand holding a staff placed firmly on the ground before him. A knee-length dhoti and shawl cover his torso, sinews visible on his calves and arms. The face in profile is etched with twoardhachandras (half-moons), curls to mark the hairline, a single line on which his feet are set, with the rest of the figure and the staff above the line. The inscription at the bottom, “Bapuji 12.4.1930,” commemorates the Dandi March while using the familiar epithet “Father.” This stark portrayal strips him of his deified role without taking away the attributes of iconisation wherefrom his popular power flows.

In contrast to this is Ram Kinkar Baij’s rough-hewn sculpture of Gandhi (Figure 10), made from cement (later bronze casts are also attributed to Baij), also done at Shantiniketan. It shows Gandhi walking energetically, with his staff in the right hand. The use of a fast-drying and pedestrian material such as cement and mortar for the construction of this true public “subaltern” art (Mitter 2007: 90) is an interesting addition to the iconography of Gandhi. The sculpture offers a simulation of a skull being trodden underfoot, which alludes to Shiva and theGudimallam Shivalinga (1st century BCE),7 one of the first iconic sculptures of early art (Figure 11), a symbol of Shiva. In Baij’s sculpture, the skull is seen to represent violence,himsa, which Gandhi is crushing underfoot. Gandhi walking is often understood as representing the Dandi March, but it could well be Gandhi marching to calm the mayhem and sectarian violence of Naokhali (the work was made in 1946, just after Noakhali).

One can also compare the Gandhi sculpture with the other two monumental sculptures made in the same medium and similar spirit at Shantiniketan,Santhal Family andMill Workers, which show an earthy, organic connect with the tribal/rural community (Bawa 2005: 12–13).

M F Husain, a modern iconographer, has played with traditional iconographies of deities while successfully creating modernist iconographies (Kapur 2011: 25) of 20th-century saintly figures such as Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Husain breaks away from photo-realism to create an enduring icon of Gandhi through only the apparel, gesture and posture, rather than facial features and recognisable portrait characteristics. In early depictions, he captures the simplicity of Gandhi through the figure of a lean-bodied man, clad in knee-length dhoti, a watch hanging from the waist, walking vigorously with a lathi in his hand. Instead of the face, there is usually thechakra (wheel) of the charkha or just wire-rimmed spectacles. Husain thus conflates the ascetic personage that was Gandhi with the symbols of his struggle and ideology—the chakra representing the nation and the emblem on the Indian flag, and the charkha representing his social and economic agenda based on self-reliance, village reconstruction and egalitarianism.

Gandhi as a person and as a symbol of peace and the nation is a recurring motif in Husain’s paintings. I will be examining four of Husain’s works to illustrate the multivalent use of Gandhi. Two of these are narrative works:Great Men of the Twentieth Century andMahabharata. The first is a relatively simple work (Figure 12) which, read from left to right, shows Einstein accompanied by his famous equation of relativity, then Gandhi in the typical Husainian iconographic form, Karl Marx clutching theDas Kapital tome, all in frontal portrayal, and finally the anti-hero, a naked Hitler in profile, holding a skull in his hand, a swastika tattooed on his arm, mouth open in a scream (perhaps representing the silent pain of his victims, and an allusion to Edvard Munch’sScream). The placement of Gandhi and Hitler in the sequence is significant, after a scientist and an ideologue, one an advocate of peace and the other a warmonger, creating a dialectic between ideas and power.

Mahabharata8 is a more complex work (Figure 13), dialoguing as it does with tradition, mythology, religiosity and memory, as well as painterly concerns. Husain manages to transform both lived and mythic tragedy into powerful contemporary statements. The composition is vertically divided in two by the Gandhi-like figure. Here the head is depicted with a topknot, and the chakra is held in the hand, for the ascetic figure is not Gandhi alone but also Arjuna, epitome of the warrior following his Kshatriya dharma, protecting the righteous Pandavas and the “nation’s” rights against the usurper Kauravas. (Below the figure of Arjuna, Husain wrote “The great archer” in red, referring to Arjuna’s arrow piercing the fisheye to win the hand of Draupadi). Next to Arjuna is open-haired Draupadi, joined to the male figure by the bow between them. On the right side of the painting is the river goddess, origin of the epic, and Ganesha and Ved Vyas writing the epic. On the left are the consequences of the war in theMahabharata, with the death of Karna, shown with a wheel (of the broken ratha) beside him, the death of dharma portrayed through Bhishma, and a blindfolded Gandhari, along with her dead children, a funeral pyre burning under her, for she is Earth, scorched black and brown in the aftermath of the violence. The Arjuna/Gandhi figure is the catalyst in this battle, and also the receptacle of dharma, the origin and the end.

