Champaran Needs to Be Seen as an ‘Open Work’

Today, Champaran must save democracy from the drabness of majoritarian politics by creating new fictions for colour, for diversity, and for pluralism.

The three words 'Gandhi', 'Champaran' and 'indigo' have a transformative power because Champaran was seen as a transformative, alchemical moment in history. Credit: PIB

The three words ‘Gandhi’, ‘Champaran’ and ‘indigo’ have a transformative power because Champaran was seen as a transformative, alchemical moment in history. Credit: PIB

Umberto Eco, the Semiotician and novelist used the idea of The Open Work as the title of one of his books. The title was simple in its message and prolific in its possibilities. An open work in music allows ‘a great deal of autonomy to the individual performer.’ Unlike a conventional work which dictates a format, the open work allows for a multiplicity of interpretations. Instead of a repetition of narrative, what we have is a multiplicity of interpretations. In an open work, music acquires a renewed sense of aesthetic, and in literature, a renewed sense of meaning. A shift in hermeneutic creates as it were a profusion of possibilities.

One senses that Champaran too needs to be seen as an open work. It is hundred years since Gandhi went there and one needs to do more than commemorate the event. Memory becomes a mechanical recitation and while Champaran is historic, it gets frozen as history. One does not quite see the futuristic possibilities of the event. The works of Kapila Vatsyayan, Jacques Pouchepedass, Rajendra Prasad, David Hardiman have frozen it to a canonical inflexibility. Champaran, with the benefit of age, requires a monumentality. It has the iconicity of a narrative, which is seen as the inaugural event of a Gandhian movement. It is Gandhi’s first great encounter after his return to India. The three words ‘Gandhi’, ‘Champaran’ and ‘indigo’ have a transformative power because Champaran was seen as a transformative, alchemical moment in history.

Yet as one reads the documents and the commentaries, one is not clear what the excitement is about. Critics see it as hyperbolic and the recitations have a mechanical but hagiographic quality. Champaran seems to inspire reverence but no path breaking analysis. Hundred years later, a scholar confronting the event faces an impasse. Does one read the event as a recitation, a mnemonic to a world, an invocation of Gandhi? As one reads the various documents assembled by B.B. Mishra, one feels a sense of disquiet. Maybe it is the intelligence of hindsight but the document feels tedious, more like an accountant’s nightmare, as one works out the exploitative potential of the Tinkathia system. One wonders where the excitement is, and in fact asks is there something inflationary about Champaran? Has it been oversold by the Gandhians and the nationalists? What was the magic of Champaran about? The documentation is vast. We also have Rajendra Prasad’s narrative, Shukla’s letters and the beehive of police reports matched by the complaints of the planters.

One suddenly senses that Champaran as a narrative is a hinge, a link, a fold between the colonialism of the 19th century study of political economy of the manufacturing of indigo and the openings of a 20th century inklings of a new chemistry, which is displacing the old political economy of plantation life. At one level, one confronts the aridity of history. It is as if Champaran is a failure of storytelling. One has never seen a more colourless understanding of indigo. The very colour inspires an aesthetics which one misses in the Champaran reports. A dullness takes over as one confronts the story of Champaran. It is at that moment that one senses there is a double, a backstage to the narrative. The political economy of indigo and the bureaucratic squabbling over percentages suddenly seems a pretext for a deeper text. Champaran becomes an open work because of three alchemies: the drama of memory around a place, the chemistry and the magic of indigo moving from exploitation to obsolescence, and the alchemy of Gandhi himself. Of these three, what is originally created is not indigo or an ethnography of place, but what was invented was Gandhi himself. The bureaucratic narrative of the travails of indigo planting is juxtaposed between two other narratives, the police complaints, and the gossip and rumour created by the peasants. In fact, it is a brilliant example of the dialectic between suspicion of the police and senior bureaucrats and the gossip and excitement of the peasants. They literally feed on each other as excitement and anxiety created a mulch where Gandhi is seen as an agitator extraordinaire. In fact, through the committee investigations, Gandhi speaks in an ordinary, parliamentary way. Yet Champaran is legend, though in terms of indigo, he does not achieve much. It is then one realises that it is not indigo people are talking about. They are dreaming a new leadership, a struggle. The police call it a new millennialism, with Gandhi as the new malik. The peasants see Gandhi as a miracle. They feel he is transcendental, that his presence will end all exploitation. One senses Gandhi is the real text of Champaran and that what was invented was a historic Gandhi.

