IN LAGE RAHO MUNNABHAI, the 2006 Rajkumar Hirani movie that made Gandhigiri a rage in urban India, a radio jockey who is the object of the hero’s affection asks him: “Do you walk on the path shown by Mahatma Gandhi?” Murli Prasad Sharma aka Munnabhai aka Sanjay Dutt replies: “Of course! I walk three miles everyday on Mahatma Gandhi Street.”
Like all good jokes, it flies because it is true. Both about the presence and absence of Mahatma Gandhi. It is a fact that modern India has canonised the Mahatma to an extraordinary degree, naming at least 53 major roads in India and 48 roads outside the country, putting his face on currency notes in 1996, and adding his name to all manner of institutions, schemes and statutes not named after members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. It is also a fact that he would have remained a forgotten icon had the world not embraced him so wholeheartedly.
Gandhi may well be considered India’s first cultural export, much before yoga and the Dalai Lama and even Richard Attenborough’s eight Oscars. For someone seemingly so square and so at odds with everything contemporary culture stands for, he seems to have been packaged for the Age of Celebrity. He was a food faddist who lived off goat’s milk, brown rice, dal and raw fruits and vegetables. He was an ecologist who understood the importance of a minimal carbon footprint, even though the phrase had not been invented. He favoured what is now considered the ultimate luxury, bespoke khadi, specifically handwoven. He was a proponent of what Leo Tolstoy called ‘soul force’ or ‘love force’, which he refined to mean: if someone gives us pain through ignorance, we shall win him through love—a tagline for a New Age guru if there ever was one. He was a compulsive confessor, whose experiments with celibacy would have kept several tabloids in business for years and ensured perennial social media notoriety. And what’s more, he remains a single bold-face name, in the same vein as a Madonna, a Rihanna, or a Cher, too famous to need a surname.
And we’re not even counting his famous followers, those who endorsed him to spark revolutions like Martin Luther King Jr, those who remembered him to keep their spirits afloat like Nelson Mandela, and those who used his marketing-ready quotes as campaign taglines—yes, be the change you want to see, Barack Obama.
Gandhi was a pop culture icon made for the 21st century because he understood several things. He understood the primacy of America in the hierarchy of nations-as-ideas, and his early wooing of journalists such as Webb Miller of United Press and James A Mills of Associated Press underlined this. Add to this the photographs he allowed Margaret Bourke-White and later Henri Cartier Bresson to take, and it was clear he understood that if the British would not allow free dissemination of his anti-imperialist message, a freedom- loving former colony would. Indeed he was right, and in 1930 not only did Time magazine put him on its cover as Saint Gandhi, but later in early 1931 nominated him as ‘Man of the Year’ for the Dandi March, an event that had been designed to capture the world’s imagination. Gandhi had been in touch with the director of the Indian Independence League in New York, directing him to publicise the protest. And so the New York Times published Gandhi’s appeal under the headline, ‘Gandhi Asks Backing Here: Urges Expression of Public Opinion for India’s Right to Freedom’, in which he asked American sympathisers for a ‘concrete expression of public opinion in favour of India’s inherent right to independence and complete approval of the non-violent means adopted by the Indian National Congress’.
Gandhi also understood the power of iconography. The spectacles, much later identified with John Lennon; the wooden sandals; the loincloth; the walking staff. These were all weapons of mass distraction. He cut a tiny figure, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace as “a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east’’ in Winston Churchill’s words. But Gandhi was no fakir, he was a smart politician who knew the value of a good photo-op, whether it was with Charlie Chaplin during the same visit (though it had to be explained to Gandhi who the actor-director was) or later with philosopher Romain Rolland in Switzerland. He also knew that it was smart to play the victim card, something Prime Minister Narendra Modi would echo much later when on the defensive after the demonetisation debacle.
ORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, GANDHI realised the importance of documentation. His collected works run into 100 volumes on matters as varied as travelling by third class and principles of good health, ashram observances and short obituaries. That was his real legacy, not facilitating his family’s entry into politics, but leaving a rich inheritance for interpretation, re-reading, and reimagining by scholars the world over who continue to marvel at his oeuvre.
No surprise then that Gandhi finds himself so instantly saleable and eternally flexible. So the famous Margaret Bourke-White photograph, where Gandhi is reading some notes, with a charkha in the foreground, was used for Apple’s ‘Think Different’ slogan, while his ever recognisable spectacles are used to sell the idea of Swachh Bharat to a New India. But such is Gandhi’s continued power that the BJP-led Government is planning a series of enchantments and events to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of a man assassinated by those who believed in the same ideology. Gandhi is a pop culture star because his visual shorthand is so accessible, because his philosophy of love-first over nation- first has such a powerful attraction in the Age of Rage, and because his collection of easily digestible aphorisms make him so cool in the era of spiritual superheroes. The Government knows that appropriating his 150th birth anniversary celebrations is good for its image.
In fact, so much a citizen of the world has Gandhi become that a US-based licensing company CMG Worldwide famously announced him a client too, having signed a deal with his great grandson Tushar Gandhi before much outrage scuppered that deal and prevented Gandhi from becoming the ultimate male model. Gandhi himself was aware of the monetary value of his image. Photographer Kulwant Roy, one of his most faithful chroniclers, would recall how Gandhi always demanded money from photographers. Gandhi would say, “All of you will make money out of this (the photographs), so you please donate some for my Harijan Fund and the Freedom Fund.’’
Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film did much to burnish the Mahatma image, based almost entirely as it was on Louis Fischer’s biography. There have been other movies after that, from Shyam Benegal’s The Making of Gandhi in 1996 to Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi, My Father in 2007. Ironically, Gandhi himself was not a great lover of cinema and had watched just one movie in his lifetime, Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya in 1943.
But then contradictions are what made Gandhi great. As Salman Rushdie wrote in Time magazine in 1998, he preferred the pencil to the typewriter, the loincloth to the business suit and the ploughed field to the belching manufactory. Perhaps Ashis Nandy said it best when he noted the four different kinds of Gandhi that exist—that of the Indian state and Indian nationalism; of Gandhians who want to have nothing to do with politics; the unpredictable Gandhi of ragamuffins, eccentrics and so on; and the fourth who walks the mean streets of the world, threatening the status quo and pompous bullies in every area of life. In a way, the Gandhi we know now is a function of the third and fourth kind of Mahatma, a celebrity much before his time, who would have been perfect for the Age of Too Much Information, shooting off tweets instead of letters on everything from bowel movements to vital fluids, hosting town halls on Facebook instead of organising evening prayers and allowing the finest photographers in the world to share their portraits on Instagram. He may not have liked the technology needed to communicate with the world now, but he would have found a way to adapt to it.
Whatever you do, don’t deify him. Jawaharlal Nehru had told Attenborough this before he started work on his biopic on Gandhi. Gandhi, the Prophet of an Imperfect World and Guru of the Globalised Universe, would have wanted no less.