Husain represents Gandhi in his iconic form in more than one painting, striding with a lathi in one hand (Figure 14). As pointed out above, he has also painted Gandhi and Buddha side-by-side (Figure 15). He also placed Gandhi in two symbolic versions of India as a goddess/woman, in one of which Gandhi is shown striding across the Bay of Bengal, while in the other a seated meditating figure of Gandhi in silhouette occupies this space.

After Husain, Atul Dodiya has had a constant engagement with Gandhi imagery, using photographs, montages and symbolic structures in many of his series. Instead of merely creating metaphors, Dodiya constructs narratives that are a commentary on contemporary society, a critique and a valorisation of Gandhian ideals at the same time. Dodiya’s austere upbringing in a household where “national” leaders like Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad were idolised, their photographs hung on the walls and “treated like gods,”9 led to an early interest in Gandhian ideology. However, he began
engaging with Gandhi consistently only after his visit to
Sabarmati Ashram in 1988, when the paintings, photographs and objects related to Gandhi inspired an admiration of his humanistic and political achievements. In 1997, Dodiya introspected on the significance and relevance of Gandhi both to himself and to the contemporary sociopolitical space, marked by poverty, corruption, lack of leadership, violence and communal conflict, especially in Gandhiji’s Gujarat. The 1992–2002 period was one of great intolerance, a strange hatred for the Other in the world; consequently, he painted Gandhiji standing on an empty platform.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, the ridiculing and condemnation of Gandhi in Gujarati and Marathi theatrical productions such asGandhi Virudh Gandhi andGandhi versus Godse disturbed Dodiya, who says, “I wanted to bring out his essential teachings and persona. As an artist I had to face the dilemma of how to approach Gandhi without sacrificing the quality of art, and without it becoming mere illustrating [of] the life of a great man.”

Inspired by Gandhi’s declaration that he was not a philosopher, rishi or teacher of ahimsa but rather an artist of non-violence, Dodiya began to develop an art of non-violence using Gandhi as a symbol, selecting images that suggested a traditionalsaadhaka, the meditative creator.10 Dodiya uses representations of the conclave of leaders during the Cripps Mission (which Gandhi called a post-dated cheque) and its failure (Figure 16), Gandhi’s train journeys, his relationship with leaders (Figure 17), and the ashrams and daily routines (Figure 18) that made Gandhi the person and leader he was. The artist juxtaposes these with more contemporary concerns, such as sectarian alienation, emotional and physical violence, and corruption. The first series was titledAn Artist of Non-violence; other series such asExperiments with Truth were even more evocative of Gandhian thought.

For Dodiya, who works with the ascetic, lean body, which has given up woollen clothes for simple inexpensive khadi, the figure of Gandhi itself is a signifier that lends itself to aesthetic structuring. Even the simple ashram structures with peace and beauty that Dodiya tries to incorporate in his works reverberate with Gandhi’s thoughts and actions such as the salt satyagraha and non-cooperation. For Dodiya, Gandhi was perhaps the first performance artist who worked with conceptual art in his direct action programmes. Gandhi is not god or an icon to Dodiya, but human, a common and local man, a man of humour, not distant and unapproachable.

He juxtaposes photographs of European art with black-and-white images of Gandhi to explore space, art and its history, the freedom movement, and Gandhian ideology. The medium becomes important to the meaning of the artwork, as Dodiya uses watercolours and pigment, keeping the surface and the colour pure and minimal to emphasise the spiritual aspects. In his oil on canvas works on Gandhi, there is the addition of linseed and turpentine oil along with a thick, opaque medium that obfuscates the simplicity of a thematic concern based on Gandhi.

Ravikumar Kashi, in a recent engagement with Gandhi, has created two sets of works. In a book,Everything He Touched (2014) (Figure 19), he has illustrated objects associated with Gandhi—including his spectacles, sandals and watch—almost rendering a museum of public memory and its impact. These ideas are continued inThe Gandhi I Found, andIdeas for Preserving Gandhi, where he has used found figurines of Gandhi and played with given iconography—the seated plaster cast embellished with angel’s wings, or the striding figure put in a drawer or embalmed.

Gandhi as Renouncer

In the majority of works, Gandhi is visually depicted as a fakir, semi-naked, wearing only a dhoti, ironically inverting Winston Churchill’s pejorative description of Gandhi. The identification of Gandhi as renouncer is an important element in the construction of his persona as the Mahatma.

