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In the Footsteps of Spectres: The Aesthetics of Gandhi's Walks.

IN FEBRUARY 2019, ALONGSIDE TWO DEAR friends and comrades, Sushmit Prabhudas and Chirag Mediratta, I walked from Dandi to Ahmedabad, following the route that the Salt March took between March 12 and April 6, 1930, but in reverse. We stopped at each place the marchers did, and spoke to the people who live there today (figures 1-7). We asked if there remained any stories of the march they may have inherited; if there were any among them who had either seen the march as infants (there were but one or two), or grown up with lore about where, say, Gandhi and his marchers had spent the night, or who in the village had fed them (and what). Where these stories no longer cohere or exist--this is true of almost everywhere--we were interested in teasing out the new narratives that Gujarat and Gujaratis are telling themselves. That our rivers have no water in them, the canals lie dry, the air is largely unbreathable, and everywhere the detritus that comes in the wake of what the state calls "vikas" is omnipresent. These are almost self-evident findings. That there is bonded labour or neo-slavery in the sugarcane fields centred around Bardoli (1) in south Gujarat--something Jan Breman (2) has been warning us about since the late 1970s--or that the gross exploitation of migrants who come to work in the brick kilns in and around the Bharuch district is fierce: this is also known.

I felt compelled to undertake this walk, and to do it in 2019, in the shadow of what I anticipated was going to be a viciously fought general election, because I was curious about the spaces between swaraj--the "swa" indicates the self-reflexive journey inwards which must inform "raj" or the ability to rule--and vikas, which, to my mind, is postulated as an external activity--something done unto us, not with or by us. And I knew we had to walk to Ahmedabad: Dandi is what Gujarat was; the megapolis of Ahmedabad--and one can smell, feel and taste this city three days before one actually walks into it--is what Gujarat is.

If a bridge--a structure suspended between, and therefore connecting, two points--is liminal (3) for it lies "betwixt and between", (4) and walking, an act which connects two points in space and time, serves as a bridge between them, then any walk is liminal. It is a space-time implying a suspension of prior epistemes. A walker walking is suspended between two worlds: the old order s/he has left behind, and a new one as yet unassumed. In liminality, the possibility of restructuring begins anew: it is with the loosening of the socialized cords that bind us that we can dream of not what is, but what can be; to ask even the questions we "haven't known to ask yet". (5) It is a seductive space, this loose, liminal time of the walk: it would be very easy to let it become the thing; to stay in this contextual (and simultaneously context-free) Utopian ideal that privileges movement as a way of knowing; sensorial learning, experiential epistemes. Henry David Thoreau warns us that it is only when we are "ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again"; (6) only when we have paid our debts, made our wills and settled our affairs--when we are truly "free"--that we are ready to walk. However, in this seeming non-attachment to place and rootedness lie the seeds of a new kind of attachment: the attachment to movement, the attachment to the movers moving alongside you, the birth of a new community.

Showing us that this isn't a binary set of propositions was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was neither afraid of liminality nor reintegration. His Constructive Programme held paramount the importance of people learning to root themselves in the communities they were a part of or worked in: to let the sphere of their actions be the distance their feet could carry them. And yet his own "karma-bhumi" was all the world, and so he walked.

Walking meant different things to Gandhi at different times. In London, as a poor (and initially, starving) student, what may have started as an exercise in thrift quickly turned into a yen for exploration, almost verging on flanerie. In South Africa, his walks signified the purpose and organization which must underscore agitation, during the Great March of 1913, for example (figure 8). And in India, when he undertook the long march to Dandi which rent with finality the fabric of Empire, the walk was his chosen method to lay down this gauntlet. Equally, it was a means of learning--doing ethnography--as in Orissa on the Harijan Yatra of 1934; and a lonely and contentious way of restoring balance with-in and with-out when he walked, a broken, lonely old man, in Noakhali in 1946 (figure 9).

Am I suggesting Gandhi's most radical ideas came to him while he was on his feet? I have no way to substantiate such a truth-claim empirically. But by the same coin, I can't think of an absolute way to debunk it either. If a walk is liminal and therefore allows for the creation of the "new", it is imbued with the power of generation. The Gandhian walk seems to speak to Ramanujan's concept of the overall tendency of societies to idealize either context-sensitive ("one rule for the ox and the lion is an injustice") or context-free ("thou shall not kill") formulations. (7) He argues that each seeks its other. India, the epitome of a context-sensitive society, is constantly looking for salvation from context: moksha from life-cycles, sphota in semantics. What if the Gandhian walk afforded Gandhi the space-time, in an almost ludicrously public life crowded with incident, precisely such a release? The opportunity to reflect and meditate on; to generate and synthesize the old with the new?

How does one read these Gandhian walks in terms of aesthetics? Further, what did the term "aesthetics" mean for Gandhi? What are its politics? In the 100 volumes currently comprising the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, never once does Gandhi use the term. The words "art", "artistic" and "beauty" abound though, and if there is a theme that runs through their usage, it is that most of the time, he cites beauty in the context of landscapes; nature--the "natural" world. For example, he goes into raptures over the artful artlessness of a stage set up in water at a conference on the banks of a river in Vedchhi: "I have seen many conferences, but in point of unstudied beauty, I have not seen one like this. I see no exaggeration in these words. It seemed as if nature herself had invisibly arranged everything. In my opinion, true art consists in learning from nature, without struggling against it." (8) This is a theme he revisits while offering a definition of art in a conversation with G. Ramachandran, where he holds, much like the Romantics and Thoreau did before him, that there is nothing as affective as nature, and that "true Art must help the soul to realize its inner self..." (9)

What we seem to be edging towards is a collapsing of categories between aesthetics and spirituality. Another example of this is to be witnessed in a letter Gandhi received while on the Harijan Yatra in Orissa, and it talks about the "aptness" of walking for this pilgrimage. Both the letter and Gandhi's response to it are affective in the extreme, and they were published in a piece titled "In Praise of Walking" on July 20, 1934:

"Your pilgrimage makes my heart sing. It is a yajna (sacrifice) worthy of those for whom you perform it.... I feel all aglow when I think of it. Somehow your rushing about in a motor-car in the cause of Harijans seemed to be queer, incongruous. I see this as a wholly spiritual problem, and that you should approach it on foot, as a true pilgrim, satisfies me through and through like perfect music, or a magnificent sunset.... People say, 'But how many villages can he cover on foot?' My heart says, 'Yes, but how many souls he will touch!' Surely, souls matter more than villages and one pilgrim is worth a thousand propagandists. How I wish other fellow-workers will realize the beauty and the necessity of pilgrimages on foot for Harijan work. People's hearts cannot be touched by a mad rush through space. They can be by quiet, personal, intimate contact with them. Rushing in motor-cars and railway trains dazes one and makes one powerless for clear thinking for the time being...." (10)

Surely this is an aesthetic choice as much as it is a spiritual one and, as alluded to above, these seem to mean the same thing for Gandhi. If his is an aesthetic that elevates/celebrates--the natural as art, then his walks are simultaneously political as well as aesthetic: they are interactive performance pieces; quasi-spiritual spectacles. For him, the aesthetic--just like the social and political--is only true and deemed worthy of being affective if it is suffused with the spiritual. Moreover, he would hold that our understanding of any of these categories would be glaringly incomplete without the other/s. Here is a case in point: the ashram music teacher Pandit N.M. Khare was one of the original marchers, highlighting the role of music in "performing" prayer on a journey itself couched in sacred iconography, and seen as a pathway to accessing what Gandhi privileged over all else: adherence to his Truth.

