Sunday, November 8, 2009

Re-searching Dandi March: Preface to a Forthcoming Art Project

(JohnyML and Anubhav Nath at Dandi Sea Shore. Pic by Somu Desai)

On 5th September 2009, after completing the formalities of ‘Expressions at Tihar’, an art project and exhibition curated both by myself and Anubhav Nath, we were thinking of doing another art project, which we wanted to be different from the usual gallery shows. I have been working on Gandhiji’s Champaran Movement (1917-18) and our conversation mainly moved around Mahatma Gandhi.

As keen observers of the Indian contemporary art scene, we have been watching how the contemporary artists working on/with the images from Gandhiji’s life and times. From Henry Cartier Bresson’s photographs to Nandalal Bose’s Haripura Congress Posters to D.P.Roy Choudhury’s ‘Gyarah Moortis’ came to our minds as a backdrop setting.

We discussed the works of K.S.Radhakrishnan. He had made his protagonist, Musui to host the famous Dandi walking posture of Gandhiji. Vivan’s Sundaram’s juxtaposition of a Giocometti hand with a lump of salt came to our mind. Atul Dodiya’s shutter works with Gandhiji’s images could not have escaped our attention. K.G.Subramanyan might not have painted Gandhiji as Gandhiji but his theoretical discourse moved around Gandhian philosophy of autonomy. Surendran Nair’s ‘Tathagatha, Tathagatha, Tatha Gathaa’ and his famous gift for Gandhiji, an iron knife inside a box of salt pellets were strong reminders of Gandhiji’s presence in our visual discourse. Vivek Vilasini’s photographic series on Gandhiji’s memorial sculptures in public spaces, Ashim Purkayastha’s intervention through the manipulation of postal stamps, Somu Desai’s Vibrant Gujarat Mural, Debanjan Roy’s Red Gandhijis- the floodgates of imageries were opened.

Then N.Ranga’s famous cartoon with a single brush stroke. Gandhiji in Apple’s advertisement. Gandhiji in Mont Blanc pen’s advertisement.

Gandhiji in innumerable calendar posters.

Gandhiji in our daily lives. The five hundred rupee notes.

Our next project has to be on Gandhiji, then and there we decided. And it has to be on Dandi March (1930).


A quick analysis on the Gandhi images in our visual culture informed us that these images are often used for eulogizing Gandhiji as an indisputable icon. Or else, these images were used for forwarding a critique on the anti-poor policies of the state. At times it was felt that, Gandhiji had become a state tool for oppressing free thinking. And at times, Gandhiji became a universal icon like Che Guevara, which could be used to advertise computers to fountain pens to T-shirts.

Icons have strong symbolic values. They could be interpreted and misinterpreted with equal force.

But what about Gandhiji as an icon of resistance and tolerance, both our world seeks desperately these days? Could Gandhiji and his philosophy on resistance, tolerance and non-violence be brought back into the new global corporate culture and life, using adequate aesthetic interventions?

The idea of Dandi occurred then and there because Dandi March was the one political struggle where Gandhiji implemented all his philosophical strength, the surety of which he had been testing since his South African days. Since 1914, Gandhiji had been sharpening his ideology of resistance. In 1917, when he involved in Champaran Movement, he was still skeptical about his methods. In 1917-18, when he asked the Patidars of the Kheda district in Gujarat, not to pay land tax to the British, though he was gaining ground support, he was not sure of the future of such defiance by people towards the British Government. In the crucial years of 1919 (Jalianwala Bagh), 1921 (Bombay Satyagraha, Khilafat Movement and Non Co-operation movement), 1922 (Chauri Chaura incident), 1929 (Declaration of Poorna Swaraj- Complete Independence), Gandhiji was testing the endurance capacity of his philosophy. In 1930, with Dandi March, Gandhiji could successfully implement it.

We went into a research mode. We collected books and documentary materials. From two locations in Delhi, I and Anubhav Nath exchanged our daily findings for almost two months.

Slowly, we recognized the power of Dandi March. On 12th March 1930, Gandhiji had left his first abode in India, Sabarmati Ashram, near Ahmedabad, with a band of Satyagrahis trained by Gandhiji himself, for Dandi, a village near Navsari, South Gujarat, where on 6th April, he broke the British Tax Law on Salt by making salt from the sea water.

The great march to Dandi was a powerful symbolic act. It was a beautiful metaphor too. Gandhiji, showcased his philosophical and political and pragmatic clarity before the people of India and also before the colonial British Government. The moving power of this symbolic act was too great to resist.

For Gandhiji, salt was a symbol and a metaphor. Today for us, both the salt and march are two symbols conjoined by the power of time and distance.

This symbolism was later enacted by several people who were goaded by research interest (like the Australian scholar Thomas Weber) and political interest (like the Congress party leaders).

For myself and Anubhav Nath, Dandi March is a code that demands aesthetic decoding through direct action and involvement by the Indian contemporary artists

We wanted to experience Gandhiji’s Dandi March. We wanted our fellow artists to experience it.

Hence, after considerable homework, I and Anubhav set out for the Dandi journey on 3rd November 2009. We visited Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. We took interviews with several Gandhians and local people. Then we followed the route, which Gandhiji had taken for reaching Dandi.

We saw villages. We talked to village elders and panchayat heads. We met Gandhians. We met youngsters who just didn’t care about us or Gandhiji.

The trip was an eye opener.

We decided to make two lists of artists; one who could march with us to Dandi and two, who could visit Dandi and villages with us on a quick visit. While making this distinction we were aware of the fact that many of our senior artist friends might have tight schedules as well as medical issues. We respect them.

In the coming chapters, I would be writing about our Dandi experience.

1 comment:

p said...

This sounds like a wonderful project...and thanks for your write up which is most educative...Gandhi in Noakhali with his staff is an equally compelling icon...All the Very Best in your project.Narayan Desai's 4 volume biography of Gandhiji has recently been translated by Tridip Suhrud for Orient Blackswan....Do check that out if you have not already...Narayan Desai is Mahadev Desai's son...