(Excerpted with permission from the book GANDHI IN RAZA, which will be launched alongside a solo show of seven paintings created in 2013 by the iconic modernist painter Syed Haider Raza as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, being unveiled as a set for the first time to commemorate Raza’s 95th birth anniversary by Akar Prakar gallery.)
Mridula ben has asked me to write something on Bapuji. This has put me into some embarrassment. Language, after all, is not my medium. Moreover, to air my feelings for so intimately dear a person is both awkward and uncomfortable. I know the plea is useless. But wasn’t this why I called him ‘Bapu’, and not ‘Mahatmaji’? We have deep love for each other; a bond of affinity has been forged between us that’s all. And this disinterested love shall endure. It is endless.
He is strong and pure, noble and fearless in his concern for doing good to others. He has love for all men, limitless compassion for all creatures, and he has staked his life for restoring a degenerate and oppressed land to its former glory. For even his ignorant adversary he has only pity and non-violence. His indomitable power and defiance of death derive chiefly from his self-possession and complete lack of self-interest.
Anguish for human misery has turned him into an unpossessing hermit working for the well-being of others all the time. He has subdued his senses, and has accepted God as his chosen. These attributes of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi overwhelm me.
What a miracle took place when, yearning for India’s freedom, Gandhiji went on the Dandi march! The entire country was roused with confidence in some unique strength. Glory filled my heart. I felt blessed and life became meaningful.
After that, when I came to learn that he also had deep trust and affection for Dwijendranath Tagore—the revered thinker, and for Gurudeva—the prince of poets, and that he considered Santiniketan too as his own home, he became another ashramite for us.
Being a painter, I perceive more through the eyes than through the ears. So I looked for a chance to see him in the flesh. Around that time, I received a letter from him asking me to set up an exhibition of Indian paintings during the Congress session at Lucknow. The authority behind that call was clear. Any show of reluctance was just not possible. I was deeply worried at being asked to take such responsibility in an unfamiliar environment but could not turn down his call. The task, however, was fulfilled with his blessings; I was gratified to meet Bapu personally and at being able to see those paintings as well. I had been told before that Bapu did not have much interest in fine arts. I realized the mistake when I found him going round the Lucknow Exhibition and noticing each painting with the critical interest of a connoisseur.
His sense of beauty and harmony was revealed to me by a small incident. With reeds, bamboos and timber the exhibition hall had been decorated in a simple manner. We carefully saw to it that aesthetic demands were not sacrificed. For the first time the general public had a chance to see how much beauty could be generated by using very ordinary things, though we ourselves were accustomed in the ashrama to decorate in this very simple fashion. Bapuji endorsed this kind of aesthetic creativity and so he fully enjoyed it and expressed pleasure at the work of the artists.
The incident I want to point out is this: though everything was neatly arranged in the exhibition hall, someone had carelessly left a bucket under a table. It escaped our eyes but not the sharp eyes of Bapuji. On entering the hall he noticed it at once, and observed: ‘Doesn’t that disturb your sense of beauty?’
He visited the hall everyday and spent there a lot of time. Later, before the Village Congress session at Faizpur, he wrote me another letter: “You are being given the charge of decorating the entire Congress Nagar”. The letter added: “A little does not satisfy, the heart demands more”—this must have been because he had liked the exhibition at the Lucknow Congress —“So come and see me at Sevagram”. “But I am a painter, and know nothing about architecture, I am not, therefore, the right man for the task”, I pleaded in my reply. He wrote back a beautiful letter and thereby enlisted my services. The main point of the letter was: “I need no expert pianist. I want a warm-hearted fiddler”.
So I went to Sevagram. Mahadev Desai led me to his presence. In the cottage at Sevagram, face to face with that great man, I squatted on the floor. “Come closer”, he insisted. Knees touched knees. I took the dust of his feet. He did not object, rather willingly accepted it. His pity melted my heart into heavenly love. His eyes were clear, as if probing the depths of one’s heart. I felt an urge to lay open my heart for his inspection and to tell him all I wanted to tell. His heavenly smile could melt the heart even of a confirmed villain. Forceful words, no faltering, no obscurity, like chips of a diamond. And I noted that he started answering even before I had completed asking a question as if his heart fathomed my heart. Words were unimportant.
He commanded, “Go to Faizpur”, even before I had a chance to begin. He was at that time nursing Meerabai. An American clergy-man was shown in who wanted to ask him about his notion of the appropriate form of future religion in India, as well as about his personal faith. Bapu said he knew nothing about the form that religion would take in future and added, “as for the present, my religion is to serve others, as you are witnessing now”. Then he turned to Mahadev and said, “Ask Jamnalal to send someone with him. He shall show him around Faizpur, and then put him on the train for Bolpur.”
He gave me three letters, one for the secretary at Faizpur, one for Ramdasji Gulati, the engineer, and the third for Vinobaji with this instruction to me: “I am sure you would be happy to meet Vinobaji, a warm-hearted holy man. He gave up everything for the good of the country. You must especially see him.” I visited Faizpur, inspected the venue; and also met Vinobaji. Then I discussed with Ramdasji and chalked out the plan. When I came back Bapu’s only instructions were, “Build the township at Faizpur using only rural material and employing country craftsmen. The conception should be indigenous. As for the decoration part you are in sole charge. Ramdasji and other members would give you any kind of assistance you need.” What trust! He was completely at ease putting all the responsibility on my shoulders. Keeping him in mind, I also gradually gathered necessary strength for the novel assignment.