Gandhi’s role, in fact, is sedate; his language is legal and Rotarian; he plays a politically correct negotiator, a legal expert garnering evidence, haggling over a few concessions. The discussions are prosaic, tedious and yet parallel to the rigour of the social survey, and the aridity of the legal investigative narrative is a second narrative, an invention not based on facts but on the alchemy and chemistry of suspicion, rumor, gossip, millennialism, police paranoia, where peasants posit the kind of leader they wish and want. Champaran is wish fulfilment, a matching of leader and the led. It is in Champaran that the anthems of struggle are worked out. Gandhi finds trusted disciples like J.B. Kripalani and Rajendra Prasad. While they were discoveries, Gandhi was invented. The millennial Gandhi, a Gandhi beyond political economy, was invented in Champaran. History was not made but history was fabricated as an act of wish fulfilment. The real Gandhi and his interaction with the peasant leader Shukla is snooty, even distant. Gandhi was even suspicious of him. Yet history presents him as the messiah. In that sense, Champaran has to be recognised as a pre-emptive narrative. We literally stage managed an out of way struggle into a great moment of history. Once they invented history, the peasants felt Gandhi could keep inventing himself. It was an act of faith which came true. An act of storytelling becomes a chain of historical narratives. Champaran could not exist as geography. It was already as obsolescent as indigo. It could however, survive as metaphor.

Champaran transformed Gandhi from hypothesis, to heuristic, to history. Credit: PIB

Champaran transformed Gandhi from hypothesis, to heuristic, to history. Credit: PIB

There is nothing Gandhian in these documents. No smell of Hind Swaraj, no sense of Experiments with Truth. There is no notion of the body, only a standard 19th century political economy of labour. Gandhi, in fact, pops in infrequently. He is the other of the Champaran documents, something the colony and Indian are seeking to domesticate. In fact, there is a certain sense of ‘as if,’ a sense that none of the crucial characters fit. Raj Kumar, Shukla and Rajendra Prasad sound fairly substantial. The first is presented as the persistent peasant whose perseverance helps create Champaran and Gandhi. The second is the professional whose sense of law and people is ethical. Oddly, both sound like templates, fictive colours out of which the later Gandhi is built. The saddest fact is that indigo does not appear in its true colours. It is not the colour of imperialism oozing exploitation. It is in the report, empty of colour. It is as if it is intentionally kept empty so that a more colourful idea of Gandhi can emerge. Deep down, it is not the inquiry report as an official narrative that captures the imagination. Somehow in the very facticity of the inquiry, narratives fade. But gossip, rumour, the sense of the millennial survive. The police reports confirm that Gandhi’s presence alters the attitude of the peasant to the planter. Gandhi represents the utopia to come, where the peasant can farm without threat or compulsion. There is a sense that land would become a ‘commons’ where cattle can gaze freely. The peasants intuitively sense Gandhi adds anxiety to the colonial imagination. An enquiry into a plantation becomes an inquiry into the rules of imperialism. A new grammar is being born. The policeman, the planter and the peasant can sense it. Conjecture helps create new possibilities. Gandhi, as a promise, becomes a heuristic, a prophecy of new possibilities. The crowd is waiting for a new history. Champaran is a site, a metaphor, a harbinger of a world to be born.


In terms of discourse, colour is yet to enter the picture. Yet the colours of imperialism are still dominant. Between Khaki and indigo, an imperial world is created ornamentally. There is a drabness to Khaki, first worn in 1846 by the Corps of Guides. But it was practical, unlike the scarlet coats worn by soldiers. It conveyed drabness. As Friedrich Carl Theis’ book on Khaki maintained, “Khaki was not one colour but described certain shades of drabness that varied from grey to olive and from olive to brown.” It was the colour which was meant to be inconspicuous. Indigo, however, had a festive touch, a sense of celebration. The swadeshi movement had no initial answer to colour and cloth as politics. When Khadi was introduced, one sensed a similar drabness. Khadi was presented as ascetic and home grown, a picture of self-reliance. Its whiteness as an aesthetic almost seems to resent the festivity of colour. But while Khadi as cloth challenged the political economy of the mill, Khadi as colour did not quite threaten the colours of imperialism. True indigo is seen as a local colour but the disappearance of indigo follows a different moral trajectory.

Probably one of the first great debates on colour and the synthetic dye was between the chemist P.C. Ray, a great swadeshi activist, and the geologist and art critic, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy. Ray, as a chemist, argued that the emergence of synthetic dyes was a result of an act of tapas of the German chemists. In fact, synthetic chemistry as an institution is almost presented as part of the rishihood of the future. Ray’s article warns against the future threats of obsolescence from efforts of the German labs.