Indian artistic tradition has always had a contentious relationship with the ascetic figure, valorising the ability for tapas (self-discipline and austerities) andtyaga (sacrifice) while questioning the inability to partake and understandsamsara (worldly affairs) and its actuality. Claude Markovits(2004: 32) explicates on Gandhi’s adoption ofbrahmacharya (celibacy) in 1906, which involved not just a renunciation of sexuality but also family life when he started living in the ashram. The renouncer persona of Gandhi in speech, action and image was vital to his success and that of the national project. Kapur says that Gandhi’s belief in balancing voluntarist change with a containing symbolism brings him close to a certain aspect of the saint tradition and thus to large sections of the Indian people educated through this literature (Kapur 2000: 242). Gandhi is in a sense the actor-pedagogue on the nationalist stage. He even achieves a saintly status in Western imagination, which equates him with Christian martyrs and saints such as Francis of Assisi, even depicting him next to Jesus with the same halo as part of the Pieta depiction in one work at the time of his martyrdom (Markovits 2004: 16–19).

Visual tradition represented by theVishnudharmottara Purana prescribes that sages should be represented with long tresses of hair clustered on top of their heads, with a black antelope-skin as upper garment, emaciated, yet full of splendour (Vishnudharmottara Purana 1929: ch 42, verses 1–84). In the Indian context, civilisation has been seen as one of the forest-polis (aranyaka grama) where the renouncer or inhabitant of the forest lives in proximity to civilisation and enriches it. TheGautama Dharmasutra prescribes that “a mendicant shall live without any possessions, be chaste and remain in one place … He shall control his speech, sight and actions; and wear a garment to cover his private parts … refrain from injuring seeds; treat all creatures alike, whether they cause him harm or treat him with kindness; and not undertake any ritual activities.” Therefore, the renouncer’s withdrawal from society may not be spatial but ethical, and he does not partake of “family and sex, ritual fire and ritual activities, a permanent residence and wealth and economic activities” (Gautama Dharmasutra 3.11–25, qtd in Olivelle 2011: 12). The renouncer’s final act in the initiation ritual is marked by taking on “the emblems of his new state: ochre robes, water pot, begging bowl, pot hanger and staff” (Olivelle2011: 23). Olivelle further observes that renouncers formed groups around a prominent and charismatic ascetic, which developed into major religious organisations. The parallels with Gandhi’s life and ascetic prescriptions are remarkable (Olivelle 2011: 14–19).

Heesterman notes that “universalistic authority transcending local society—or any actual society for that matter—had always been there, in specifically Indian form in the person of the renouncer, who stood outside society and therefore was an ideal arbiter and consensus maker” (1985: 177). Gandhi fits this archetype because he used the renouncer’s tools such as fast unto death, purification rituals, non-cooperation and civil disobedience; methods outside the paradigm of the rule-bound and enforcing bureaucratic state, forcing it to negotiate rather than only repress. After negotiating a consensus within the Congress, Gandhi’s role in national politics declined, and he became a figure of devotion rather than action. His attempt to achieve the traditional ideals of harmony in modern political terms of national unity led to the canonisation of a hagiographic image of Gandhi.

The Renouncer’s Staff

The enduring symbol of Gandhi remains his chhari or staff. Almost every standing representation of him in pedagogic material shows him holding a staff ordanda in his hand. In the history of religion, believes Olivelle, a stick carried in the hand “has multivalent symbolism. Gods, kings, priests, prophets and other holy men carry staff, sticks, sceptres, mace, wands and batons” (Olivelle 2011: 231–248).

In the Indic world view, the staff is associated with holy men, pilgrims, seekers and seers. The Vedicyajmana (sacrificer) and thebrahmacharin (student after undergoingupnayana or inititation) carry the staff. The earliest reference, Olivelle points out, is in Panini (maskaramaskarinau venuparivarjakayoh) wheremaskarin or the bearer of the staff denotes the renouncer. Jain and Buddhist monks also used a staff identified askhakkhara.

By the time of theManusmriti, the renouncer is calleddandin (staff-bearer). In thediksha ritual following the upnayana, the guru hands over the staff to the initiate. In esoteric sects, the word orshaktipaat descends through the staff. InPanchratra texts, different divine names are given to different parts of the staff. The practice of carrying an initiatory stick is common to theVedantin, whetherAdvaita, Vishistadvaita, Dvaita or mainstream Brahmanism, a practice that continued to early modern times. In various Shaiva yatras or pilgrimages, whether Amarnath or Manimahesh, the Chhari Mubarak is the symbolic mace of Shiva, believed to possess the powers of the lord and represent him in his absence.

