The Gandhi Issue

Simple Simplicity

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The aesthetics of the austere

IS IN THE ARTIST’S DEPICTION OF PERSONALITIES THAT we see both the artist and the subject most clearly. Let’s take Ramkinkar Baij’s sculpture of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as an example. Ramkinkar, the first public Modernist sculptor in India, created a landmark statue of Gandhi that depicts him at Noakhali, Bengal, in 1947, and is installed at Gandhi Mandap atop the 200-metre Sarania Hills in the heart of Guwahati, Assam. In Ramkinkar’s imagining, Gandhi is both the emaciated Buddha and the Atlas-like hero. Gandhi has the hollowed out ribs of the ‘fasting Buddha’, but he is also endowed with sinuous limbs of the Titan god who bore the sky aloft. Ramkinkar’s iconic sculpture Mill Call—which powerfully depicted a family rushing to work at the yell of the siren—highlighted the importance of movement in his practice. Similarly, Gandhi is also caught mid-step; you can sense the movement outside, by the dint of his stride, and within, through contemplation. To be in action is to be alive. Originally cast in bronze, the statue is now covered in lime and enamel paint, a new layer of which is applied on every Gandhi occasion. The whitewash, of course, obliterates Ramkinkar’s original vision of bronze, which would have evoked earth and nature, both essential elements of his work, be it Mill Call or the march of the Mahatma.

In Ramkinkar’s casting of Gandhi, we glimpse Gandhi’s own aesthetic. Like Ramkinkar, Gandhi drew an ideal structure from tradition but interpreted it into a modern reality, thus creating a language of his own. It is an aesthetic that combines the old and the new, the West with the East. Their deep engagement with village life, their understanding of the nuances of the weaver and tribal, sweeper and factory worker, spurred them to create a truly modern aesthetic. Ramkinkar is known to have thrown laterite pebbles and cement mortar directly on an armature. This technique ensured that his sculptures were endowed with a ruggedness and robustness, as opposed to an insentient refinement. Gandhi’s aesthetic, similarly, eschewed the delicacy of Manchester cotton for the earthiness of Khadi. He rejected the excesses of spices and meat for a wholly vegetarian diet (that often meant only fruits, raw groundnuts, bananas, dates and lemons, practically doing away with cooking altogether). Ramkinkar’s sculptures are a tribute to the strength and tenacity of the working man and woman, but he doesn’t deify them, he shows the resilience of toil. For Gandhi, similarly, it was in labour that liberation could be found. If Ramkinkar immortalised the Adivasis in his sculpture Santhal Family, Gandhi chose to dress as the penurious. For Gandhi, the goal was to live like the poor, yet to be efficient and scientific when it came to habits and beliefs. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote of him, ‘He stopped at the thresholds of the huts of the thousands of dispossessed, dressed like one of their own. He spoke to them in their own language. Here was living truth at last, and not only quotations from books… Who else has felt like him that all Indians are his own flesh and blood?’ It is an aesthetic that upholds simplicity and sacrifice above all else.

Gandhi’s aesthetic of austerity and renunciation, inspired by the Bhagavad Gita, differs starkly from a conventional understanding of aesthetics, as drawn from arts and culture. Gandhi rarely saw a film, read a book of poetry, visited an art gallery, watched a game, or took an interest in wildlife, writes Bhikhu Parekh. In an essay titled The Vision of Non-Violence, he says: ‘This was not because he was intellectually incurious, for he showed remarkable experimental vitality in the matters that most interested him, but because his moralistic vision prevented him from seeing the significance of these and other activities.’ When the discovery of the North Pole was announced, he was unmoved, wondering instead at the brouhaha, at what good this could do the world. Parekh writes that when Gandhi visited the Vatican museum in Rome, he didn’t pause to admire the mastery of Botticelli or Michelangelo. Instead he was transfixed by a painting of the crucifixion and wept before it. The highest aesthetic for Gandhi were sacrifice and renunciation. ‘For Gandhi,’ Parekh adds, ‘the care of the soul was a full-time job requiring undivided attention, and the arts and sciences were relevant only to the extent that they promoted that supreme goal.’

Gandhi’s aesthetic of non-possession, austerity and self- help all arise from this need to feel like all Indians. Material possession is what differentiates the rich from the poor, the landlord from the farmer, the ruler from the ruled. That simplicity is the essence of universality was his mantra. ‘I must reduce myself to zero,’ Gandhi writes in his autobiography My Experiments with Truth, ‘so long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility.’

The fact that Ramkinkar Baij’s sculpture of Gandhi in Guwahati has been painted over hints at where we stand today. Ruggedness has been replaced by whitewash, and earth by gilt

This ‘reduction to zero’, can be seen at Gandhi Smriti, formerly known as Birla House, where Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life and was assassinated on January 30th, 1948. While the compound and precincts of this Delhi memorial befit a national icon, Gandhi’s room itself is a remarkable study in declutter and non-possession.

A mounted display showcases Gandhi’s worldly remains— these include his walking staff, spectacles, spectacle case, pocket watch, a spoon, a knife and a fork, and oddly enough, a sickle. His room has been maintained as it was, essentially bare except for a mattress on the floor, a bolster, a pillow, a copy of the Gita, and a short writing table.

In Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire , Rajmohan Gandhi explains that the Gita played a pivotal role in shaping Gandhi’s thoughts and habits. He writes, ‘It hit with unexpected force. Gripped by the Gita’s notion of aparigraha or non-possession, Gandhi accepted he could not follow God without giving up all he had. How, in practice, was this to be done? To Gandhi the answer lay in what he remembered from his London days, of Snell’s law book. If an owner of great possession regarded not an iota of them as his own, but saw himself as a trustee, he had in effect given up his possessions. Once again Gandhi was being moulded by a combination of East and West, not by one or the other.’

HIS COMBINATION OF THE EAST AND WEST CAN be mapped in Gandhi’s autobiography. He arrived at an aesthetic of austerity not from birth, but through reflection and experience. Early in his stint in England, Gandhi found himself at a posh London restaurant with a friend before an evening of theatre; when he asked the waiter if the soup was vegetarian, his friend chastised him, “You are too clumsy for decent society.” While this incident did not mar his friendship, it did make Gandhi resolve, ‘I decided that I should put him at ease, that I should assure him that I would be clumsy no more, but try to become polished and make up for my vegetarianism by cultivating other accomplishments, which fitted one of polite society. And for this purpose I undertook the all too impossible task of becoming an English gentleman.’

Gandhi would reject his Bombay wardrobe and adopt a British one. He bought an evening suit in Bond Street, and a chimney-pot hat. He would spend 10 minutes every day combing his hair and perfecting the knot of his tie. A perfectionist, who could not be satisfied with mere appearances, he even took lessons in dancing, French and elocution. He tried his hand at the violin as well.

For his first voyage with his wife and children to England, he decided that ‘in order to look civilised, our dress and manners had, as far as possible, to approximate to the European standard.’ Gandhi writes in My Experiments with Truth, ‘Because, I thought, only thus could we have some influence, and without influence it would not be possible to serve the community.’ Deciding that Parsis were the most ‘civilised’ people amongst Indians, he chose the Parsi sari for his wife, and Parsi coat and trousers for the boys.

Gandhi would of course look back at these days with some amusement and horror. But perhaps these ‘missteps’ were necessary for him to find his core beliefs. He writes, ‘I can see today that we feel all the freer and lighter for having cast off the tinsel of ‘civilisation’. Gandhi now had a new hope ‘that we will not this time have aristocratic simplicity but simple simplicity’.

Gandhi’s aesthetic may have been borne from casting off the trappings of ‘civilisation’, but it was nurtured by his belief in renunciation. For him renunciation meant the abandoning of all ‘excesses’, whether this was in dress, diet or desires. Brahmacharya—meaning the ‘control of senses in thought, word, and deed’—became the necessity. His aesthetic arises from complete control of the will. For Gandhi, the connection between diet, silence and brahmacharya meant a form of cleansing, but through it all he emphasised that his experiments had taught him ‘that the real seat of taste was not the tongue but the mind’. Physical fasting had to be accompanied by mental fasting. In Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Joseph Lelyveld writes that a full meal for Gandhi was a ‘crime against God and man… because the full-mealers deprive their neighbours of their portion’.

Brahmacharya in its fullness could be achieved only by sacrifice and simplicity. His ideas of simplicity were again influenced by the East and West, by both the Indian ascetic and John Ruskin’s teachings in Unto This Last. In 1908, Gandhi serialised a nine-part paraphrase of Ruskin’s book into Gujarati, where he contends that ‘men can be happy only if they obey the moral law’. Ruskin’s belief which Gandhi subscribed to was: ‘People will be happy in so far as they learn to do justice and be righteous. All else is not only vain but leads straight to destruction. To teach the people to get rich by hook or by crook is to do them an immense disservice’.

This moral law required doing all one’s work oneself. In Johannesburg, Gandhi implemented Ruskin’s teaching, which meant making bread by hand, washing, ironing one’s clothes, and even cutting one’s own hair. This fastidiousness, even eccentricity, would grow manifold. By the time he had set up his ashram at Sabarmati, Gandhi had devised separate latrines for different kinds of ablutions, and encouraged his followers to use urine to rinse out toilet bowls. Gandhi was the original faddist who could get his acolytes to follow any of his crazes.

In Great Soul, Lelyveld writes that VS Naipaul called Gandhi ‘the least Indian of Indian leaders’. This, of course, sounds odd for the man who wore a loin cloth and shawl when he went to attend the Round Table Conference in London at Buckingham Palace. But as Lelyveld points out, what Naipaul means is that ‘Gandhi was appalled by the country he’d later get credit for liberating’. The social oppression in India tormented Gandhi. Naipaul writes, ‘[Gandhi] looked at India as no Indian was able to. His vision was direct, and this directness was, and is, revolutionary.’

It is this directness of vision that we see in Ramkinkar’s sculptures as well. Like Gandhi, he stands for an aesthetic that is deeply rooted in India, yet is revolutionary. The fact that Ramkinkar’s sculpture of Gandhi has been painted over hints at where we are today. Ruggedness has been replaced by whitewash, and earth by gilt.