Visualizing the Child with Gandhi

The child artists of Mani Bhavan show an affectionate penchant for bringing young boys and girls into the picture, and painting them in their Bapu’s company. In so doing, they are in an important sense correcting the visual record, for in the vast corpus of artworks on Gandhi—the most drawn, painted, and sculpted Indian leader of his time and since—the child is not a consistent or frequent presence. But when children do appear in the paintings of professional artists, they offer new revelations about the most written about Indian leader, otherwise hidden in the inherited texts about him.
One of the earliest paintings by a professional artist to bring the child into the picture is an evocative watercolor by Nandalal Bose (1882–1966), a painter whom Gandhi openly favored, and whose name (foreshortened to Nanda Babu) occurs quite often in his writings. Dated 8 June 1937, the work brings to life on paper a seaside walk in Tithal, a hamlet on the Gujarat coast that the artist visited on Gandhi’s invitation. In the crowd of men and women, we glimpse two children walking beside Gandhi who is clad in his usual white dhoti, a shawl partly covering his upper body, a staff in his hand (Fig. 2). In a letter dated 18 May 1937 to his confidante Amrit Kaur, Gandhi writes, “Yes, the sea breezes are fine. I wish you were here to share them. We walk through the sea water every morning and evening. It is a bracing walk. Kanu the little one enjoys it most.” It is tempting to see Kanam, son of Gandhi’s third son Ramdas, as one of the two children in Nandalal’s quiet watercolor.

As we know from children’s memoirs of growing up with Gandhi, he was wont to take his morning and evening walks in their company (digital album, 14, 15, 26, 27). As Narayan Desai (or “Bablo,” as Bapu called him) recalled in later life:

My earliest memories of Bapu are intertwined with those of Sabarmati Prison. Bapu would go for a walk each morning and evening. He would put his hands on the shoulders of those either side. These companions would then be Bapu’s “walking sticks.” We children were always given top choice for this job. Whether his human walking sticks were really any help to him, perhaps only Bapu could say. But as for us, being chosen always made us swell with pride. In fact, in our eagerness to be chosen, Bapu’s “sticks” would sometimes clash together.

Over the years, professional artists have painted Gandhi walking in the company of children, frequently drawing upon well-known photographs from other occasions (Fig. 4; Fig. 5; Fig. 6). In particular, they turn to a beloved image of the Mahatma walking on Juhu beach in Bombay in late 1937 or early 1938 with young Kanam, who has playfully grabbed his grandfather’s staff to take the lead. This photograph catches the eye of many of Mani Bhavan’s child artists, likely drawn to seeing someone of their age having such fun with their dear Bapu (Fig. 1; Fig. 3). The professional artist, too, might well be affectionately marveling at the father of the nation being led by the child, when they recall the scene in their works.

Professional artists have also repurposed another well-known photograph from 1944 of Gandhi nuzzling baby Nandini who happily clutches a banana. Nandini was the motherless niece of Gandhi’s devoted doctor Sushila Nayyar and her brother Pyarelal Nayyar who was his loyal secretary (and biographer). The Mahatma was much taken with the infant, even holding up her happy disposition as an example to one of his disgruntled older followers, “Be cheerful like Nandini,” he wrote at one point. Young Manthan, a student studying in Standard VII in I.E.S. Modern School, recreates this cheerful encounter between Bapu and the banana-carrying baby in his painting titled Loving Rastrapita [Loving Father of the Nation] (Fig. 7). But he is not the only one to do so. The Tamil artist K.M. Adimoolam (1938–2008) who grew up admiring Gandhi repurposed the photograph in 1969 (Fig. 8), as did Jaipur-based Gopal Swami Khetanchi (b. 1958) more recently in his Innocence (Fig. 9).

Indeed, children appear frequently in Khetanchi’s many paintings from his 2010 series Gandhigiri, including one with the suggestive title, Children Are the Father of the Nation, Not Me (Fig. 10) and another titled Happy Children, Happy Gandhi (Fig. 11). The latter work also recalls one of the earliest drawings by Maqbool Fida Husain (1915–2011) over the course of a prolific career in which he created numerous works on the Mahatma. In this early print, the artist enlists Gandhi for the cause of an elite furniture store in Bombay with the words, “Bapu loved to see happy and contented children: For your child’s happiness get a suite of fantasy nursery furniture” (Fig. 12).