The small village of Ghoraghat in Bihar’s Munger district celebrates a three-day Lathi Mahotsav every year to commemorate the (mythical?) gifting of a lathi to Mahatma Gandhi in 1934 on his visit to Munger after a massive earthquake. On learning that Ghoraghat specialised in making the lightweight and strong lathis that the British government used as instruments of coercion, Gandhiji accepted the gift of a lathi and carried it with him thereafter, seeing it as a symbol of strength, never to be used to harm anyone. The village appears to have appropriated the visual narrative of Gandhi carrying a staff post facto. There are some obvious anachronisms involved in this appropriation since Gandhi was already carrying the lathi on the Dandi March, as attested by photographs, accounts, and visualisations in paintings and sculptures of the event, from Nand Lal Bose to Ram Sutar.


The khadaon or wooden slippers of the ascetic (Figure 20) worn by Gandhi recall the imagery associated with Rama’s khadaon, where the axes of power and renunciation meet in a powerful leitmotif. They also refer to Gandhi’s journeys and travels which were central to the processes of direct action in Dandi and reconciliation in Naokhali.

The Body, Clothed and Bare

For Gandhi, the body itself becomes the site of his personal and nationalistic politics, as he sets his political/self-disciplining agenda through the cleaning, disciplining and partial disrobing of the body. Markovits notes that Gandhian imagery is heavy in physicality, not in a sensual way, as a source of pleasure, but as a mirror of the soul and source of strength (Markovits 2004: 13). Pinney says that Gandhi fought his own battle with the body, but it was one that was explicitly articulated within a neo-traditionalist paradigm branded “made in India” (Pinney: 127). The representation of the body, both human and divine, is certainly a leitmotif in the artistic history of India (Dehejia 1997: 168). Gandhi’s dhoti or later his loincloth firmly establish him within an Indian discourse, partly nationalist, partly traditionalist, while the disrobed body partakes of both renunciation and identification with the deprived masses.

Thus, having examined the changing contours of Gandhian iconography in modern and contemporary art and the sources of such iconography within the Indic artistic tradition, it appears that the popularity and acceptance of such a visualisation of the corporeal and ideational Gandhi may be based on traditional notions of sainthood, renunciation and the authority that emanates therefrom. The ideals and attributes of renunciation elaborated in the Indian textual and visual tradition, applied to mahapurushas such as the Buddha, are also employed in the enduring iconography of Gandhi. Gandhi the icon is more than just a visual representation: he evokes an idea, a philosophy and the spirit of the times. The visualisation of the Gandhi figure implies the manifestation and transference of power to those who iconise him or her. Further, two kinds of iconographies of Gandhi emerge, the first the official, sanctioned version in public art, which remains more artisanal in content, and second, the discursive interpretative visual of Gandhi in the artistic endeavours of M F Husain, Atul Dodiya, Ravikumar Kashi, Surendran Nair, and others. The visualisation of Gandhi as an icon, hagiographic or otherwise, creates an interface between iconography, tradition and nation.

Gandhi is perceived as an icon across various axes of official, patriotic, popular and high art. Gandhi and Gandhism are variously invoked to set out a nationalist agenda, a constructivist programme, or an idealised state, in contrast to the entropy or degeneration perceived in the contemporary sociopolitical space. Gandhi the icon has a powerful presence and multiple meanings, and thus is repeatedly invoked and reinterpreted in art in the Indian context, not just by artists but by patrons who seek to invoke the power of the ascetic. For, paradoxically, while Gandhi has been appropriated by officialdom, his enduring persona remains unsullied.


1 SeeArtTimes: A Magazine of Living Arts, Vol 1, No 2, Seema Bawa (ed), pp 6–7, 10, 13, 15, in which Jehangir Sabavala, Akbar Padamsee, Saeed Mirza, Sudhir Mishra and Bhupen Hazarika comment on their own and other artists’ commitment to ideological and political positions.

2 The epithets for each leader are deliberately used to emphasise their hagiographic status in nationalist or official discourse.

