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A look at artistic efforts to interpret Mahatma Gandhi’s life and work
Mahatma Gandhi seems to be the icon that is drawing artists, art world and auctioneers globally.

• Balaji Ponna’s ‘Sculptures for Street, Branches for Birds’ serves as a follow-up to a sculpture ‘Two Gandhis’ at the India Art Summit.
• Bid & Hammer offers portrait and precious photographic memorabilia of the Mahatma.
• A new show, ‘Detour’, courtesy Chemould Prescott will feature photographers Ravi Agarwal, Sonia Jabbar, Samar Jodha, Dayanita Singh and Ram Rahman whose work revolves around Gandhi’s movement for freedom.

Several Indian artists have created works that revolve around the ideology of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and it’s worth revisiting their works inspired by the great freedom fighter’s philosophy and his persona. For example, his frail frame with a stick in hand was portrayed by painter Nandlal Bose during the Dandi Yatra in 1931. Another Santiniketan artist Ramkinkar Baij was also influenced by him.

The Father of the Nation has been a favorite theme for many masters and contemporaries. Prime among them are Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat and Atul Dodiya, three of India’s finest contemporary artists. Atul Dodiya, in particular, has been deeply touched by the Mahatma’s teachings. He is conscious of historical perspectives, a fact that reflects in his works based on the Mahatma’s message. The artist has been trying to re-contextualize the Mahatma’s message of non-violence, peace and tolerance through his paintings.

His show, entitled 'An artist for non-violence' (Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, 1999), was a first step in this direction. Stemming from the watercolor series, he painted ‘At the Haripura Congress’ when he was requested to create a commemorative piece on eve of the celebration of 50 years of India’s Independence. The artist started studying and observing Gandhi’s photographs more carefully. He reflected on the Mahatma’s lean body with visible ribs, seeking to reconstruct nostalgic images.

Explaining how the series evolved, Atul Dodiya has mentioned in an essay: "As a young boy whose family came from Saurashtra, Mahatma Gandhi was an intimate part of my boyhood. I used to draw him quite often so one could say Gandhi is a recurring theme for me!” His much acclaimed work ‘Father’, presented two forms of ancestry, a more universal ancestry of his art and culture, revealed through the veiled artistic references in the canvas that is hidden beneath the shutter and a more personal ancestry, symbolized by an image of his father shown with a swelling belly.

A group show, entitled ‘Bapu’, was an effort to interpret his life and work. The show curated by Gayatri Sinha was conceptualized by Saffronart in association with Berkeley Square Gallery. It featured works by artists Navjot, Manisha Parekh, Jagannath Panda, Riyas Komu, Surendran Nair, Anandajit Ray, Sachin Karne, Vasudha Thozhur, Ashim Purkayashta, Gigi Scaria, Ram Rahman and Vivek Vilasini.

Another noteworthy experiment is Jitish Kallat's ‘Public Notice – 2’ showcased at Bodhi Art in association with the Singapore Biennale 2008, a sequel to his earlier work that visually reproduced the famous speech ‘Freedom at Midnight’ by India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The installation revisits the eve of the historic Salt March and the speech that Mahatma Gandhi delivered on the banks of the historic river Sabarmati.

The words that inspired the work are those of revolution, of protest and hope. In addition to his message of non-violence, the Mahatma urged to take drastic measures to attain freedom. The installation challenges the viewers to decide if such total commitment to a cause still exists. The artist prompts them to give the past and its protagonists their due respect. On the other hand, Subodh Gupta’s famous installation, entitled ‘Gandhi’s Three Monkeys’, unlike Gandhi’s famous mascots, are so geared as to shield themselves from the fearsome mechanics of war.

Hindol Brahmbhatt has worked on several diptychs and triptychs, around 30 of them, that locate the relevance of the Father of the Nation and his philosophy in today’s context. The sensitive artist is pained by hollowness that surrounds the ritual of remembering the Mahatma. Several of the artist’s creations juxtapose images of war, violence and strife with the Mahatma pushed to the background that heightens the sense of irony.

He says, underlining the motive of his creations, “The world is witnessing extreme strife. Social fabric has become highly fragile. Under such circumstances, we need to adhere to Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology in its truest sense, and not just offer a lip service. This is what I wish to convey through my works.” Debanjan Roy used Gandhi as a metaphor for the India that has disassociated itself from austerity and adopted modernity and luxuries. The Kolkata based artist has created a series featuring him.

As is evident, the Mahatma continues to be treated as an icon, a mascot of moral force, in popular and mainstream art thanks to new-generation artists from India who question and challenge the prevailing notions of reality in context of the Gandhian philosophy.