ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Power and Politics of Portraits, Icons and Hagiographic Images of Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, an arresting and appealing figure, whose appearance adds to his politics and ideology, was iconised long before his martyrdom. This article on the official and popular iconography of Gandhi explores which visualisations of Gandhi have lived on, why they came to be imagined and constructed, and their roots in traditional and modern Indic iconology. Select works of modern and contemporary artists such as Nand Lal Bose, Ram Sutar, M F Husain and Atul Dodiya are examined to reveal the evolution of Gandhian iconography through its dialogue with concepts of power, nationalism, dharma, sainthood and renunciation.

Figures 1–20 accompanying this article are available on the EPW website.

Recent Indian art is rarely overtly political. It has been, in fact, a little suspicious of “ideology.”1 Political movements, actions and leaders are seldom portrayed. The limited engagement of Indian art with the political relates largely to the emotive impact of political action, rather than politics itself. The politics of protest against oppression, deprivation and exploitation have been periodically invoked, but political leadership and national icons have largely remained outside the ambit of mainstream art. Artistic representations of political icons that do exist, tend to be those commissioned by public bodies, whether Parliament, city administrations or local gram sabhas. Mahatma Gandhi remains the exception, with the creation of several painted portraits and sculptures of him, or symbols linked to him, perhaps because he embodies much more than a political persona for both artists and viewers.

Gandhi is one of few nationalist leaders who are iconic in the real sense—who can both be reduced to one or two attributes as well as expanded to include landscape and other background features or narratives. He can also be represented by permutations and combinations of symbols and motifs associated with him—a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and a stick, large ears and a walking stick, orkhadaon (wooden slippers). This is not true of other famous nationalist leaders. For instance, an upraised arm and a book do not instantly suggest the persona of Babasaheb Ambedkar, any more than an admonishing finger invokes Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, or indeed the purse/handbag Behn Mayawati, though lookalike images (some with little resemblance to the original personage) of all these leaders have been reproduced and displayed with varying degrees of aesthetic realisation.2 Here, iconography uses Panofsky’s paradigm that it is “the branch of history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter of meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form” (Panofsky 1955: 26). In terms of the methodology of art history, this study, while examining Gandhian iconography, pursues what Panofsky terms “content:” that is, “it is the basic attitude of a nation, a period, and a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion—all this unconsciously qualified by one personality and condensed into one work” (Panofsky 1955: 14).

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Updated On : 1st Feb, 2018
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