Mohan to Mahatma

Before he became the Mahatma, or even before he came to be widely known as Bapu, Gandhi was Mohandas. The vast bulk of his autobiography (translated into English and published as a book in two parts in 1927 and 1929) and Satyagraha in South Africa (1928) are devoted to these early years. In 1932, Gandhi was approached by Oxford University Press to publish a version of his life story for “boys in Indian schools,” and his able assistant for many years, Mahadev Desai, drew on these memoirs to assemble My Early Life, a text that has been quite overlooked in the vast scholarship on Gandhi. Spending yet another term in a colonial prison, Gandhi supervised its production, reviewing the final proofs in March 1932. It was deliberately decided to end the abridged memoir in the year 1914. “All that the reader, however young, has heard of Gandhiji in recent years will be found in germ in what has gone before.” In other words, the germ of the phenomenon that is Mahatma lay in his life as Mohandas or, as he was inclined to refer to himself in these years, M.K. Gandhi. My Early Life is quite simply a derivative book, with virtually no new sentences or novel ideas. Nevertheless, for an understanding of what Gandhi wanted the children of India to know about him, it is an indispensable text. Its omissions are just as revealing as what it chose to incorporate from the parent texts.
Gandhi clearly wanted the children of India to know that the time he spent in London between 1888 and 1891 studying to become a barrister, and the two decades in South Africa between 1893 and 1914, were critical and formative. They enabled him to chart a different course from what was otherwise an indifferent childhood. “I passed my childhood in Porbandar. I recollect having been put to school. It was with some difficulty that I got through the multiplication tables. The fact that I recollect nothing more of those days than of having learnt, in company with other boys, to abuse our teacher, would strongly suggest that my intellect must have been sluggish, and my memory raw.” Soon after he graduated from high school, the teenage Mohandas set out for London. “It was an uncommon thing for a young man of Rajkot to go to England,” he recalled later. The description for children of his time in London, although much abridged, follows the general course that he laid out in his autobiography for adult readers. His misadventures with the wrong kind of clothing in the empire’s capital, and his worrying over his vegetarian diet are shared. Some omissions are not surprising, such as his near escape from encounters with “women of ill fame”; others are revealing, such as the fact that he was out-casted by his fellow Modh Baniyas for daring to leave India’s shores (Fig. 2).

His two decades in Durban and Johannesburg as barrister and activist (to which much of his published autobiography is dedicated) is quite foreshortened in My Early Life. But the text does cover critical moments such as being thrown out of his first class train coach in Maritzburg, being “lynched” in Durban, and his first imprisonment; learning to be self-sufficient as well as dedicating himself to a life of service; taking up the vow of celibacy as well as the cause of “untouchables”; and the establishment of his communal homes, Phoenix Settlement (1904) and Tolstoy Farm (1910). Not least, Gandhi writes about setting out on the Great Trek in November 1913 with 2,037 men, 127 women, and 57 children. A few months later in July 1914, he said goodbye to South Africa, “where I had passed twenty one years of my life sharing to the full in the sweets and bitters of human experience, and where I had realized my vocation in life.”

In the vast body of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and installation works produced by professional and gallery artists of India, there is some attention paid to Gandhi’s time in London “playing the English gentleman,” and in South Africa where his reputation as Mahatma was laid. Among the earliest of artists to do so is Goa-based Laxman Pai (b. 1926) whose visual biography of Gandhi charted over 12 works included two titled Birth, Marriage, Education—in England and Life in South Africa (Fig. 4; Fig. 5). In contrast to such “child-like” images, a majority of artists recreate moments from his life before Gandhi became Mahatma by turning to the photographic archive of studio photographs, grainy snapshots, and outdoor shots. Retrieving these, they have provided them a new sheen, and an afterlife. Two works of Bombay-based S.V. Haldankar (1882–1968), perhaps from the 1950s, offer good examples of such photo-realism (Fig. 6; Fig. 7), one based on a photograph that the young Gandhi took in London to send back home to his family, and another possibly shot in a Johannesburg studio around 1906 where he looks every inch the successful barrister that he was. Artists like Madras-based K.M. Adimoolam (1938–2008) and Mumbai-based Atul Dodiya (b. 1959) also visually recall Gandhi’s career as a barrister in their works in the signature styles (Fig 8; Fig. 9).

Other artists have used historical photographs to generate new meanings. Thus, the much-circulated photograph from 1906 of Gandhi as a successful barrister has been repurposed in a recent painting by Ahmedabad-based Manhar Kapadia (b. 1965), in which Gandhi appears the very the epitome of an English gentleman, although the fiery background alerts us to a new direction to come (Fig. 1). A photograph taken by the Reverend Joseph Doke (Gandhi’s first biographer) has been enlivened by Kochi-based Riyas Komu (b. 1971) and supplemented by an important detail. In Komu’s painting, the object that Gandhi holds in the photograph now has a key date inscribed on it, 9/11/1906, the day in Johannesburg at the Empire Theatre which launched his public career as a disobedient activist with his defiant call to resist the so-called Black Act (Fig. 10).

