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Ark, Saint, City, Cipher: The Gandhi of Gulammohammed Sheikh.

THE FIGURE OF MAHATMA GANDHI HAS fascinated Gulammohammed Sheikh throughout his artistic career. At least part of this fascination comes from their shared Gujarati identity (and in this sense is simultaneously biographical as well as autobiographical); the rest stems from Sheikh's deep interest in Gandhi's political ideas and historical role, as well as in the rich archive of the Mahatma's unique "experiments" of a moral, spiritual and sexual nature. Moreover, Sheikh has repeatedly turned to Gandhi not only to represent Gandhi himself, along with everything he stands for, but also to reflect on several important concerns that run throughout the painter's own oeuvre, in which Gandhi emerges as a symbol or a talisman.

If we consider Sheikh's continuous engagement with the problem of social harmony and sectarian violence, of secularism and communalism, indeed, with the basic dyad of Indian politics in the aftermath of partition which is Hindu/Muslim, then Gandhi becomes a key to unlocking a core thematic structure that permeates his work over decades.

Like the Gandhi that we see in newsreels and photos of the early 20th century--slight, sparsely clad, fast-walking, impatient, mercurial, agile--the Mahatma appears and disappears through a number of Sheikh's paintings. He punctuates the canvas with an ephemeral presence that is all the more vivid for being so allusive, so surprising and so necessary in a landscape crowded with a number of other figures from history and myth, memory and imagination.

Sheikh's Gandhi is often "cited" from widely-circulated representations by masters of the Bengal School of Santiniketan--Abanindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose--as also from Gandhi's own writings, the testimonies of his close ashram associates (available to Sheikh in the original Gujarati) and of course photographs from different stages of his life. Their linguistic and cultural affinities, as well as Gandhi's figuration, as it were, in modern Indian art's central dialectic between enchantment and secularization, all contribute to making him an indispensable companion and muse for Sheikh.

In recent lectures marking the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma, Sheikh has been speaking about "the idea of Gandhi" and lamenting the murder of this idea--almost a re-enactment of his brutal assassination by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948--under a regime of the Hindu Right. But this idea of Gandhi has never left Sheikh's own ideological consciousness and aesthetic repertoire. Sheikh's Gandhi works, perhaps numbering over half a dozen thus far, are all densely intertextual and referential, as is the artist's wont, citing from Mughal and Pahari periods, the Italian Renaissance, and the history as well as art of late colonial and nationalist-period India.

Further, he locates his Gandhi in the places in Gujarat--including Surendranagar and Baroda--where Sheikh himself grew up in the early years after independence and came of age as a painter and intellectual in the 1960s and '70s. But Sheikh also sites Gandhi directly or indirectly in other cities, like Ayodhya and Ahmedabad, where the artist, along with the whole country, experienced the rising tide of Hindu nationalism and its resultant political crises through the violent episodes of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the anti-Muslim killings of Gujarat in 2002. Today, the valorization of Gandhi's opponents and killers, men like Vinayak Savarkar and Nathuram Godse, makes a return to Gandhi all the more urgent for Sheikh and many other Indian artists, especially those of a secular persuasion.

Gandhi is thus made to move between the past and the present, traversing pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial India: he has the powers of a time-travelling yogi, who sometimes incarnates as a medieval saint and at other times as a modern mahatma. He is never monumental as, say, the Father of the Nation. Instead, he is a sort of talismanic figure, introduced as a reminder of the diminishing capacities for interreligious tolerance and coexistence, social cohesion despite communal differences and caste hierarchy, nonviolence as a philosophical ideal in the midst of both everyday urban violence and the periodic exceptional violence of riots and pogroms, and steadfast renunciation in the face of the relentless materialism of the modern world.

Sheikh repeatedly inserts Gandhi into the picture, so to speak, to provide a small but powerful jolt to our conscience. How could India both have produced, followed and venerated such a man a mere century ago, and, as seems to be happening in our time, repudiated, forgotten and abandoned him in every way? "Reading Gandhi today," Sheikh writes, "leaves you in a state of total despair as the voices of sanity and civilized conduct in our public life have been extinguished, dissent muzzled, freedom curtailed." Gandhi is, Sheikh continues, quoting his friend, the historian Sudhir Chandra, "an impossible possibility" (in Hindi: ek asambhav sambhavana).

The city is an important theme running through Sheikh's oeuvre, and with it, walls, temples, mosques, ghettos, streets, squares, homes, cinemas, markets, brothels, and most importantly, the people who inhabit and animate urban spaces. The city contains both public and private lives; it hosts both individual stories and collective destinies. The city is teeming with narratives and relationships. It is often intensely sexual and shockingly violent. In Gujarat, the city is unequivocally segregated. Gandhi appears in Sheikh's urban landscape, which can be colourful and figurative in some works, or spare and cartographic in others, as a spectral presence.

