For a man who dressed quite minimally after September 1921, Gandhi spent a good part of his time and thoughts prior to that date preoccupied with what he wore. Drawing upon photographs and cartoons, as well as Gandhi’s own extensive reflections on the matter, anthropologist Emma Tarlo provided a marvelous account in 1996 of his numerous sartorial transformations over the span of his life, arguing correctly that each change was of political-ethical import. Gandhi’s final decisive—and most remarked upon—sartorial move was on the morning of 22 September 1921, when he first appeared in public in Madurai, wearing what came to be widely referred to (also by him) as his “loin cloth.”
In her pioneering work, Tarlo however omits the fact that India’s artists—in his time and since—have also taken note of Gandhi’s experiments with dress and undressing, using the power of paint and brush. A large number of these artists revel in drawing and painting Gandhi as a bare and spare man, the rich brown of his partly clad body cast into greater relief by the stark whiteness of his undyed dhoti (Fig. 1; Fig. 2). In mass-produced pictures meant for everyday consumption, the shiny brown body of Gandhi stands out as the artist portrays him sitting with his chest uncovered and knees and legs exposed, writing, reading, speaking, and of course, spinning (Fig. 3; Fig. 4)
Many artists also visually recall on canvas and paper earlier moments when Gandhi stepped out of his natty black suit and tie into the simple garments of the indentured laborer in South Africa, or when he adopted what came to be referred to as “the Gandhi cap.” The veteran Bombay-based S.V. Haldankar (1882–1968), for instance, captured this transition in two works based on photographs credited to B. Gabriel and N.V. Virkar respectively (Fig. 5), as does the Mumbai-based Sudhir Patwardhan (b. 1949) drawing upon a photograph attributed to M. Fine (Fig. 6). A recurring figure in luminous works by Vadodara-based Gulammohammed Sheikh (b. 1937) is a slight-bodied Gandhi clad in loose trousers, shirt, and a cloth cap (Fig. 7)—in turn a visual citation from another work dated to 1921 by the Bengali painter Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951).
In March 1932, while spending one of his many terms in a colonial prison, Gandhi authorized the publication of My Early Life, a much-abridged version of two of his important books—his autobiography (published in English in two volumes in 1927–29) and Satyagraha in South Africa (1928). My Early Life was explicitly meant for “boys in Indian schools.” It is worth noting that even in this abridged version of his memoirs, Gandhi chose to include his sartorial experiments prior to 1914, which he deemed worth sharing with his young reader. Thus, he writes about how he made a fool of himself arriving in Southampton in September 1888 clad in white flannels, that he was reprimanded in London for touching and stroking another man’s silky top hat, and that he was quite “infatuated” with “affecting the English Gentleman,” spending a good bit of his meager allowance at a fashionable tailor’s getting the right clothes, ties and shoes, and a silk hat. He concludes this chapter of his life revealingly, “This infatuation must have lasted about three months. The punctiliousness in dress persisted for years.”
Over the years, the organizers of the art competitions in Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya have invited the children of Mumbai to paint “Gandhiji in Western Dress,” “Gandhiji as an English Gentleman,” and “Barrister Gandhiji” (1994, 1995, 1999, 2017). Of course, like many others, the children too typically draw their beloved Bapu as a dhoti-clad man, his chest bare (or covered with shawl), and a staff in hand (digital album, 8, 11, 18, 19, 26, 27, etc.) (Fig. 8). But the children also rise to the challenge of portraying him in Western clothes, presenting images that are a welcome relief, one might argue, from the standardized portraits of Gandhi in Western clothing that the professional artist has produced based on photographs (digital album, 32, 33, 38, 39, 42, 43, 49, 52, 53) (Fig. 9; Fig. 10)
One young girl—Nishi, a student of Standard III in Children’s Academy—even clad him in soldier’s fatigues, holding a gun and defending the Indian flag (Fig. 11). Indeed, if we did not know that these images belong to an archive of paintings on Bapu, we would not necessarily realize that the man in these works is in fact Gandhi. Cumulatively, these children’s paintings serve to confirm that clad in the clothes of “the English gentleman” or “the barrister,” Gandhi was like any other man, unremarkable, even pedestrian. It is when he adopted the bare and spare look of the poor Indian peasant that he acquired his distinctive iconographic persona. This is an important truth that emerges from this archive of child art.
