There at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi, Rabindranath Tagore’s works are mounted in a well curated exhibition. And in the old wing at the same premises you see the works of one of the pioneers of Indian documentary photography, Kulwant Rai curated by Aditya Arya. A couple of kilometers away from there, you can see Mati Ghar, an art gallery with an ethnic look at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) where an exhibition of Indian and international cave art is mounted in a curious fashion. And a few meters away from there you come across the National Museum, the prime institution of Indian art. Interestingly these three institutions are spread around the landmark spot, India Gate where on a Sunday afternoon thousands of people throng to enjoy sunlight, kites and a bit of nationalism. While motorists find it difficult to park their cars in the vicinity of India Gate and visitors find not an inch to move around. However, these three institutions sport a desert a look with the exhibits stay brooding on their fate.
Whenever times permits I visit these galleries, allow myself to be soaked in a sort of feeling that either you get inside a mausoleum or a deserted patch of land that drags you often with its sheer loneliness. Works of art return my vacant gaze and the more you spend time there the more you feel like talking to ghosts. Invisible fingers touch you as you stand in front of a wall text and read through the lines that explain a part of history that you did not know existed. You feel a tinge of eeriness at your nape as you loiter along the dimly lit corridors flanked by frozen moments of cultural history captured by genuine souls. May be when you stand in a mall or in a market place too you get the same feeling provided if you are deeply alone and are communicating with the innumerable moments of history happening right in front of your eyes in the form of mundane occurrences.
(The place where Gandhiji was shot at)
If you look at the romantic poets and painters you see them moving away from the maddening crowds and settling themselves in a remote land, under a tree, with a book or painting materials and some inescapable dreams. While sitting there they see the visions of life and the truth of life beyond our naked eyes. Romantics are romantics because they want to go away from their immediate reality to find another reality that looks more real than the given real. They romance with time and not with space. For them space is a medium to engage time and the lonely plateaus, hills, valleys and the flight of fancies are the spaces that they choose to engage with the time that is not caged by the clocks and watches. Grave yards are one of the spaces where time transcends to eternity and most of the creative people have this secret romance with a cemetery. Whenever I travel by cemeteries I feel like stopping there, walking along the mounds and marble slabs and forget rest of the things happening around the world. It is here you get a perspective about life in utter silence created by dead people sharing their life’s secrets with earth.
May be that’s why artists and people who love art visit museums; the mausoleums of dead works of art that have gained a spirit status in their due course of travel from an artist’s studio to the final resting place. But people are afraid of visiting museums because they are afraid of listening to silence and reading the frozen moments. They are afraid of museums because they lose a sense of space and they are transported to Time. They want to remain in space and time at once so that their sense of immediately felt realities is kept intact. The moment the time-space correlative breaks your imagination and experience change their dimensions and you will have to take off to a different plane of understanding life. In contemporary galleries often such engagements are impossible why because the temporality of space does not allow the time to make manifestations. The work of art is so close to you in time and the artist’s history is so familiar that you keep your viewing attached to the givens than the perceptions. In a museum, the tags are like epitaphs, though they do inform about the works and the artists, they force you to detach from your time-space constraints. A museum liberates you the way a graveyard does.
(Mera jeevan hi mera Sandesh hai- My life is my message)
That’s why I visit Gandhi Smriti or any museum that has something to do with Gandhi. In Delhi, less than three kilometers away from the National Museum, at the Tees January Marg, one could see the former stately Birla House where Gandhiji stayed during the last 144 days of his life. It was here on 30th January 1948, Gandhiji was assassinated. Today it houses one of the largest museums of Gandhi’s memory and the latest addition is a multi media interactive program on Gandhi’s life and vision by the noted multi media artist, Ranjit Makkuni. This museum has a perennial attraction for me not because it displays Gandhiji’s life through visuals and multi media programs but because it is one place where you could transcend time and space and be one with a time beyond your naked eyes. You feel Gandhiji’s life as the way you feel it in Sabarmati Ashram.
For me, Sabarmati and Tees January Marg are two ends of Gandhiji’s life. It was in Sabarmati, he formulated his plans for the independence struggle after docking back from South Africa. And at Tees January Marg, he became a martyr for the causes he held closer to his life. Unlike in other museums in Delhi, I see a lot of people visiting Gandhi Smriti. They stand in reverence and watch each exhibit with some sort of meditation. Foreign students and visitors click photographs and whisper their views to each other. They don’t giggle the way you giggle even in a temple. Gandhiji holds the grain of truth and the truth was his life and the exhibited objects you see the magnanimity of that simple life. At the preserved room of Gandhiji’s last day, on the blameless white wall a framed statement hangs in all its simplicity. It says, “My life is my message”. Who else in the world could reveal volumes of truth in that one simple unassuming statement? Space collapses into time and time collapses into space here.
(Gandhiji's room at Birla House)
It is not peculiar if one wonders whether Gandhiji’s life was one of the biggest, most enduring and alluring performative act. In fact, it was. Each of his acts of was choreographed and rehearsed by a sense of urgency and sincerity. He was aware of his deeds and each of them contained a meaning and a message. One of the copious letter writers of the world, Gandhiji had enacted more messages than he could put them into letters. I remember reading Thomas Weber’s study on Dandi March. Gandhiji had two bullock carts following apart from his disciples while he was walking from Sabarmati to Dandi. In one of the carts khadi clothe was stuffed which he sold in order to raise funds as well as to raise awareness amongst people about the necessity of eschewing foreign clothes and entering into a self-reliable economy. And in the other cart it was a specially designed commode that he used in regular intervals as he was very particular about his bowel movements. While sitting at the commode he wrote letters to the world leaders, friends, political leaders in India and elsewhere and to all those people who sought advice from him. Being a clever pragmatist he even asked money from those autograph seekers. With a smile he asked them to pay for his signature so that he could use that money for the national cause.
May be one is informed of Gandhiji’s life and one could connect. But what about all those people who visit this museum? Are they all informed and educated as anyone else is? What about those foreign visitors who come here because they know Gandhiji but not deep scholars of Gandhism? This is where I find Gandhiji himself as a work of art with a great effect both aesthetical and pragmatic all over the world. Like the godheads of world religion Gandhiji has become a god in himself and for me a god manifested in man is the right kind of god because such a god could deliver justice with the perseverance and discretion. Gandhiji is the just god who exists in the conscience of our socio-political imagination. Gandhiji’s image itself conveys that aesthetic catharsis that a great work of art in a museum could provide. That’s why despite the lack of proper historical knowledge people throng before the exhibited memorabilia of Gandhiji. That’s why may be even a three year old child looks at the benevolent portrait of a smiling Gandhiji and says, ‘Gandhaji’. Which artist in the world has got that blessing of being so popular even the toddlers would stand before his portrait and smile back at him as if he were his/her own grandfather?