In Hind Swaraj, his political manifesto of 1909, Gandhi described Western civilization and industrial modernity as "kudharo", the wrong way, against the grain of both humanity and nature. The city being the exemplary artefact of modern life, Gandhi is not just a misfit in it--he has, in fact, a profound moral and ecological critique of it, prescient for how early it was articulated. Gandhi is on the one hand repelled by the city on account of his visceral distrust of the very locus of capitalist modernity, but on the other hand, he is also excluded from it. The dominant ideology driving the relentless pursuit of urbanization and industrialization, technology and development, strongly rejects the Gandhian preference for "sudharo", the right way, which was how he described Indian civilization before colonialism, based on village life, religious enchantment and unalienated labour.

Sheikh need not at every moment share Gandhi's aversion to the city, for he knows that modern India cannot be understood without its urban reality. But he is also cognizant of the urgency of the Gandhian alternative, that Ashis Nandy has called anti-modern or non-modern, the road not taken, as it were, thus bringing human civilization to the brink of catastrophe.

In Ahmedabad: The City Gandhi Left Behind (2015-16), Sheikh places on an ashen map of the city objects that are like the relics of a departed saint--Gandhi's unadorned brass bowl and plate, and his pocket-watch that he always carried, with his habit of unfailing punctuality (figure 2). In contemporary Ahmedabad--overbuilt, over-crowded, chaotic, polluted, with gridlocked traffic and an urban ethos completely overtaken by a culture of rampant greed and unsustainable consumption--these simple items used by the Mahatma remind us of his fiercely cultivated Jain virtues of asteya and aparigraha (frugality, noncovetousness, the eschewal of any kind of desire to acquire or accumulate worldly possessions). For capitalism, power springs from private property and material wealth: for Gandhi, power--Swaraj (self-rule) and Satyagraha (soul-force)--came, by contrast, from spiritual sources, from Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (nonviolence). No wonder he must leave the city behind.

In Walled City II (2003), however, the meanings of the city and Gandhi's relationship with it are rather different (figure 1). Here we see a group of people, probably Muslims, probably victims of mass violence, huddling together in their ghetto. They seem to be overwhelmed by enemies, their arms raised in distress, with no hope of escape. The overall canvas has the appearance of a translucent membrane, crisscrossed by a network of veins, with a blood clot--which is the surrounded group--at the centre. The city is a map and a tissue, a cartographic surface and a biological organism, and it has become autophagic: it is devouring a part of itself.

A small faint figure of Gandhi, immediately recognizable from the terrible sectarian violence of Noakhali in 1946--his head bowed, his shoulders bent, his stick planted as though carrying the entire weight of the impending partition--can be seen in the bottom right, walking alone. The riot in progress within the city walls rages regardless, forgetful of the difficult, painful and desperate work of communal reconciliation that Gandhi carried on by himself in the face of the subcontinent's own holocaust. The Indian body politic, of which the city is a microcosm, is permanently inflamed, infected and bruised; it has ejected Gandhi from its midst, unable to absorb his message of peace, healing and love. The Mahatma can no longer rescue beleaguered Muslims. The walls that corral them in simultaneously keep him out.

Another painting, Ark I made in the same year (2003), soon after the Gujarat violence of 2002, resembles Walled City II in its colours, the arrangement of elements, and the size of the work (figure 3). The very same Gandhi of Noakhali appears, but here he is at the centre of the canvas, not off to one side. He is also much larger. The forms arising all around him--at first glance, flames of an inferno--on a second glance resemble white birds of peace flying up into the sky. He is standing in an ark, and appears to be midway between one set of dwellings and another, presumably going from Hindu to Muslim villages as he did in Bihar and Bengal in 1946, staunching the fires of communal hatred in the settlements of both groups.

Alligators snap at his feet and at the edges of the ark, but he cannot be harmed by them. A single giant oar--not wielded by anyone--projects from the ark into the river. The water below and the air above are all awash in soothing hues of cream and pink. An indistinct figure, not clearly male or female, sits at one end of the ark, with what looks like a smaller figure in its lap. He/She wears a blindfold, and holds up a circular object in one hand. Is this individual beckoning Gandhi, speaking to him, singing for him, showing him a mirror? Is he/she there to guide the boat? Who is this person? A mother with her child? Or someone else, a blind minstrel maybe, with a tambourine in hand?

The imagery of the ark becomes much clearer by the time we get to the digital collage titled Ark, which is part of the Kaavad--Home series of 2011 (figure 4). Here again we see Gandhi, but this time much younger, wearing a white dhoti-kurta and a Congress cap, quoted from a well-known painting by Abanindranath Tagore (showing M.K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and C.F. Andrews in conversation about the non-cooperation movement in 1921). He sits at one end of the ark. The ark floats in swirling waters but also holds a still, calm waterbody within it, studded with a number of tiny figures of Hindu, Sufi and Christian ascetics, as well as Sheikh's friend, the painter Bhupen Khakhar, at his easel.