Jacques Ranciere holds that the politics of aesthetics is responsible for the "distribution of the sensible" in society: an exploration of how the arts are responsible, in many ways, for "the parcelling out of the visible and invisible" (11) in a given place, at a given moment. In this sense, what is the relationship between movement and the depiction of movement for Gandhi, avid writer/ subject of endless hordes of photographers? An inkling of this is to be extrapolated from Gandhi's obvious distaste of art-ifice. En route to Dandi, Gandhi gives a serious talking-to to those who had organized hurricane lamps for the night walk from Aerthan to Bhatgam for his meeting there on March 29, when all he sought was lamps lit yellow into the night: "Why can I not lecture in the dark? Why do people want to see my face? There is no reason why the audience should want to gaze on the features of an old man like myself. These lights are merely a sample of the extravagance I have in mind," he scolded. (12)

The same spirit is seen in his warning to photographers: that they should never ask him to "pose". From Walter Bosshard to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White, Gandhi placed the same injunction, even though he would have been aware of their presence. Therefore every image of Gandhi we consume today is mediated by this knowledge, and his simultaneous attempt to rise above it and carry on "doing other work". (13) The attempt seems to have been to ensure high iconic fidelity, in the semiotic sense of the term where the relationship between the signifier (photographs of Gandhi moving) and the signified (the idea of Gandhi actually or physically moving) is not arbitrary: a photograph of Gandhi on the move co-related strongly with, and would only have been possible, when he was actually on the move (figure 10).

We can never walk the same walk twice, even on the same route. So in that sense, much like its representation in still images, is not every walk a fragment of frozen time? More, it strikes me that the Barthesian concepts of Studium and punctum are also closely related to how we (are able to) see what we see. In one sense, Studium is the charting of a discursive field. Barthes holds that Studium "always refers to a classical body of information". (14) In this, one can take either a studied or general interest, but it won't automatically elicit emotional responses. What he is suggesting is that we are primed to react to/process images in pre-determined ways. However, there is a second element which can "break" studium. This, Barthes calls punctum, and it comes to the viewer unsought: it pricks or "wounds" her, even as it has the power to punctuate, to "expand" (15) our engagement with an image. What are the studium and punctum of the frozen time of a photograph of Gandhi walking? What changes when, as in some of Bosshard's images for example, he is merely one among many in a frame? Isn't that the point of a "mass" movement?

As an example, the studium of a photograph by Bosshard (figure 11) would mean that those in possession of the code "Gandhi" would immediately be able to place the setting of this image as pertaining to events that took place during the nationalist movement. It is obvious from the orientation of the masses who have come to see their leader just who is the focal point of this image. The punctum--what makes this more than just another image of a sea of humanity come to gaze upon an old man--comes in the form of the woman in the foreground visibly scratching her head; a gesture that is quotidian but that makes her stand out in the frame, guiding the viewer's eye from left (Gandhi) to right (the people). In addition--and perhaps this is the most telling punctum here--the expression on every face save Gandhi's is severe. Upon his lips plays the only smile there is to be seen in this image, and it humanizes him. Man of the people. They touch him. He is of them. He is real.

So what is there left for me to tell you about the walk, if I don't, as Gandhi insisted on doing in the fiery speech at Bhatgam on March 29, "turn the searchlight inwards"? (16) The physical aspects of the walk were the easiest to cope with: it was everything else that would take a lifetime to come back from. What I started thinking about then, and what I keep with me now that the walk is walked, is the notion that in a neoliberal order where everything is mediated by markets and we are forced into ever more atomized and reified existences, friendship and love are truly radical acts. Late capitalism seems to work by dismembering social orders, but friendship--mindful, considerate, empathetic and extending beyond the fraternity that we afford only other human beings--can provide us with radically transformative forms of kinship. Walking alongside people who took the time to tramp across Gujarat with me, bearing witness to the same things I did, experiencing the fatigue, the exultation, the heartbreak of the route and everyone we crossed on it--surely such companions make us more of who we are. On friendship and its radical power to create, Ivan Illich says, "It is from your eye that I find myself. There's a little thing there. They called it pupilla, puppet, which I can see in your eye.... Pupil, puppet, person, eye.... It is you making me the gift of that which Ivan is for you." (17) Perhaps the only way to keep Gandhi among us is to try and find ourselves in his eye, and him in ours--the eye photographed, the eye written into existence. Let him make us the gift of that which we are, and while walking, that which he whispers we can and must be.


