Let’s Talk: The Story and Discordance of Framing Gandhi

Kochi Biennale Foundation hosted riveting discussion between Ashis Nandy and Vinay Lal 


Kochi, July 14: The coming together of two formidable intellects sparked an engrossing conversation on the iconography and instrumentalisation of Mahatma Gandhi as distinguished theorist Ashis Nandy and eminent historian Vinay Lal participated in an evening discussion here on Thursday.

The erudite chat was the centerpiece of the latest entry to the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s (KBF) popular ‘Let’s Talk’ seminar series. Titled ‘Gandhi and the Politics of the Image’, the event more than lived up to its billing as a packed conference room at the BTH sat in thrall of two scholars in their element.

Prior to the discussion, Professor Lal – an authority on the architecture of nonviolence and its most famous exponent – delivered a talk on the visual afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, delving into the myriad imageries around his figure both before and after his assassination near seven decades ago.

“We are today, almost seven decades after his assassination, in a phase of reinterpreting and reframing Gandhi’s place in larger Indian history beyond the mythmaking. There are many Gandhis – as many for his proponents as his detractors,” Prof Lal said.

On insights a contemporary student of Gandhi might be able to derive from a study of these images and prints, Prof. Lal said, “There exists a dialectic between the individual, singular Gandhi and the masses: his positioning, state of dress, expression relative to other people in images holds keys to understanding the idea of Gandhi himself as he was viewed through the printmaker’s eye.”

After offering an overview of the visual practices that have informed representations of the Mahatma, Prof. Lal a more extended analysis of the ‘sartorial Gandhi’, “entering adult life vastly overdressed and ending it vastly undressed”, and the ‘martyred Gandhi’, “entering the canon of martyrdom and passing his legacy to be reworked by his contemporaries and antecedents for their own purposes”.

In the discussion that followed, Nandy noted that “many images of Gandhi are neither artistic nor realistic since this reduction is a way of installing such a larger-than-life figure into localities and homes as a permanent yet personally manageable, even negligible, presence of some kind”.

“Images often provide us with an opportunity to reconcile traditions. For example, I cannot think of a more discordant image than situating Gandhi next to Vivekananda,” Nandy said.  

KBF Secretary Riyas Komu was in attendance.

The event was hosted by the KBF with the support of the Backwaters Collective – a prominent academic community of which both Nandy and Prof. Lal are members – and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

The KBF will be collaborating with the Backwaters Collective on its annual conference on metaphysics and politics, the sixth edition of which gets underway on Friday at the Le Meridien in Kochi.

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