In particular, a photograph attributed to M. Fine from late 1913 or early 1914, of Gandhi in the garb of a humble laborer, has been recalled by artists like K.M. Adimoolam (Fig.11), Vadodara-based Gulammohammed Sheikh (b. 1937), and most recently and dramatically by Ghaziabad-based Nawal Kishore (b. 1977) who by adding wings transforms a subaltern activist into an angelic savior (Fig. 12). Not least, in a powerful work titled His Satyagraha and Ours, Sheikh captures the essence of an emergent argument among professional artists (and scholars) that Gandhi’s time abroad was critical to the making of an Indian Mahatma, the map of world drawn on the man’s face (Fig. 13). An innovative exhibition in 2011 at the Lalit Kala Akademi curated by New Delhi-based Gayatri Sinha consolidated this argument. Titled Tolstoy Farm: Archive of Utopia, the exhibition showcased many young and senior artists’ visual homage to Mohandas as he transited towards his status as Mahatma.

The child artists of Mani Bhavan have also contributed visually to this important argument of Gandhi’s formative years abroad, especially in South Africa as a barrister and as a disobedient activist (satyagrahi) taking on the cause of social justice when confronted with racism. Repeatedly over the years, Mumbai’s school children have been invited to paint on themes such as “Gandhiji in South Africa” (1990); “Gandhiji, the Victim of Color Bar” (1993, 2002); “Barrister Gandhiji” (2012), “Gandhiji in Train Compartment” (2013), and so on. In contrast to many a professional artist who turns to the historical photograph from the archive, the children draw on their contemporary sense and imagination of what a prosperous lawyer like Gandhi might look like (perhaps also influenced by court scenes they have witnessed in Indian films!) (Fig. 14). They paint in the Indian flag or scales of justice, and insert words such as satyameva jayate, “truth alone triumphs” (digital album, 38, 39, 42, 43). In doing so, they visually echo Gandhi’s words from My Early Life, “As a student I had heard that the lawyer’s profession was a liar’s profession. But this did not influence me, as I had no intention of earning either position or money by lying. So far as I can recollect, I never resorted to untruth in my profession, and a large part of my legal practice was in the interest of public work.”

One of the most dramatic moments of Gandhi’s younger life—that has become the stuff of nationalist legend—is from mid-1893 when, despite holding a first-class ticket, he was pushed off a train in Pietermaritzburg on a cold night because he was a “colored” man (Fig. 15). As he narrates it in his autobiography and repeats for the benefit of his young readers in My Early Life, the hardship to which he was subjected was “a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process.”

The child artists of Mani Bhavan have captured this moment in dramatic ways, likely drawing also on their knowledge of commuters on crowded Mumbai trains, in the guise of one of whom Gandhi is frequently shown. Rishit, a student in Standard VI at Dr S. Radhakrishnan Vidyalaya in Malad, even has Gandhi riding on a train from the town of Vapi to Porbandar, the city of his birth (Fig. 16)! In other pictures, the train is variously identified as belonging to “African Rail,” “National Govt. Railways,” and in one case even as “USA Govt” (Fig. 17). Occasionally, as in Aarya’s painting from 2013 (Fig. 18) or Maitri’s from 2017 (digital album, 52), Gandhi is painted as a brown man, but interestingly, many others do not distinguish between the Indian and the European. In the imagination of Vaidehi, a student of Standard X at Children’s Academy, the essential righteousness of Gandhi’s cause is confirmed by books with titles such as “Book of Laws” and “Gandhi’s Law” that also tumble out of his luggage as he is thrown off the coach (digital album, 53).

Young Sneha of Standard V in the Gopi Birla Memorial School inscribes words that one imagines would have appealed to Gandhi himself, portrayed in her painting as “the victim of colour bar: white & black” (Fig. 19):

The story of night at Maritzburg Station
The story of right at Maritzburg Station.

Similarly, in a painting in which “Barrister” Gandhi is imagined as an old man cruelly cast onto the platform, young Anagha rhetorically asks, “Such a great man was thrown out of the train because of racism?” (इतक्या महान व्यक्तीला वर्णद्वेषामुले गाडीतून उतरविण्यात आले?) (Fig. 20). As much as anything else in the vast archive on Gandhi, this child’s question encapsulates the essential motivation that sparked the transition from a hapless Mohandas into the righteous global icon that was the Mahatma. As Gandhi himself announced to the young reader of My Early Life, “God laid the foundation of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.” Filoni, a student of Standard V at Nanavati School, brilliantly visualizes the sentiment behind this statement in her Barrister Gandhiji. Her painting connects to the archetypal half-female, half-male ardhanarishvara manifestation of Shakti and Shiva (digital album, 43). As the South African barrister Gandhi morphs into the Indian activist, both Bapu himself (with his trademark glasses) and two children, painted in the background, bear witness to this critical transformation from Mohandas to Mahatma.

Select References
M.K. Gandhi, My Early Life (18691914), Arranged and Edited by Mahadev Desai. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1932.