(1) See this study for more: arat-sugarcane-harvest-bonded-labour (accessed on October 18, 2019).

(2) Jan Breman, The Jan Breman Omnibus, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008.

(3) Liminality is derived from the Latin "limen" or "threshold", and means to always be "on the verge of". Arnold van Gennep singled out rites of passage as a special category for investigation, and held that these rites comprised three subcategories: rites of separation, transition rites and rites of incorporation. He called the middle or transition stage the "liminal period". From Arnold van Gennep, Rites of Passage, Routledge: London, 1960, p. 11.

(4) Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967, p. 93.

(5) Neil DeGrasse Tyson says this in a National Public Radio interview with Dave Davies on February 27, 2014. The transcript is accessible here, in a piece titled "Neil DeGrasse Tyson Explains Why The Cosmos Shouldn't Make You Feel Small": transcript/transcript.php?storyId=283443670 (accessed on October 18, 2019).

(6) Henry David Thoreau, "Walking", The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. ix, No. LVI (June 1862), archive/1862/06/walking/304674/ (accessed on September 27, 2019).

(7) A.K. Ramanujan, "Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay", Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1989), p. 41.

(8) M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (henceforth CWMG), Vol. 25, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Trust, 1967, p. 41.

(9) Ibid., p. 249.

(10) CWMG, Vol. 58, pp. 212-13; emphasis mine.

(11) Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, New York: Continuum, 2004, p. 19.

(12) Thomas Weber, On the Salt March: The Historiography of Mahatma Gandhi's March to Dandi, New Delhi: Rupa, 2009, pp. 309-10.

(13) Gayatri Sinha, "Bosshard's Experiments with Gandhi", The Hindu, October 20, 2018.

(14) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, p. 26.

(15) Ibid., p. 45.

(16) Weber, On the Salt March, p. 307.

(17) This is from an interview Ivan Illich gave to Jerry Brown on "We the People" on March 22, 1996. The full transcript can be accessed here: http:// (accessed on October 18, 2019).


Rushdie, Salman. 1990. Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta.

Thomassen, Bjorn. 2009. "The Uses and Meaning of Liminality", International Political Anthropology, Vol. 2, No. 1.

Caption: 1 Gandhi Mandirat Traisa, abutting the dharamsala where Gandhi and the Dandi marchers rested while in the village.

Caption: 2 and 3 Yatri Niwas in Samni, where Gandhi is said to have spent two nights on his way to Dandi. The renovated building now houses an anganwadi.

Caption: 4 and 5 This is believed to be the spot where Gandhi rested en route to Surat. There is little clarity about whose home it was: the author was told by the family of the current owners that it belonged to Gulabbhai Akhubhai Patel, while Thomas Weber and other scholars write that Gandhi stopped at the home of Vasanji Akhubhai Desai.

Caption: 6 Dandi Beach, February 2, 2019.

Caption: 7 Old railway bridge across the Tapi that the Dandi marchers took into (and the author and her friends took while leaving) Surat. The Tapi is one of the few rivers in Gujarat in which water still flows.

Caption: Figures 1-7 are courtesy Sushmit Prabhudas and Chirag Mediratta.

Caption: 8 The march led by Gandhi in Transvaal in 1913 to protest racial discrimination against the local Indian community.

Caption: 9 Gandhi walks alone in Noakhali post the riots of 1946.

Caption: 10 Gandhi makes his first halt during the Dandi March at Aslali near Ahmedabad.

Caption: Figures 8-10 are courtesy Gandhi Heritage Portal, Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, Ahmedabad.

Caption: 11 Gandhi among his followers during the Dandi March. Photograph: Walter Bosshard. [c] Fotostiftung Schweiz/Archiv fur Zeitgeschichte.

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Author:Siganporia, Harmony
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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