In My Early Life, Gandhi also familiarized his young reader with the (mis)adventures that ensued after he arrived in Durban in 1893, dressed in “a frock-coat and a turban, an imitation of the Bengal pugree.” Indeed, a seed of his career as a disobedient activist was undoubtedly cast soon after, around the question of the turban that the white magistrate in a Durban court asked him to remove, “which I refused to do, and left the court.” Some years later, Prabhudas Gandhi recalled a moment when he was growing up in the Gandhi household and his granduncle felt that it was appropriate to put on his turban to greet the great Indian nationalist Gokhale who was visiting South Africa in 1912.
I had heard a great deal about Gandhiji’s turban though I had never seen him wearing one. But newspapers had made it quite famous. I had seen many pictures and cartoons of Gandhiji wearing a turban. It was nearly a year and half earlier that Gandhiji had given up practising law. While closing down his office he had also closed down his house and sent away everything from Johannesburg to Phoenix except a few clothes suitable for life on the Tolstoy Farm. Now he wanted his turban to be brought out from among the discarded clothes. Kasturba was not quite sure if the turban was still fit to wear, since it was an old one. Still she looked for it and handed it the next day to Magan kaka to be sent by parcel post to Gandhiji. The turban was boat-shaped made of card-board with a thin covering of black muslin, which had at places frayed… A few days later I saw pictures in the Indian Opinion of the welcome given to Mr. Gokhale on his arrival. In one picture in an imposing open carriage were Mr. Gokhale and Gandhiji wearing his turban which suited him well.
Likely because of the large number of Gujarati boys and girls among Mumbai’s children, Mani Bhavan’s convenors also invited the young child artists to paint “Gandhiji in Kathiawadi Dress” over the years (2005, 2008, 2013, 2016), Kathiawar (or Saurashtra) being the specific subregion of Gujarat where Bapu was born and spent his early childhood. In January 1915, when Gandhi returned to India permanently having secured for himself a reputation as a champion of the downtrodden and disenfranchised, he adopted for a few years the guise of a Kathiawari peasant, “a highly self-conscious and somewhat strange choice, particularly as he had spent so little of his adult life in Kathiawad and was not even from a peasant family,” in Emma Tarlo’s estimation. The Mumbai child artist paints Gandhi as a Kathiawari with great exuberance, pride of place frequently given to his turban, young Rusabh and Saloni adding the words, “adopt native [clothing]” for good measure (digital album, 58, 59, 62, 63) (Fig. 13; Fig. 14; Fig. 15). There is no specific photograph that seems to provide the basis for such drawings, mostly their imagination.
In contrast, professional artists draw on photographs from this period of Gandhi’s life to visually dwell on Gandhi’s Kathiawari peasant look. In a beautiful Portrait of Young Gandhi, loosely based on a photograph by Bombay photographer N.V. Virkar, Mumbai artist Akbar Padamsee (1928–2020) zooms in on Gandhi’s face and its elaborate headwear (Fig. 16). Audaciously, in his Two Fathers from Gujarat, Kochi-based Riyas Komu (b. 1971) reminds us that both Mohandas K. Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah hailed from the same part of the subcontinent, and had similar backgrounds as London-trained barristers. Neither man was of peasant stock. Jinnah did not ever assume the look or persona of the prosperous peasant, but Gandhi’s attempt to do so is what brought a specific distinction to his politics and influence. Jinnah became the Qaid-e-Azam (“Great Leader”) and Baba-e-Qaum (“father of the nation”) of Pakistan, while Gandhi is enshrined as the Mahatma (“Great Soul”) and Bapu (“father of the nation”) of its rival, India. They were however (Gujarati) twins for a good part of their lives—until they parted ways (Fig. 17).
The irony of course is that despite his enormous symbolic investment in his clothing changes, Gandhi frequently instructed the children of India to not become infatuated (as he himself had in his youth) with outward appearance. Speaking, for example, in July 1920 to students at the Satyagraha Ashram in Ahmedabad, he insisted, “Real beauty shines through one’s virtues. We should impress others by our virtues, not by our looks.” He also told them, “If you wish to appear handsome, do not put on gaudy garments but cultivate virtues. If you become virtuous, you will positively appear handsome and you will be honored wherever you go.”
I give the last word on this matter for now to Sanika, a student of S.M. Shetty High School, who in a painting in 2017 has Gandhi (although not recognizable as such!) clad in Western clothes, posing against a map of South Africa, where he had made his mark as a barrister pleading for rights of “black people” against “white people” (Fig.18). Nattily dressed though he might be in a brilliant blue jacket and striped necktie, the young child has him insist—in words that would indeed resonate with the Mahatma’s all those years ago: “There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.”
Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 17: 539–40.
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 Emma Tarlo, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.