Making the Mahatma

Building and capturing a nation's imagination.

Museum of Art & Photography

Shilpa Vijayakrishnan

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known as ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi is perhaps the most celebrated Indian public figure in the world. His ideas and words have influenced many of the world's most powerful political leaders, freedom fighters, social activists, thinkers and artists: from Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to John Lennon.

Indian artists across generations from Nandalal Bose and Mukul Dey to S. H Raza and Atul Dodiya have been inspired by both his philosophies and his persona. Invoked in official imagery, photographic records, currency, public memorials, political cartoons and popular culture, Gandhi is a foundational figure in the narrative of modern India, both before and after independence.

Portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, Reliable Calendar Co., 1930 – 1960, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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The late 19th century in India was a revolutionary period in more ways than one. On the one hand, the arrival of printing and lithographic presses in India made mass producing visual material possible for the very first time. On the other, the concurrent arrival of the camera and photography, meant that it was possible to create images that were realistic and accurate to an unprecedented degree. These developments coincided with a growing nationalist zeal, resulting in the harnessing of these newly capable technologies to enable the widespread dissemination of ideas and messages of the freedom movement. Within this context, popular images that featured and referenced Gandhi—including aspects of his personal life, as well as his role in the freedom movement–were to become extremely prolific.

Poster titled 'Taad ka sarvanash' (The destruction of toddy), Shyam Sunder Lal Picture Merchant Chowk Cawnpore, 1930 – 1950, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Poster titled Mahatma Gandhi Ji, Shyam Sunder Lal Picture Merchant Chowk Cawnpore, 1930 – 1950, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Poster titled 'Bharatmata ki godh main Mahatma Gandhi' (Mahatma Gandhi in the lap of Mother India), Rashtriya Chitra Prakashak Karyalaya Cawnpore., 1930 – 1950, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Map of India, featuring Gandhi, Calendar MFG CO Bombay, 1930 – 1960, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Gandhi's life depicted through all its stages from birth to death (Early mid-20th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)

This collage, made by cutouts from a poster being pasted on to a background painting, depicts Gandhi's life from his birth to his death while highlighting the milestones of his leadership in India's struggle for independence.

Birth

Small inscriptions, sometimes including dates, provide information on every milestone represented.

As a student

As a barrister

Before his time in South Africa

The image on the left depicts Gandhi, after his return from South Africa, while the one on the right is titled as 'non-cooperation movement activist' 

The image on the left is annotated 'Dandi March', Gandhi's famous march of civil disobedience (also known as Salt March or Salt Satyagraha). 

The image on the right is annotated as Gandhi pursuing vocational work while jailed, and depicts him spinning – an activity that would grow to become so closely associated with him, that the spinning wheel would eventually be seen as a symbolic stand-in for the man himself.

Quit India

The achievement of complete independence

The new national flag and bird adopted by Independent India are seen here as additional markers, though they remain subservient to the primary image of Gandhi that is foregrounded.

Death

The prone figure of Gandhi is depicted here lying on a bed of flowers, in a shroud of the tricoloured flag inscribed with the phrase 'Hey Ram' (believed to have been his last words).

The central figure, around which all the other images are arranged, standing directly above the representation of death, isn't annotated. It depicts 'Bapu', as he was popularly known, holding his walking stick in his right hand, and the Bhagavad Gita in his left.

In this – the only full length representation among the many depictions seen here – he is bestowed with a golden halo, marking his divine status and possibly symbolising to audiences his transition from Gandhi to Mahatma. 

A closer look shows us that his thin chest, with its ribs starkly visible, is riddled with three bleeding bullet wounds. The blood from which, can be seen dripping all the way down to pool at his feet. 

Also seen by his feet is a gun. Does the gun simply denote the weapon used to shoot the Mahatma? Or does its lying discarded at his feet symbolise the futility of violence, emphasised by the celebration of his life and the success of his non-violent approach in the collage?

To the bottom, underpinning Gandhi's key position in the cultural imagination of the nation, is a faux coat-of-arms that features two crossed Indian flags in the background of a central haloed lamp that is topped by the national emblem, and below which is a furling banner. 

The inscription on the banner reads: Bapu ne jo diya jalaaya, uski jyoti bhadaye hum (Trans: Let's brighten the flame of the lamp that Bapu lit).

