The seven-foot plus bronze sculpture of Gandhi, which has a bullet hole and the words ‘Hey Ram’ engraved on its back, is on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bengaluru.
At a time when every other Indian is experiencing an adrenaline rush in his dreams of forcefully crossing the Line of Control, even if vicariously, it is perhaps a good moment to contemplate on the representation of Mahatma Gandhi. The Indian landscape teems with realistic portraits of Gandhi. Every small town crossroads, every public office sports a clichéd likeness. So much so, the eye gets jaded with the lifeless portrayals and we effortlessly push Gandhi’s memory into oblivion.
An artist’s conceptual portrait of Gandhi is quite a different matter. An example of this is A. Ramachandran’s seven-feet plus bronze sculpture titled ‘Monumental Gandhi: Hey Ram, Second Version.’ The first version was completed in 2012 and was shown a couple of years later. Both versions are similar in execution, but the ‘Second Version’ has on its back a bullet hole and “Hey Ram”, the poignant cry uttered by Gandhi when his life came to an abrupt end by the assassin’s bullet. It went on display in a retrospective of Ramchandran’s work at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Bengaluru on Wednesday.
Ramachandran’s ‘Monumental Gandhi’ is a standing figure with the flowing drapes of his chadar gleaming softly over his body. His hands are folded in a namaskar, expressing humility and respect towards all sentient beings. In contrast to the smooth, burnished glow of the robe, Gandhi’s head is roughened like an eroded rock-face. The figure stands on nearly a three and a half feet square base.
On this platform is carved in heavy, bold lettering of varying sizes, Einstein’s famous quote on Gandhi, “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.” This blending of text and image endows the sculpture with a larger dimension.
Not only may this sculpture be seen as a symbol of peace and truth, but in its evocations of compassion, it is also reminiscent of the standing Buddhas of early India. Such a conflation of the ideas of Buddha and Gandhi in the artist’s mind goes back to 1969, when Ramachandran was commissioned to do a mural in Delhi for Gandhi’s centenary. He titled it ‘Gandhi and the 20th Century Cult of Violence’. The occasion gave Ramachandran an opportunity to contemplate on the history of our times, not just of India, but also of the world.
The horrific narrative of violence replete with images of torture and bloodshed that are depicted in the mural is broken in the central section by the emergence of Gandhi’s bare leg, dhoti-clad till the thigh, from a veil of darkness and is topped with multiple images of seated Buddha. This is a positive assertion of human values to counter the negative, nightmarish vision of life that he expressed in the first two decades of his art practice.
From the mid-1980s, Ramachandran stopped painting manifest narratives of violence, torture, bloodshed and dehumanisation. In 1984, he witnessed from his home a Sikh shop owner from the neighbourhood being lynched and felt that no representation of violence that he had done so far could ever replicate the cataclysmic horror of reality. Bringing people face to face with the violence in society could not change their mindset. So he began painting and sculpting an idyllic vision of man in nature in the scenes from the lives of Bhil tribals living in the villages around Udaipur. Many contemporaries have critiqued Ramachandran’s representations of adivasi life and environment as an indulgence, but the artist has steadfastly engaged himself in representing an alternate vision of life.
This does not, however, mean that Ramachandran is not aware of the violence and turbulence seething below the surface that flare up from time to time. The Gandhi sculptures that he has made in the last four years indicate that he is responding to our troubled times in his own way. In a catalogue essay titled ‘The Multiple Worlds of A. Ramachandran’, art historian R. Siva Kumar wrote, “Our lives are shaped by our times, but we choose from the possibilities of our times on our own terms. This creates a variety of valid responses to the world at any given historical moment, …”.
When asked why he thought of sculpting Gandhi, Ramachandran said, “Gandhi is the solitary political image that haunts me even today.” As a young boy, Ramachandran remembers being drawn to Gandhi, especially because of a teacher who was a passionate Gandhian and who talked to the boys about the leader’s ideas.
Later, when Ramachandran went to study art at Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, West Bengal, he encountered Nandalal Bose’s linocut portrait of the Mahatma titled ‘Dandi March’ with the legend Bapuji, 1930, inscribed on it. Sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri, who was also an alumnus of Kala Bhavan,a has written about Bose’s respect for Gandhi. He has stated, “His admiration for Gandhiji and the Swadeshi movement could be seen in his portrayal of Gandhiji in his famous linocut … symbolic of the spirit of the Mahatma.”
Ramachandran also absorbed the vigour and strength of the bas-relief sculpture, ‘Dandi March’ by his mentor Ramkinkar Baij, which was modelled on Bose’s linocut, but was enlarged. Ramachandran was very impressed by this transformation. He said, “Ramkinkar cut grooves and gashes into the wet cement. It was as if the sculpture was turned into a line drawing.” Beside the bas-relief, Baij made two sculptures in the round of Gandhi, one of which, bold and rugged, is in the collection of NGMA, New Delhi.
Bose’s linocut and Baij’s sculptures show Gandhi in a heroic stance. The two artists conceptualised Gandhi as a brave, determined leader, exuding a moral strength and guiding his people to resist the British Raj. Although belonging to the same gharana, as it were, Ramachandran’s Gandhi has a different appeal. In its simplicity of form and larger than life proportions, there appears to be a spiritual force instilled in the two versions of ‘Monumental Gandhi’. Whereas the Gandhis portrayed by his teachers have powerful movement inscribed into the figures, the very stillness of Ramachandran’s portrayal emanates a different kind of power.
The idea of the simplification of form came to him in a flash of childhood memory. The woman who supplied his family with the daily requirement of clay pots brought some clay one day and showed him how to make a simple figure by rolling out a cylinder of wet clay and then pinching it here and there to make a human form.
The artist followed almost the same principle to make the ‘Monumental Gandhi’. Only pinching was not enough to give the clay cylinder a lofty human form. He had to beat the roll of clay, flattening out the chest, narrowing the waist and so on. Here the artist had to engage in a heroic struggle to overcome the challenges of the material and give form to the elusive ideas that lurked in his mind.
Ramachandran’s monumental Gandhis stand as icons of peace guarding against the violence that threatens to tear apart the communities of the world. The brutality and murderousness that peaked in the 20th century seems to be gathering added momentum in our present time. The retrospective organised by NGMA, Bengaluru in collaboration with Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi will be on view for three weeks. It is worth a visit, if only as an antidote to these present, frenzied times.