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy is intrigued and irritated with Ray’s swadeshi response. Ray, he sensed, was ambivalent. Here was a man who had researched a whole tract on Hindu Chemistry, patiently excavating ancient texts for their alchemical qualities. Yet Coomaraswamy was irked that Ray had failed to question the desirability and consequences of synthetic dye, a tendency he felt was endemic to science, which justified itself as knowledge for its own sake. Coomaraswamy argued that synthetic chemistry was part of the proletarianisation of modern man. For Coomaraswamy, a proletarian was a man dislocated from his culture; not just alienated from his tools. Colour or the absence of colour becomes part of a process of deculturisation through appropriation and standardisation.

Gandhi in Champaran. Credit: Ebay

The introduction of the synthetic dye had destroyed an artistic tradition where the art of dyeing celebrated the variegated use of techniques differing from family to family, district to district. Colour speaks a set of vernaculars but this celebration of variegated colour was lost when a standardisation set of colours was being created. The red of the madder dye no longer embodied the varying redness of red but worse – the uniform of synthetic chemistry.

If Coomaraswamy was concerned with the question of diversity as the centrality of swadeshi, Tagore challenged the Gandhian idea of Khadi on a different ground. For Tagore, Gandhi, in fighting the machine, was creating in the village the same set of mechanistic responses. In the Tagore-Gandhi debate, Gandhi talks of Khadi in terms of the colour of discipline, of sacrifice. But Tagore objects to this very disciplinary note, hinting that Khadi lacks the colours of the erotic. An asceticism of Khadi without desire can lead to a colourless world. One can’t think of colour as an artist without thinking of desire. In suppressing desire, one creates a colourless world.

Oddly, the colours of Swadesi are disciplinary colours. There is nothing unruly about Khadi, and unruliness is not just about being wild but creating the possibilities of the unexpected. While colour was a major preoccupation of the Bengal school, and of Nandlal Bose, colour remains, as Natasha Eaton states, a blind spot in the national movement. Khaki and Khadi add a blandness to politics which a wilder theory of colours might have redeemed.

In fact, more than the nationalist Bengal school of art, it is theosophy with its ideas of occult which brings a dream of colour to the nationalist movement. Theosophy was a spiritualist movement interested in the spiritualism of colour. Colour had spiritual agency and the idea present in the work of Besant was worked out by Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky was aware of the latest Gestalt work in colour and Goethe’s work. Yet Kandinsky’s work or that of Roerich did not inform the work of Gandhi. In a way, Champaran was the emasculation of colour and colour remained – despite some efforts – a blind spot, or at least a duller part of the national movement. The colourlessness of Khadi was of inadequate response to the emasculation of colour when indigo was swept out.


We return now to the very beginning of this essay. Champaran as text cannot, in its hundredth year, be an act of memory. Memory incites reinvention and Champaran today must be the beginning of an open work. It is not the death of indigo that I want to discuss, but at least raise the possibility of a tract where Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth meets his great manifesto Hind Swaraj; where the rainbow effects of different nationalisms – Gandhian, Tagore, Theosophist, Swadeshi – meet to create a new kind of discourse, a Hind Swaraj for colour. I claim to be no artist but take consolation in Coomaraswamy’s definition that “an artist is not a special kind of man but every man in the pursuit of his art is a special kind of artist.”

What will a Hind Swaraj for Colour need? It begins as a critique of modernity, and as a critique of modernity, it needs an idea of diversity. Colour is the language for diversity. A famous physicist, probably invoking Coomaraswamy, said English is a poor language for colour. Red is not fully evocative in English. The redness of English red hardly captures the diversity of red in India. Shahapoo, as he said, lapsing into Tamil, goes beyond the redness of English red.

If diversity of language and colour is the first axis, the body, the human body, becomes the center of the body politic of colour. In a fundamental way, an experiment with truth should be an experiment with colour. One has to go beyond the colours of the Panopticon, return nature to the constitution, and treat nature as a constitutional person. The idea of the natural, as opposed to the artificial, must be deepened. Modernity fuses the natural and the artificial. What one needs is a return to the aesthetic of the natural in food, in dress, and even in art.

Champaran in that sense continues its sense of inventiveness. The strange collusion between police and peasant that created a heuristic of Gandhi. Today, Champaran must save democracy from the drabness of majoritarian politics by creating new fictions for colour, for diversity, and for pluralism. The secret of Champaranis that it hides or uses a façade of drabness to unfold the unexpected. Champaran transformed Gandhi from hypothesis, to heuristic, to history. There is a necessity for similar thought experiments to emerge from the new ashrams of the mind.

This article is an edited version of the lecture delivered at Sarvodya International Trust and IIC’s commemoration of the 100th year of Champaran Struggle.

Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at the Jindal Global Law School and director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P Jindal Global University.