Collage depicting Freedom Fighters of India, Unknown Maker(s), 1930s, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Collages, by bringing together images from various visual sources, are uniquely capable of manipulation across time, space, genres and even mediums. This makes them, in turn, uniquely qualified to anchor national and cultural messages that extend beyond the immediate into the imagined and the ideal. 

Poster titled 'Asahayog nauka ke teen chatur mallah' (The three clever seafarers of the non-cooperation boat), Rashtriya Chitra Prakashak Karyalaya Cawnpore., 1930 – 1950, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Poster titled 'Musafir' (Traveller) (1930 – 1950) by Shyam Sunder Lal Picture Merchant Chowk CawnporeOriginal Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)

In this poster, titled Musafir (or the traveller), the image may at first glance look like Gandhi was tucking in a weary asleep traveller. However, other elements in the poster, provide a clue to an alternate interpretation. 

Below the image, is inscribed a poem that provides the context – and helps us read the image as Gandhi waking the traveller up. 

The first verse

Wake up! Wake up traveller friend, it is hardly night that you may sleep now. He who sleeps, loses; while he who wakes, finds. Open your eyes from sleep and focus, oh heedless one! This isn't a meeting due to conventions; while everyone is awake, you remain asleep.  

A closer look, can illuminate details that show how the painter attempted to incorporate a similar message in the visual. At Gandhi's waist is seen a timepiece, indicating the relevance of time—and the present moment for the traveller to wake—as dawn breaks upon the horizon. 

By the sleeping man's side, one observes spent matches, symbolising perhaps the end of night when external light would be needed, or the weariness of the traveller who was attempting to build a fire before giving up and falling asleep. 

Behind the sleeping man, at the edge is a milestone that marks the distance to untouchability at zero. This is of course, a reference to Gandhi's fight against untouchability and may indicate that people are also meant to wake up and see the need for it to end.

Operating within multiple contexts, from the political and social to the nationalist and modern, the availability of such a plethora of images, made the darshan (sight) of Gandhi an easily achievable ambition for anyone irrespective of economic background and geographical territory. Since Gandhi was often visualised and imagined as a semi-divine figure, the desire for a darshan of him was immense, and was demonstrated by the number of people who flocked to see him at public events. The power and glory that popular culture bestowed upon him, resulting eventually in his transformation from Mohandas to the Mahatma, can be seen reflected in what happened during his travels to Gorakhpur in 1921. At the time, the prediction in local papers of his pratap (or magical powers), ended up with people crowding almost every single station on his route – trying to get a glimpse of him – an endeavour, in which they were assisted by the various station masters!

Poster titled 'Satyagraha yog saadhan' (The meditation of Satyagraha or truth-centred non-violent resistance), Rashtriya Chitra Prakashak Karyalaya Cawnpore., 1930 – 1950, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Poster titled 'Swarajya Mandir ki yatra' (The journey to the the temple of self-rule), Shyam Sunder Lal Picture Merchant Chowk Cawnpore, 1930 – 1950, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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The semi-deified yogic Gandhi on the poster on the left, depicts him meditating on a seat of thorns. The text below reads gulistaan jahan hain, phool bhi hain, kaante bhi (Trans: In the garden one finds both flowers and thorns). In the one on the right, he's seen as a floating head, in the manner of gods appearing in the sky to bless figures in Indian painting traditions, overseeing the struggle for freedom symbolised as a steep mountainous climb while being attacked by the demonic colonisers.

Poster titled 'Swarajya Mandir ki chaddayee' (The climb to the temple of self-rule), Rashtriya Chitra Prakashak Karyalaya Cawnpore., 1930 – 1950, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Poster titled 'Swarajya Mandir ki chaddayee' (The climb to the temple of self-rule) (1930 – 1950) by Rashtriya Chitra Prakashak Karyalaya Cawnpore.Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)

In a similar poster titled The climb to the temple of self-rule, the bottom is populated with figures, many carrying flags. Depicting the Indian movement for self-rule, the individual figures fade into a collective mass as the crowd moves up the hill.   

Three relatively larger figures, meant to be Englishmen as seen from their clothes, loom over the crowd. Their role as oppressors is made evident from the weapons they carry—a whip and two morning star like clubs—that they seem to be training on the Indians below.   

At the top, Gandhi and Nehru are seen depicted on the side (disproportionately larger than all the other figures). As if encouraging the people to climb, Gandhi's raised hand points towards the summit upon which is seen a temple with a goddess, presumably Bharat Mata.  

