Bapu’s Martyrdom

The apostle of non-violence met the most violent of deaths, felled by three bullets at the hour of dusk as he walked to his prayer meeting in New Delhi on 30 January 1948. Over the years that the painting competitions have been conducted at Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya, despite the violence of the moment, Gandhi’s death has been offered as a theme for the child artist to consider (in 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2005). However the archive of surviving images suggests that this was not the most popular of subjects. Among professional artists of India, on the other hand, the Mahatma’s death is a subject that rivets them to this day, as I discuss in my Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience. Unfortunately, with the rising tide of Hindu nationalism in India, his assassin Nathuram Godse, too, is attracting a lot of renewed attention, some even planning temples in his name and unveiling his portrait or icon.

On 30 May 1932, Gandhi sent a message while incarcerated in Yeravda Central Jail to residents of his Sabarmati Ashram. Reprinted in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, with the title “Lesson of Death,” it begins, “So far as I remember, the following deaths have occurred in the Ashram till now: Fakiri, Vrajlal, Maganlal, Gita, Meghji, Vasant, Imam Saheb and Gangadevi. (It would be desirable to record the dates on which these persons died).” It is perhaps not surprising that the message begins in such a matter-of-fact manner. From the time he started reflecting on death, Gandhi’s attitude can best be described as dispassionate and indifferent, even nonchalant, as the conclusion of the message confirms:
Our earth is like a particle of sand in this vast universe. On that particle of dust, we are, so far as our bodies are concerned, mere specks. We cannot count the number of ants in an anthill, and cannot even see with our naked eyes creatures smaller than the ant. In relation to the Cosmic Form of the Lord, we are smaller than even the invisible creatures on our earth. That is why there is perfect truth in the description of this body as kshanabhangur [transitory]. Why should we be attached to it? Why should we cause pain to a single creature for its sake? Why should we move heaven and earth to preserve something which is more brittle even than glass? Death means nothing but the soul leaving that body. Why should we fear it, then? Why all this desperate struggle to delay its coming? Let us all, grown-up and young, ponder over this constantly and give up the fear of death, and, while the body lasts, spend it in the service of others.
Given such an attitude, it is not surprising perhaps that many of Gandhi’s admirers in the professional art world present his death as a serene passing, despite the violence of his ending (Fig. 2). This is particularly the case with images produced for the mass market, which tend to show the Mahatma meeting his (violent) end unflappably, even joyously, with “the strength of coolness” (to invoke his words) (Fig. 3; Fig. 4). Such images are also true to Gandhi’s yearning for a violent end, stated with increasing frequency as he grew older but also in the face of the violence unfolding around him as British India hurtled towards independence marred by a partitioning of territories, peoples, and resources.

To return however to the message of 30 May 1932, among the eight deaths of ashram residents that he named, three of them were of young children: Gita, Meghji, and Vasant. All three died on account of smallpox, their parents following their leader’s advice and refusing to vaccinate their children. The deaths occurred some days before Gandhi with 78 other residents of his ashram embarked on his famous march on 12 March 1930 to break the salt law. One of the marchers was the ashram musician Narayan Moreshwar Khare, the father of young Vasant whose passing was very quick, we learn. In Gandhi’s words, young Gita “passed away peacefully, hearing verses from the Gita.” The third child Meghji was usually an undisciplined sort, but under Gandhi’s care—when present, the Mahatma generally nursed ashram residents when they fell ill—he “preserved wonderful peace during his illness.” Gandhi was apparently disturbed on the passing of these children to the point of being unable to sleep, though in an earlier letter of 21 March 1932 to Premaben Kantak, the resident teacher at the ashram, he also insisted, “The thought of what will happen after someone’s death springs from foolishness, not from human attachment. Everyone is to die sooner or later. Knowing this, why should we worry over death? Moreover, having surrendered ourselves as puppets in the hands of the Master, how can we bargain with Him? He may make us dance as He wills. After all, what matters is that we should be able to dance.”