The ark we now realize is quoted from Nainsukh of Guler, the Pahari master, and specifically from his work Boat Adrift on a River, c. 1765-75. The palace and the mountain that form part of the cargo are taken from Nainsukh. The island at the top of the painting is Surendranagar, Sheikh's hometown; the mood of the work is contemplative rather than catastrophic; here Gandhi is seated rather than walking; he is middle-aged and about to enter Indian politics rather than old and nearly at the end of a long and tumultuous political journey. The figure whom he faces across the length of the boat is clearly Kabir, the medieval poet, shown as a weaver, quoted from the mid-18th century painter Mangal Chattera.

Their dialogue is between a medieval poet and a modern politician; between a Muslim and a Hindu; between a lower-caste julaha (weaver) and a higher-caste bania (trader); between past and present; and together, they balance the ark through its course across turbulent waters. From the crimson and orange of blood and flames in the 2003 paintings, the palette is now in cool tones of blue, green, grey and sepia; the effect is watery rather than fiery; the ark itself is steady rather than about to capsize. The dangerous alligators have disappeared.

This vessel, which is both Nainsukh's ark and Noah's ark, shelters all that is precious in India's history of interfaith dialogue and interreligious understanding, its plural and syncretic traditions, and its spiritual resources for the succour of all sorts of diverse communities. Here Gandhi is not the mode of firefighting in an emergency situation of utter social breakdown and civil war, but is rather part of a larger civilizational ethos where all of us may be rescued and saved, to arrive together in safety at a farther shore.

It is as though Sheikh, now much older, begins to see that India is as much a repository of stories about reflection, salvation, liberation and transcendence as it is a warning about every type of violence, exclusion, inequality and cruelty that is possible between human beings. Gandhi too, as a symbol, can be polymorphic and multivalent. In the latest work to be considered here, Gandhi Meets Shaikh Phul (2019) (figure 5), we are once again with Abanindranath's Gandhi, this time in an encounter with Shaikh Phul, another medieval mystic, quoted from a painting by the Jahangiri artist Bishan Das (Shaikh Phul in His Hermitage, c. 1610). Shaikh Phul is at his hut and Gandhi is at his ashram, both elegant stripped-down unassuming structures set in a verdant background.

Once more Sheikh uses Gandhi to stage a conversation between religions, classes, castes and historical time periods, to enact a samvad or dialogic exchange between Indian modernity and its many pasts. Each in his own way, Kabir, Phul and Gandhi are all mystical figures, and part of a continuing stream of popular religiosity that draws equally from Hinduism, Islam and a variety of other traditions, owned and understood by ordinary people for a millennium. Those same people may engage in genocide and rape at some moments; at other times, they use a vast toolkit of habits, practices, beliefs, rituals, myths and strategies that they have evolved over centuries to cope with differences and live with and among others. This is the toolkit we call "secularism" in the Indian sense of that very complex term.

For Sheikh, Gandhi is both the cipher and the saint of secularism.


Gulammohammed Sheikh, Lecture at India Habitat Centre, Sahmat Lecture series commemorating 150 years of Gandhi, New Delhi, November 23, 2018.

Gulammohammed Sheikh, Lecture at the India International Centre, Raza Foundation's Gandhi Matters series, New Delhi, September 19, 2019.

Gulammohammed Sheikh, "Viewer's View: Looking at Pictures", Journal of Arts and Ideas, No. 3 (April-June 1983), pp. 5-20.

Gulammohammed Sheikh, "Reading Gandhi in Our Time", Social Scientist, Issue No. 550-551, Vol. 47, Nos. 3-4 (March-April 2019).

Ananya Vajpeyi, "Conclusion: The Sovereign Self, Its Sources and Shapes", in Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012, pp. 243-50.

Ananya Vajpeyi, 'An Ark for India",, Issue 14 (June 2019), pp. 8-13.

Karen Zitzewitz, "The Everyday Life of the Communalized City: Gulammohammed Sheikh", in The Art of Secularism: The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 99-122.

Caption: 1 Walled City II, Gulammohammed Sheikh, 2003. Gouache on paper; 38 x 28 cm. Collection of Jayashree Bhartia. Courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery.

Caption: 2 Details from Ahmedabad: The City Gandhi Left Behind, Gulammohammed Sheikh, 2015-16. Casein and pigment on canvas; 202 x 354 cm. Courtesy the artist. For the full image, see Sumathi Ramaswamy's essay in this issue.

Caption: 3 Ark I, Gulammohammed Sheikh, 2003. Gouache on paper; 38 x28 cm. Courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery.

Caption: 5 Detail from Ark, from the Kaavad--Home series, Gulammohammed Sheikh, 2011. Digital collage; 20 x 10 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Caption: 5 Gandhi Meets Shaikh Phut, Gulammohammed Sheikh, 2019. Watercolour; 56 x 76 cm. Courtesy the artist.

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Author:Vajpeyi, Ananya
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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