Narratives of Gandhi that depicted him as superhuman and saint-like, an apostle of the truth with unbending moral fibre, were to flame public imagination. From semi-divinity, it was a small step to full-fledged deification, as Gandhi grew to be the most significant of national figures. Like the Bharat Mata, he began to be represented as a politico-cultural figure, fusing religious associations with the nationalist project.

The figures of both Gandhi and Bharat Mata are observed in the nationalist and allegorical poster, Bharat Uddhar. The composition of the image is a coded reference to the story of Markandeya as illustrated in chromolithographs produced by the Chitrashala and the Ravi Varma Press. Widely circulated from the 1880s on, these had depicted Shiva saving the young Markandeya from Yama, the lord of the dead. Appropriating its design, Bharat Uddhar substituted Bharat Mata for Markandeya, a British soldier for Yama, and Gandhi for Shiva. As most viewers of the poster would have been familiar with this earlier image, one narrative could easily translate into the other.

Poster titled Bharat Uddhar (The loan of Bharat), Shyam Sunder Lal Picture Merchant Chowk Cawnpore, 1930 – 1950, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Poster titled Bharat Uddhar (The loan of Bharat) (1930 – 1950) by Shyam Sunder Lal Picture Merchant Chowk CawnporeOriginal Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)

Bharat Mata, playing the role of Markandeya, is seen here with a noose around her neck, holding the shiva lingam upon which is inscribed aryavarta (or the land of the Aryans). In answer to her prayers to Lord Shiva, to help save her from the degradation of colonialism... 

...he appears in the avatar of Gandhi. The crescent moon, traditionally associated with Shiva is seen upon Gandhi's head now, inscribed with the word 'ahimsa' or non-violence on it. 

He is depicted with four hands, in the typical manner of a Hindu god. Starting from the left bottom: one holds a charkha (spinning wheel); another khadi; a third holds cotton balls and a talki (a traditional instrument for making thread); while the last one repels the Englishman.

The Englishman is clearly labelled as 'Yama Raj', emphasising the sketch's allegorical function and pointing to the story of Markandeya. 

Additionally, his horse is annotated with the words 'foreign rule'. 

Behind Bharat Mata in the background is a triband flag that reads 'Bharat Mata ki jai' (Victory for Bharat Mata) – indicating that salvation will soon be hand, given Gandhi's arrival. 

Several of these visuals – ranging from posters and calendar prints to collages and photographs – either mythologised or iconised Gandhi, influencing the idea and image of him in public imagination to such a degree, that it would shape depictions and interpretations for the next many decades to come.

From popular material that dealt with the histories of the Independence movement and the freedom struggle to films that were inspired by his life and philosophies, Gandhi was to remain an icon in popular and mainstream art. Whether worshipped, revered, faulted or criticised, 'the father of the nation', continues to be a figure of great and intriguing relevance in the artistic and collective narratives of India today.

Educational Chart titled 'Asahayog Aandolan' (Non Cooperation Movement), Unknown Maker(s), Early mid-20th century, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Educational Chart titled 'Asahayog Aandolan' (Non Cooperation Movement) (Early mid-20th century) by Unknown Maker(s)Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)

Educational chart titled 'Quit India Movement', N. C. Kansil & Sons, New Delhi, Early mid-20th century, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Educational chart titled 'Quit India Movement' (Early mid-20th century) by N. C. Kansil & Sons, New DelhiOriginal Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)

Film poster for 'Gandhi', Possibly Raju Gulati (artist), Globe Art Printers (printer), 1982, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Poster produced for the Hindi feature film 'Gandhi, My Father', Unknown Maker(s), 2007, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Poster produced for the Hindi feature film 'Lage Raho Munna Bhai', Unknown Maker(s), 2006, Original Source: Courtesy of the Museum of the Art & Photography (MAP)
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Gandhi has been a popular subject in cinema: from the 1982 Academy Award winning biopic Gandhi; to the 2007 released Gandhi, my father that examined his complex and strained relationship with his son HIralal Gandhi; and the 2006 Lage Raho Munnai Bhai which made the term 'gandhigiri' popular and the figure of Gandhi as well as the practice of his tenets suddenly more hip and relevant to contemporary society and younger audiences.

Credits: Story

Curation & Content: Shilpa Vijayakrishnan

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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