Gandhi was nothing if not consistent in this regard, even when he wrote condolence messages to children when their loved ones passed away. Thus, on 5 January 1934, he wrote to Chhotubhai Kunvarji Mehta (whom he liked to call “Napoleon”) on the death of his mother Ganga, “There was a girl called Lucy. She had six brothers and sisters of whom some had died. Still she used to say that they were seven. That implied great wisdom. For, it is not through the body that somebody is a brother or a sister. It is through the soul dwelling in the body that one is a brother or a sister. And the soul does not die. It only changes its abode. Just as man does not live in a useless house, the soul also does not continue to dwell in a useless body. Gangaba will live on in a new body. Why should you grieve for her?” In My Early Life (1932), the much-abridged version of his autobiography that he published explicitly for young readers, Gandhi recalled the death of his firstborn (when both he and his wife were still teenagers). The “poor mite,” he writes, “scarcely breathed for more than three or four days.” Given the circumstances that preceded the birth, which he explicitly connected to “the double shame” of engaging in sexual intercourse with his young wife at a moment when his father lay dying, “nothing else could be expected.” Memoirs of children who grew up in Gandhi’s care also confirm that he was dispassionate when his own kin passed on, most poignantly his wife of many decades, Kasturba, in February 1944, which has been recorded in intimate detail by his 15-year-old grandniece Manu in her diary. His grandnephew Prabhudas recalled Gandhi receiving news in South Africa of the passing of his brother Karsandas in distant Rajkot in June 1913. The news reached him via a telegram. “Gandhiji quietly glanced at the telegram and putting it in his pocket, went on with his work.” At the evening prayers though, he shed some tears and spoke of the body as transitory, and hence also of human and worldly attachments. In Prabhudas’s recall, “At this stage, Gandhiji was overwhelmed but soon controlled himself and continued. ‘It is wrong that I should be shedding tears. We have no right to indulge in sorrow. Our only duty is to remember the good qualities of those who die. Crying over death is a sin. Why should we consider God’s acts to be wrong? Death claims all.’ After this Gandhiji engaged himself in the normal routine of the day.”

Thus, death is a natural outcome of life. And yet for all of his preoccupation with living in harmony with nature, Gandhi died the most unnatural of deaths, at the hands of an assassin. Over the decades, the presentation of this brute fact regarding the last minutes and the death of the father of the nation to the children of the nation has varied. For example, the 2008-comic book titled Mahatma Gandhi: Father of the Nation published in the widely-read Amar Chitra Katha series graphically visualizes the scene of the murder and the aftermath (Fig. 5; Fig. 6). On the other hand, a 2015 graphic novel for young readers (in the Great Lives series of Scholastic Publishers) titled Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, stops short of visualizing the actual moment, the last picture in the book an image of Gandhi with his hands together in greeting  (his would-be assassin) (Fig. 7). The book then switches completely to a verbal register, names Nathuram Godse as a “Hindu fanatic” who “fired three shots—one in the stomach and two in the chest.” The young reader is then informed, “Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was no more…a Mahatma was born instead, to live on for centuries to come.”

Mani Bhavan’s child artists give us similar portrayals. In 2005, ninth-grader Bhavika of the Children’s Academy paints her beloved Bapu lying on the ground, clutching at his bleeding chest, his staff and his watch strewn around him, his gun-toting assassin accosted by one of the bystanders (digital album, 237). On the other hand, Prashant, also a ninth-grade student studying in Kumud Vidya Mandir, captures the moment of killing as it is happening, Gandhi still in full stride towards his assassin who shoots him with a revolver. As the blood from Bapu’s chest flows down copiously, the child inserts the words, “The fruits of Gandhiji’s sacrifice: Sacrifice!” (digital album, 236).

Such images also resonate with mass-printed images of Gandhi’s assassination that circulated around the time of his death in January 1948. Consider two different approaches to the murderous moment from the prolific artist Prabhu Dayal of Kanpur. In one scenario, the artist sketches the micro-second when Godse fires the fatal shot, the trail of the bullet fired from his revolver occupying the very center of the print, Gandhi still upright even as the blood from his torso begins spewing to the ground (Fig. 8). In another, Dayal paints the moment after Godse has fired his shots; the people gathered for prayer surge into action, some cornering the assassin—a revolver prominent in his hand—while the Mahatma’s young grandnieces Abha and Manu reach for his body, now in free fall under the force of the bullets; others mill about in a state of shock and obvious distress (Fig. 9).

For the child artist of Mumbai, as indeed for numerous professional artists, Gandhi’s death is clearly a “sacrifice,” young Arnika, a sixth-grader, even using it to announce, “Bapu, we will not let your sacrifice go in vain. We will strive to uphold the glory of Mother India” (digital album, 232). The bleeding figure of Bapu in her picture approximates the shape of the map of India, while Mother India or Bharat Mata offers her blessings. Similarly, in the works of professional artists who painted images for the mass market, Gandhi’s death is pictured as an offering to Bharat Mata, who in turn extends her blessings to him, cradling him in her arms like a mother would a child. The man who had aspired in his living moments to be “childlike” might have been pleased with such a pictorial affirmation of the last seconds of his life on earth (Fig. 10, Fig. 11, Fig. 12).

Select References
Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 49: 225, 494–96; 92: 447.
M. K. Gandhi, My Early Life (1869–1914), Arranged and Edited by Mahadev Desai. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1932.

Prabhudas Gandhi, My Childhood with Gandhiji: Foreword by H.S.L. Polak. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1957; and Sumathi Ramaswamy, Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2020.