A few months later I went back with four of my students (Perumal, Kanai, Mehta, and Prabhat), and spent a few months working on the assignment. Somehow everything was completed to our satisfaction. Assistance came from unexpected quarters. Engineer Ramdasji and Vinobaji’s disciple Methy Master gave us a lot of support and ever since both have been my dear friends.
It was at Faizpur that I noticed for the first time what a profound regard the rural people cherished for Bapuji. He first conceived the Gram Congress at Faizpur, and it proved to be a resounding success though many people had initially dismissed the idea as absurd. He offered unstinted praise for the artists, and was greatly pleased with the main entrance gate made of bamboos. Jawaharlalji came as the President of the session. Decorated with ornamental hangings made in the village, a chariot was put together with bamboos draped with cloth. It was drawn by six pairs of bullocks to bring him to the conference site. Bapu called for me one day and said, “I have made a bet with a girl, who is like my grand-daughter, on your ability to make a duplicate chariot of the kind that you have made to carry Jawaharlal, only the bullocks this time would be mock-bullocks. It would be kept in the exhibition ground. I give you two days to do it.” And then added, “see that I can win the bet.” Our artist-group was highly amused at that challenge. My students and I set to work, and six pairs of bullocks were created with slit bamboos and painted. They were hitched up to a chariot and placed at the exhibition ground. Bapuji won the bet.
Looking at those mock-bullocks and the chariot he burst into laughter that I can never forget. He was just like a child, immensely pleased with winning a bet.
I realized at once how much he enjoyed a work of art. During his address at the Conference, too, he dwelt extensively on art, and paid homage to the artistic glory of India.
Another call came at the time of the Haripura Congress. On that occasion also I spent some months decorating the conference grounds. A large number of students also worked with me. This time the instruction was to make the exhibition clearly visible to the rural people passing by. “Cover the entire area”, he suggested, “with examples of art”. Following the pat style we did a large number of paintings and hung them everywhere—on the main entrance, inside volunteers’ camps, even in the rooms meant for Bapuji and Subhasbabu, the President. These occasions convinced me that he deeply appreciated fine arts and was its champion. Or else why did he express so much delight in seeing these? We also organized there an exhibition of paintings. The day Bapu came to visit it I know why he first smiled at me and asked, “Still alive?” Almost everyone at Haripura was down with malaria; everyone was ill while I had been spared. I replied, “I am rather in better health here.” Those two words from Bapu stood for his appreciation and affection for me.
At the time of opening the khadi exhibition we decided on the ceremonial lighting of five lamps on a stand in place of cutting a tape at the door with a pair of scissors according to the foreign custom. He was pleased at this and delightedly told others how much more beautiful and meaningful this Indian custom was than the alien one. Evidently he loved the arts, particularly the glorious arts of his motherland.
Another time at Sevagram we were exchanging notes on art. I was there, invited by Jamnalalji for the restoration of a temple and for doing some fresco work. The condition of the temple did not permit any restoration. During our conversation he raised the question of building a new temple altogether. Imbued with modern ideas we objected, and said, why should we have more temples? At this he remained silent for a long time, and then said, “Temples have got to be built time and again. Because mankind, ever on the move, would continue to realize new forms of truth, and these have to be enshrined for adoration. How can the temples of eternal truth ever be allowed to disappear?”
He told us another thing on that occasion. Since I still had some misgivings that he probably valued political matters more than fine art, I boldly raised the question one day. He confessed that fine art, particularly music, was very close to his heart.
Music was so dear to him indeed that he would have completely devoted himself to that art hadn’t he got involved in the country’s struggle for freedom.
Now there was no choice left for him. Commitments had been made and there was no going back for a life time. All the same, he concluded, he never ignored fine art. That he did was sheer calumny.
From Bapuji’s life-style artists may find inspiration and develop their own character. Bapuji is indeed an artist and his creativity finds expression in the building up of his own self, in his attempt to transform himself from a man into a divine being, as also guide others in that direction. It is common knowledge that through his contact a large number of people have reached divinity. His thoughts have definiteness and clarity, his heart is pure, and he is ready to boldly sacrifice his life for the love of others. Thus he has conquered death. To dismiss his ideal is very difficult because he first practices himself what he preaches to others. Here is a rare human being whose clear heart is open for all to look into. He has absolutely nothing to hide, like clear sunlight. His words reflect his mind.
Indian artists, if they want, may transform themselves by following the model of his character. Without having a strong character an artist produces work that lacks force or foundation.
Most people fail to understand why Bapuji does not favour machine made things. Certainly not because he cannot stand machines. Being an artist myself, I can fully vouch for his attitude. Machine-made articles may of course be useful, may even be economically beneficial for men and the country, but they can never satisfy the aesthetic need. This is where Bapuji is a patron of artists. Aesthetic quality (rasa) does not quite flourish where the stamp of the individual craftsmanship and temperament is absent. Expression of form is not universal, only the realization behind it is. Or else God’s creation would not have this diversity. Diversity is typical of creativity. This is the specialty of all artists—even the human artist.
Rasa is invariably the same. Only individual artists give diverse expressions to it, and therein lies our joy. Lacking this diversity machine-made things tire the mind. When the mind dries up it affects the society at large. Wealth and prosperity may swell, but the heart remains starved. Men no longer tend, then, to become divine but lean towards brutality.
This is why artists love to work with simple materials and tools so that more of one’s heart may then be poured into work. These lines from an unsure hand may kindly be taken as an act of veneration for a noble man who himself, I am sure, would pardon its inadequacies and accept it as an offering from a humble devotee. I know, his affection for me comes from the depth of his heart.
Nandalal Bose, 1940
(First published in “The VISVA-BHARATI QUARTERLY” in December 1987)