The historic record shows that Gandhi broke his “self-purification fast” (undertaken against the sin of untouchability for 21 days) on 29 May 1933 with a glass of orange juice offered by his hostess, and a garland offered by a Harijan (or Dalit) boy. In the vision of an unknown artist painting the moment in a picture printed for the mass market, it is however the child who revitalizes the Mahatma after a grueling ordeal with an offer of fruit (Fig. 13). Similarly, a decade later when Gandhi undertook yet another 21-day fast in early 1943—to counter the colonial state’s impugnment of his non-violent motivations—his grandnephew Dhiren Gandhi imagines the child bringing solace to the fasting Mahatma in his woodcut titled Child—The Light Bringer (Fig. 14).

Over the past century or so, artists of India have imagined the child as not just a bearer of joy and light, but also wisdom, no one making the visual case more powerfully than Atul Dodiya (b. 1959). Like the child artists of Mani Bhavan, Dodiya is a resident of Bombay. Like Gandhi, he is a fellow Gujarati and a Kathiawari no less. “Gandhi was part of my growing up,” the artist has stated. “Even today, when he has become an official cliché, he is still powerfully alive to me. I mean, he is on every bank note, he is on every other coin, his portrait hangs in every government office, every third road is called Mahatma Gandhi Road, and of course, India has betrayed his vision completely. But his presence should remind us of his philosophy—his empathy for his fellow human beings, his concern with truth, justice, non-violence, and harmony. I was given this teaching as a young boy, and it has never left me. I read the original Gujarati autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, at the age of 16 or 17. Also, since I come from Kathiawar in Saurashtra, like Gandhi did, I feel a deep proximity to him.”

This sense of “deep proximity” has led Dodiya since the mid-1990s to produce a vast complex of moving and insightful works on the Mahatma across which the child flickers in and out, as in Morning Walk on Juhu Beach (Fig. 5), Bloodline (2004–06), and With a Child (2013). In a diptych titled Paramhansa Yoganand Reading a Note, August 1935, Dodiya cleverly retrieves from the archives a photograph documenting an important encounter in 1935 at Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram near Wardha between the Mahatma and the US-based but India-born founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, Mukunda Lal Ghosh aka Paramahansa Yogananda (Fig. 15). In his widely-read memoir, Yogananda writes in great detail about a meal with the Mahatma, but does not mention the child present on the occasion. Dodiya’s clever diptych pairing the photograph with Henri Rousseau’s Child with a Doll (1892) cues us to the child’s presence by Gandhi’s side, indeed occupying the space between the two men. The child in the photograph (and in Dodiya’s painting) is young Kanam Gandhi who, as his grandfather wrote in a letter from around this time to his grandmother, “always has his meals with me.” By his painterly act, Dodiya alerts us to the ubiquitous presence of children in and around the Mahatma on a daily basis.

Most powerfully and insightfully, the child plays the lead role in Dodiya’s magnificent Bako Exists. Imagine, a series of 12 large mixed-media paintings that the artist completed in 2011. Based on the poetry of fellow Gujarati Labshankar Thakar, each painting recasts a dream encounter between the Bapu and a young boy named Bako, their intimate exchanges recreated on faux blackboard canvases inscribed with faux chalk writing. Each captures mischievously but insightfully the dilemmas of being a sainted Mahatma alongside the tribulations of being a schoolchild growing up in the hustle and bustle of modern India. As they exchange their thoughts across the body of work, Bapu and Bako turn out to be utterly in sync with each other, the differences in their status and age vanishing. Here is an exchange from one of the paintings, in which the schoolchild’s utopia of an examination-free world is endorsed by the Mahatma (who too offered powerful critiques of an education system that deadened the imagination and sapped the spirit) (Fig. 16):

One day Bapu told me, “Bakaa,
There are no exams in your sleep.
No one needs to pass anything so no one needs to fail.”
“Bapu, no studies, no keeping count.”

In turn, in an exchange from another painting, the child commiserates with the Mahatma’s dread of being reduced to a statue (Fig. 17):

In our sleep, Bapu and I were taking a walk.
A crow took wing
From a nearby branch, cawing. I remembered.
“Bapu, I once saw a crow shitting on your bust.”
“Just happened to remember.”
“Any busts in your sleep?”
“You’re here. Why would I need busts?”
“They don’t let a stone remain a stone,”
Bapu said, striding along.
“They don’t let a man remain a man,”
I agreed, keeping pace with him.
“They actually make busts, can you believe it?”

Select References

Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 65: 217; 78: 232.

Narayan Desai, Bliss Was It to Be Young with Gandhi: Childhood Reminiscences. Edited by Mark Shepherd. Translated by Bhal Malji. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1988; and Sumathi Ramaswamy, Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2020.