Searching for the Mahatma
IN Peter Brook's landmark production of the Mahabharata there is a moment of complete stillness. It comes at a critical juncture of the play. Arjuna has just thrown down his weapons. He cannot fight, he says. As most of us will know, this is the moment that Krishna explains to him in the simplest, but equally most profound words the message of the Gita. Arjuna accepts his reasoning. He will act, but not expect to reap the benefits of the action. Before he can do that, he wants Krishna to reveal the secrets of the Universe.
All movements come to a complete standstill on the stage. The lights are dim. Then, in that instant of silence, there is the sound of a flute, playing somewhere. The audience bends forward, as Arjuna does, not daring to breathe. Nothing happens of course, but Arjuna is suddenly made aware. The unknown cannot be apprehended, let alone explained and analysed, except in these gaps between our human perceptions. It is the same with a recent volume of Gallerie an art magazine that focuses on aspects of Gandhi that has been sub-titled, "Forward to Basics". He escapes between the various layers of meaning that artists, writers and activists have tried to convey. Yet for those who seek him, there is still a faint and yet tantalising sense of the man.
In trying to look for a glimpse of Gandhiji beyond the stereotypes of a tired nationalism or fake piety, Bina Sarkar Ellias, the editor of this edition of Gallerie International has sought him through the refraction of art and life as experienced through a number of younger persons. They come not only from different countries and different disciplines, but also express alternate viewpoints. These essays are not necessarily hagiographical. One does not have to agree with them and therein, lies their interest. Or as Ellias tells us in her introduction to persons such as Medha Patkar, whose homespun personality is mediated by Ganesh Nochur, or Aruna Roy whose own involvement in a grassroots movement amongst the rural poor of Rajasthan allows her to reflect on "Legacy of Gandhi: Our Experiments with Truth" with a fresh intimacy, or the old grand-mother who weaves her cloth in Ladakh without the slightest idea of Gandhi, "They are not mere Gandhians in form but in spirit. They revive faith in humankind and inspire. They remind us it's time to shift gears and move forward to basics."
Part of the charm of Gallerie is in the excellent quality of its images. If "Truth is Beauty" and vice-versa, as in the elegant epigram by Keats, there is indeed more than enough to satisfy the seeker of both beauty and truth. Indeed this is where a reader might experience the very first twinge of doubt this almost unquestioned acceptance of a type of chaste, clean, white unvarnished product being a reflection of Gandhian aesthetics. Or of the simplicity of a certain act, a pinch of salt, a hank of hand-spun khadi that could bring down an empire, in Peter Nagy's words. When Nagy then makes the leap to two artists of today A. Balasubrahmanium and Manisha Parekh who produce works of minimalist elegance, he alerts you to the danger of such generalisations.
One would like to underline here that this is neither to diminish Gandhi's absolute genius for seizing the choicest and most dramatic symbols of revolt against oppression nor the artistic productions of Balasubrahmanium and Parekh, but to find correspondences between them, suggests that Gandhi's legacy can be used just as successfully to package a revolution, as to sell a work of art. Both these young artists belong to the highly competitive world of the market-savvy art. Since a great deal of rhetoric is spent on the evil effects of globalisation in some of the other essays, it must be pointed out that few contemporary artists would survive, let alone thrive, without hefty grants and subsidies to work and study in these very same empires of inequity as exemplified by the West, that they are so strenuously trying to deny in their work.
Of course, Nagy being a well-known artist, curator and writer, as well as being an American who lives in Delhi, is perfectly free to make his own pronouncements, and while one does not doubt his sincerity, he quite often goes completely over the top. What can one make of sentences such as "Both Bala and Manisha fetishise materials and processes much the way Gandhi did, enabling a reading of the social to come out of the personal and to thereby allow a synchronisation of aesthetics with phenomenology." Or the even more hilarious assertion, "Truth is another quality which has come to be associated with khadi," while for most people it has come to represent the exact opposite. No doubt, in this particular kind of game, one can fetishise the truth.
This is probably not the place to point out another favourite correspondence, the use of the colour "White" as a reflection of the purity of khadi and by association, Gandhian aesthetics. From all that one can learn, Gandhiji's ashrams during his lifetime were places that were Spartan rather than Zen-like in their impulse towards beauty. Khadi can often encompass many shades from oatmeal, to grey and off-white. One suspects that the idea of the spiritually lustrous golden white khadi garments is more a reflection of the silk khadi costumes worn by other sages of the same period, like J. Krishnamurti perhaps and those who adapted the so-called Gandhian textile legacy in the years following Independence into the sturdily romantic grassroots movement implied by absorbing village Indian into urban India. Perhaps this is another way of using Gandhiji, as a tool of conflict resolution, bridging together apparently irreconcilable forces, rich-poor, village-urban, East-West, local-global and so forth by waving some of his magic around.
It's left to the Japanese artist Atsuko Yamanoto to point out, not only the initial excitement experienced at the many associations that she has arrived at because of her awareness of khadi but also, that "Khadi was the fruit of one's labour and symbolised self-dignity. Today, however, khadi has become elitist, the price is very high and its quality substantially low."
Equally, there's an interesting essay by artist Baiju Parthan who writes about Haku Shah's work, beautifully textured tributes to Gandhiji's words and actions, that is both a journey of discovery for himself and for his own responses to Gandhiji. His resolution of the artistic journeys that led him to a whole new idea of both Shah's work and Gandhiji's "scientific" approach make for a dramatic new image. Or as he describes it, "Haku Shah's collage works, as well as images from my paintings overlap in layers. Within these are submerged layers of Mumbai street scenes. The whole stack of layers was subjected to the "liquefy" tool in the image processor which melded them into a single unit by making them flow into each other. Gandhi is here, conceived as a presence that levels out disparities."
There are also a couple of poems. One by Bertolt Brecht is arresting. It suggests that while the arguments, the doubts, the objections rage, the wolf of time or of destruction is at the door. Is it time to open the door? To act finally? To find one's truth ? The book suggests that there are many roads to Gandhi.
International Gallerie, A journey of ideas. Forward to basics, Vol. 5, No 2, 2002, edited by Bina Sarkar Ellias, p.128.
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