/ 4 September 2008

The Mahatma sanitised

The Satyagraha exhibition of contemporary Indian art, part of the Shared Histories — An Indian Experience festival, is painful.

Not for its evocative rendering of suffering under the jackboot of oppression or violence, but for the banal conceptualisation of the eponymous theme and the life of its founder, Mahatma Gandhi.

The stated aim of the exhibition is to “interrogate the notions of MK Gandhi’s Satyagraha and non-violence through the works of Indian artists”.

What it delivers is sanitised adulation of an individual who has achieved international sainthood. Nothing wrong here, but nothing new either.

Neither is there anything new in the iconography utilised for the majority of the work: Satish Gupta’s Dharma Chakra abounds with looms, and not much else; Seema Kohli’s Train to Freedom has, well, a painted blue train with airplane boarding passes (as opposed to train tickets) stuck on to canvas; Rohit Sharma’s Walk for Nation is a 125cmx150cm acrylic painting with Gandhi, unsurprisingly, walking out of a red background on to a white plane in the foreground.


Questioning the importance and resonance of Gandhi’s life and message is not the aim of this review. But in the continuous acquiescing of art, historiography and politics to the “man as martyr paradigm”, rather than the man as a human being with faults and all, we undermine the aforementioned resonance and importance.

Allowing for complacency in discourse around, and production of, art, historiography and politics where Gandhi is concerned really amounts to a sort of cultural anaesthesia.

In Jay Naidoo’s 1989 essay, Was Gandhi’s South African Struggle Inspired by Race, Class or Struggle?, included in the Robert A Huttenback edited book, In Tracking Down South African Myth, Eight South African Cases, he noted Gandhi’s complaints when passive resistors (including Gandhi himself) were classed in prison cells with indigenous Africans. “Perhaps in a rather naïve way,” he wrote, “Gandhi endorsed non-miscegenation.”

Questions also hang over Gandhi’s early struggle credentials in South Africa: civil rights campaigner or guardian of Indian merchant-class interests?

In this exhibition, scant emphasis has been placed on these questions. There is no interrogation of the man at a particular time in history — an upper-class lawyer who had come to South Africa from a rigid caste-divided India under the British Raj — or his transformation.

Surely the journey from alleged wife-beater to saint is more interesting, and more pedagogical for sinners like myself, than the mere end result of that journey?

Satyagraha exhibits at Johannesburg’s Sandton Art Centre, Sandton Square, from September 5 to October 5