Bapu doesn’t look like Bapu any more. Or at least that is what seems to be the point of artist Vivek Vilasini’s work Vernacular Chants II—a set of nine photographs of Gandhi statues and busts taken in south India. The idea was born when Vilasini visited the town of Attur in Tamil Nadu to pick up some granite for his sculpting work. On his way to the granite dealer, he had to take a turn at the town’s Gandhi statue. “I found that it looked nothing like the great man,” he recalls. “Instead, Groucho Marx was staring down at me. That’s when the idea of putting this work together occurred to me.”
Sculpted by Vivek Vilasini. ‘Vernacular Chants II’ is a series of photographs of Gandhi statues. (clockwise from top left) A statue resembling L.K. Advani; a Tamilian face, smeared with ash; a Groucho Marx lookalike in Attur, Tamil Nadu; and a C. Rajagopalachari lookalike. At Saffronart Gallery, Mumbai, till 15 February
Soon after, Vilasini set off on a two-week expedition with his brother to photograph Gandhi statues and busts, and managed to capture 30 cement sculptures. Nine of these make Vernacular Chants II. Most of them have been shot in Tamil Nadu.
“The visualization of Mahatma Gandhi seems to have become imaginative, and it speaks volumes about the open-mindedness of Indians,” Vilasini says. A Gandhi statue that he found outside a municipality office in a town near Salem, Tamil Nadu, looked uncannily like Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Lal Krishna Advani. The resemblance probably has nothing to do with the town’s political allegiance, says Vilasini, as the BJP doesn’t have much of a presence in the state. “In all probability, it just speaks of the artist’s imagination,” he says.
Vilasini also stumbled on a statue which reminded him of his high school art teacher. “If Mr Das shaved his head, he’d look like that,” he says. Another statue he spotted by a bus stand resembled C. Rajagopalachari, or Rajaji, independent India’s first governor general and father-in-law of Gandhi’s son Devdas. One, in front of a temple, looked very Tamilian, complete with sacred ash smeared on the forehead.
“It (my work) is rather humorous, and yet makes a socially relevant statement,” the artist says. “As I toured towns and villages looking for Gandhi statues and busts, I found that while there were plenty of them, most of them were neglected. They got attention only once or twice a year.”
Vilasini’s work, infused with humour as well as satire, has already provoked some Gandhi loyalists to question whether the artist indeed visited these places and photographed statues that exist, or sculpted them himself to make a point.