In Delhi-based artist and architect Gautam Bhatia’s latest show, the Father of the Nation is on a steamer; near a newspaper kiosk; running a marathon; jumping over a hurdle wearing a T-shirt that says USA; in front of a military tank; or cuddling a dog in a village that looks like the Swat Valley on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, with a bearded Pathan carrying a Kalashnikov. All these and more, with Gandhi’s image superimposed on the vignettes that form parts of “middle-class Indian life” constitute Bhatia’s deliberately misleadingly titled exhibition, Through the Eyes of Gandhi.
“This show is not an experience through the eyes of Gandhi at all,” says Bhatia over the phone from Delhi. “It is a deliberate subversion of what he represents to Indians. It’s my way of mocking at our Indian middle-class values and mores through Gandhiji. So you have the Father of the Nation doing most of the things which the contemporary Indian middle-class does. My point was to take a rather extreme view of the Indian middle class, satirize its materialistic and consumerist character through the image of Gandhi,” Bhatia says.
Photo: Gautam Bhatia
Most of the photos on which Gandhi finds himself are pictures from some of the old issues of LIFE magazine. Some of these are rather iconic images that have represented their eras. Gandhi finds himself with Jackie Kennedy; at Wimbledon with John McEnroe; or at the Olympics beside gymnast Nadia Comaneci. All these attempts, Bhatia would have us believe, is his shaking up of the complacent collective attitude of the Indian middle-class.
“We have a rather underdeveloped sense of the bizarre,” explains Bhatia, “so as an artist one has to scream to be heard in India. One has to make extreme statements even to get one’s ear. There is no place for subtlety,” he laments. The things that we do, Bhatia feels, are quite the opposite of what Gandhi, his life and values, represent.
Photo: Gautam Bhatia
In more open societies, there is a marvellous tradition of the absurd in aesthetics. When Bhatia was in the US as a student in the 1980s, Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi was a hit. “One liquor company ran a TV ad in the US which showed a Gandhi-like person sitting at a bar, taking a sip of the beer and declaring ‘What a good way to end a fast!’…The point of that advertisement was not to misuse Gandhi, but to show how ridiculous Americans are, and the ridiculous things people will do to sell and consume beer. Now, if you did something like that in India, people would get offended.”
Was there some immense disappointment against society in his work that he had to deploy Gandhi to make his point? Is there a misfortune in Gandhi being born in a country ungrateful to the values he espoused?
“Yes, I feel sad that we as Indians were so lucky to have someone like Mahatma Gandhi—whose values have become increasingly relevant today—but have not lived in the direction that he wanted. In a sense the middle class has failed this country with its excesses, corruption, and ruined our cities. My show, I guess, is an expression of that feeling.”
Through the Eyes of Gandhi is on at Apparao Gallery, St Mark’s Road, Bangalore, till 30 January.