3 Buddhist texts describe three types of relics: (1)sariraka (pieces of the body), (2)paribhogaka (things he used), and (3)uddesaka (reminders, representations, or images). The sariraka refer not only to the cremated ashes of the Buddha, but also to any other bodily relic, such as a hair, a tooth, a fragment of bone, or nails. Paribhogaka includes objects such as his robe, begging bowl, turban, and any chair or seat upon which he sat, the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya being the most important. However, any place the Buddha visited, rested at or traversed is also considered paribhogaka, while uddesaka specifically implies images (pratima) of the Buddha.

4 The idea of non-violence as a weapon has been immortalised in a popular song from the filmJagriti, directed by Satyen Bose and released in 1954—“De di hame azadi bina khaḍga bina ḍhala, Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamal” (Gandhi, the Saint of Sabarmati, got us independence without any weapons such as swords or shields).

5 Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950. Schedule 9A of the act specifies that an emblem includes inter alia the name or pictorial representation of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi or the Prime Minister of India.

6 Nathdwara in Udaipur district is a major pilgrimage centre of Shri Nathji, with a long tradition of creating images based on Krishna bhakti through cloth scrolls called Picchavai and narrative works in the form ofkavars or pained homes.

7 The icon depicts a powerful two-handed image of Shiva insthanaka (standing) posture, carved in high relief in the recess of the shaft of the pillar-likelinga (the phallic emblem of Shiva). The deity is shown standing on a couchant dwarf, identified asApasmarapurusha, who could also be seen as the
defeated Yaksha.

8 M F Husain started painting theMahabharata nearly 40 years ago, and repeatedly returned to it in 1971, 1983 and 1990 to portray the compelling drama of its characters and conflicts. He created seven large paintings for the firstMahabharata project during the 11th Bienal de São Paulo in 1971. In a set of 11 lithographs produced from watercolours in 1983, Husain revisited and reworked his imagery. This opens with a black-and-white study featuring Bhishma, who fought on the side of the Kauravas, held aloft from the ground by the arrows that have pierced his body. Two quotations accompany the print: the first, in Sanskrit and from theRig Veda, translates as “Let noble thoughts come to us from every side;” the second, from Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, “TheMahabharata/discloses a rich civilisation and highly evolved society which/though of an older world, strangely resembles the India of our time” Husain’s use of these quotes with this particular scene emphasises his intention to call on Indian people to connect with the nation’s past. The 16-foot canvas from 1990 is discussed in the present paper.

9 Personal communication with the author.

10 The Vishnudharmottara Purana (1929: 10) prescribes that the moving force, vital breath, life-movement (chetana) is expected to be seen in the work of a painter, to make it alive with rhythm and expression. Imagination,
observation and the expressive force of rhythm are meant to be essential features of an artist’s work.


Amin, Shahid (1984): “Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern UP, 1921–22,”Subaltern Studies III: Writings on South Asian History and Society, Ranajit Guha (ed), New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Bawa, Seema (2005): “Ram Kinker Baij,”Art & Deal, Vol 3, No 3, Issue 17, pp 12–13.

— (2013):Gods, Men & Women: Gender & Sexuality in Early Indian Art, New Delhi: DK Printworld.

Brhad-Devata Attributed to Saunaka: A Summary of Myths and Deities of the Rig Veda (1904): A A MacDonell (ed and trans), Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Dehejia, Vidya, and Darlyl Youner Harnisch (1997): “Yoga as a Key to Understanding the Sculpted Body,”Representing the Body: Gender Issues in Indian Art, Vidya Dehejia (ed), Delhi: Kali for Women.

Heesterman, J C (1985):The Inner Conflict of Tradition: Essays in Indian Ritual, Kinship, and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kapur, Geeta (2000):When Was Modernism: Essays in Contemporary Cultural Practice in India, Delhi: Tulika Books.

— (2011): “Modernist Myths and the Exile of M F Husain,”Barefoot across the Nation: M F Husain and the Idea of India, Sumathi Ramaswami (ed), London & New York: Routledge.

Markovits, Claude (2004):The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: The Life and Afterlife of the Mahatma, London and New York: Anthem Press.

Maxwell, T S (1997):Gods of Asia: Image, Text, and Meaning, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Mitter, Partha (2007):The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-garde 1922–1947, London: Reaktion Books.

Olivelle, Patrick (2011):Ascetics and Brahmins: Studies in Ideologies and Institutions, London and New York: Anthem Press.

Panofsky, Erwin (1955):Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Pinney, Christopher (2004):Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India, London: Reaktion Books.

Vishnudharmottara Purana, Part III (1929): Stella Kramrisch (ed and trans), Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.

Updated On : 1st Feb, 2018


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top