It all started with the three monkeys. Over 2007 and 2008, contemporary artist Subodh Gupta created an installation with three 6ft-tall sculptures made from antique steel and copper utensils. He called them Gandhi’s Three Monkeys at his solo show titled Still, Steal, Steel at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery in spring 2008. But unlike Gandhi’s familiar mascots—the three primates who cover their ears, mouth and eyes to guard against evil—these figures are geared to shield themselves from the mechanics of war. Of the three large human heads, one wears eyeshades, one wears a gas mask and the third, a helmet.
Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, 2 October, is celebrated worldwide as the International Day of Non-Violence. By turning his mascots into a testament of violence, Gupta creates ironic art that compels one to rethink the premise of war and peace.
While Gandhi has always inspired artists, there has been a rapid rise in artworks influenced by him in recent years. Delhi-based curator Vidya Shivadas from the Vadehra Art Gallery offers an insight: Gandhi attracts artists because he was essentially a great artist himself.
The Spinning Hero and Zero by Simanta Baruah was sold by Easel Gallery at the India Art Summit in August for Rs5 lakh
“Artists pick certain tropes and give them new meanings and that’s really what Gandhi did himself. For instance, the salt-making Dandi march was not just an act, it was a deeply symbolic gesture because references to salt making go across cultures. It is even mentioned in the Bible. Gandhi’s bare feet, his khadi…the man was all about symbols,” says Shivadas.
Shivadas points out that certain Indian artists, such as Atul Dodiya, have employed Gandhi as a recurring motif throughout their careers.
Lately, however, several young artists have turned Gandhi into a tour de force. One reason for this could be that trends are a weighty factor in the contemporary art world and Gupta, who has risen to international acclaim over the last decade, is a trendsetter. Another could simply be that the issues emerging artists, such as Debanjan Roy and Balaji Ponna from Rabindra Bharati University in Santiniketan, wish to point to—mindless modernization and capitalism—are best highlighted when juxtaposed against the man who stands for quite the contrary.
In his India Shining series, artist Roy uses Gandhi as a metaphor for an India of austerity that is fast disappearing. His fibreglass sculptures are striking not only because of their size, but also because of their precision and their colours: cherry red and metallic silver. In one of the installations, Gandhi is a call centre employee and in another, he listens to an iPod. In these artworks, one can see Gandhi running into, and adopting, the ways of the new, materialistic India. “I try to convey the notion that while many of the newfangled ways may have been alien to the old India and sit a little awkwardly, Gandhi’s India is, nonetheless, open and receptive,” Roy says in his artist’s statement.
Roy’s headphone-wielding Gandhi got such a warm reception in the US earlier this year that its host gallery, Aicon, released a limited edition of miniature versions. Two such miniatures were at Aicon’s stall at the India Art Summit in New Delhi (19-22 August). And they made news by virtue of being the first sales of the summit, selling on the day of the preview itself. Arjun Sharma, director of Delhi’s Select Citywalk mall, bought Gandhi on a Reclining Chair and Gandhi Bust with Headphones, for Rs50,000 each. Sharma says what appealed to him about the artwork was Gandhi’s curious placement in a modern setting: “These sculptures achieve this contrast without trivializing the man. I wouldn’t have bought them if they had Gandhi smoking a cigarette or sipping a cola.”
(left) Gandhi by Stephane Cipre uses the letters G-A-N-D-H-I in wrought iron to create the face of a smiling Mahatma. Priced at Rs25-35 lakh at the Marigold Fine Art Gallery. (right) Bapu’s new clothes: India Shining 6, Gandhi Walking the Dog by Debanjan Roy. Fibreglass with acrylic paint.
Not all references to the father of the nation have been positive, however. Artist Ashim Purkayastha, who hails from Assam, believes that Gandhi’s short-sightedness is responsible for the way the North-East is alienated from the rest of India today. His series of postal stamps, Man Without Specs, created between 2002 and 2006, show Gandhi without his trademark glasses.
Gaurav Assomull, CEO of Marigold Fine Art Gallery, points out that while most love Gandhi-inspired art, it has relatively few buyers. He refers to the French sculptor Stephane Cipre’s 12ft-tall wrought iron sculpture that presently sits at the gallery, unsold. “The work is impressive and at Rs25-35 lakh it isn’t really overpriced for an artwork of its size. Everyone who sees it is awed but having a large piece like that in your driveway or office is a big political statement that few are willing to commit to.” Marigold has sold smaller versions of the same piece for Rs8-15 lakh as well as various other Gandhi artworks by Cipre over the last six months.
Sharma, who has housed the two Gandhi miniatures in his office space, concedes he isn’t sure if he would have purchased the life-sized pieces in the India Shining series.
The message then seems to be: We like Gandhi in our artwork, but not when he is larger than life.
Gandhi’s run in the art and auction world will continue to be in full force for the rest of 2009. Select picks:
• ‘Detour’ by Chemould Prescott Road gallery, December
Five photographers—Sonia Jabbar, Ravi Agarwal, Samar Jodha, Ram Rahman and Dayanita Singh—will work around the theme of Gandhi’s ‘Swaraj’ movement. The show will run alongside a two-day conference on ‘Hind Swaraj’ by the Mumbai based organization Jnanapravah.
• ‘Sculptures for Street, Branches for Birds’ by Balaji Ponna, November-December
As a follow-up to his ‘Two Gandhis’ sculpture that was displayed at the India Art Summit, artist Balaji Ponna is now working on a series of fibreglass sculptures, including an impressionistic model of Gandhi.
• Gandhi portrait and photographic memorabilia by Bid & Hammer, Fine Art Auctioneers, November
On offer will be a Gandhi portrait (unsigned and unknown artist, oil on canvas, 1948) and several photographic collectibles, including one that shows Gandhi with Motilal Nehru, A. Rangaswamy Iyengar, Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel.