Gandhi Was Not Just A ‘Mahatma’. How Can We Understand Him Better?

We can understand Gandhiji’s ‘complexities’ by revisiting historical cartoons through the ages on his life.

6 min read

(This article has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary on 30 January. It was first published on 2 October 2020.)

For a year now, individuals, collectives, organisations, and governments across the world have been celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the strongest figures of the 20th century. Even seminars, conferences, public talks, webinars, public events, and exhibitions have been organised globally to commemorate this occasion.

But have you heard of any exhibition of historical cartoons related to the life of Gandhi?

While most of the Gandhian ashrams/centres across the world have permanent exhibitions of art, artefacts, statues, photographs, videos footages, paintings, etc related to Gandhiji’s life, one rarely gets to hear – if at all – about an exhibition of historical cartoons.


Why The Reluctance Towards Exhibiting Historical Cartoons Of Gandhi?

By historical cartoons of Gandhi, I mean cartoons which were published across the world when Gandhi was alive. An exhibition of Gandhi’s historical cartoons was organised by Gandhi Smarak Nidhi at Raj Ghat in April 1969. The exhibition later culminated in the publication of a book titled ‘Gandhi in Cartoons’ by Shantilal H Shah of Navjivan Trust. The Egyptian Caricature Society organised the exhibition of Gandhi’s cartoons twice – in 2015 and 2017.

But cartoons used in both the exhibitions were published/made after the death of Gandhi.

The author, in association with Ek Potlee Ret Ki, exhibited around 60 historical cartoons of Gandhi twice in 2018 and 2019 in Chennai. The Azim Premji Foundation exhibited the same cartoons in a few schools/colleges/public places of Uttarakhand during 2018-19.

The reluctance towards organising an exhibition of historical cartoons and that too on a (largely) universally-revered personality like Gandhiji is understandable.

Historical cartoons have created havoc on multiple occasions including the famous Ambedkar cartoon controversy (2012); the Gandhi as ‘Raavan’ controversy (1945) (photo below).

We can understand Gandhiji’s ‘complexities’ by revisiting historical cartoons through the ages on his life.

Individuals, institutions, and democratically-elected governments apologised, protest demonstrations were organised, and people were even killed in the name of these controversies. In this volatile context, how is one expected to organise an exhibition of cartoons related to the life of a person like Mahatma Gandhi who has global followers and critics alike?

Use Of Historical Cartoons As A Pedagogical Tool

It is worth noting that the Azim Premji Foundation exhibited the collections of cartoons in schools and colleges as an innovative pedagogical tool.

The use of historical cartoons as pedagogical tools is not new. The controversy behind the Ambedkar cartoon was due to the use of certain apparently ‘inappropriate’ cartoons in the NCERT’s school textbook for class 11. These historical cartoons were used in political science textbooks as an innovative/engaging pedagogical tool. However, the school textbooks of Indian history hardly used any such material.

History as a discipline has consistently denied the importance of historical cartoons not only as an innovative and engaging pedagogical tool, but also as sources of historical writing.

At least in the Indian context, the importance of historical cartoons as a source of historical literature or writing has consistently been denied.

The problem is not with history but in the writing of it – a method of history writing which hesitates to give free rein to its readers. Like any literary, or archaeological sources of history, such cartoons reflect the time and context in which they were created. But unlike other sources of history, cartoons have more fluidity, multiplicity, diversity, and complexity in their meaning.


Gandhi In ‘Cartoons’ Through The Ages: ‘Multiplicity’ Of Images

Cartoons have always been a source of multiple meanings. Historical cartoons increase this multiplicity because of changes in the context and time in which the cartoon was originally published. Thus, reading about the cartoonist, the platform where it was published, and the historical context in which it was published becomes as important as any other source of history writing. Both the past and present have equal claims over historical cartoons due to the extensive use of symbols which have meaning for then and now.

In most of the early cartoons of Gandhi published in India, he was depicted with an elephant representing India as a mammoth, full of power and strength, but mentally colonised.

We can understand Gandhiji’s ‘complexities’ by revisiting historical cartoons through the ages on his life.
The steam roller vs the elephant; Sunday Times, 1908
(Photo: Accessed by Sanjeev Kumar)

This was later replaced by a goat which symbolises non-violence and mercy.

In cartoons published by Indians, the symbol of the lion was used for India, and Gandhi was shown as teasing and making ‘Leo’ feel ‘helpless’. (photo below)

We can understand Gandhiji’s ‘complexities’ by revisiting historical cartoons through the ages on his life.
Salting the tail
Source: The Graphics, London, 1931 (Photo accessed by Sanjeev Kumar)

‘Leo’ symbolised the British empire. Today, the same lion has been used as a symbol of the ‘Make in India’ campaign.

Symbols travel through history and we have to be careful about the time and context of the symbol used in particular cartoons.

Historical Cartoons Have the Potential to Unravel Invisible Histories

Multiple voices of human society at one particular point in history can easily be understood by looking at cartoons. Cartoons related to the life of Gandhi during the 1930s and 1940s depicted him from a God-man to the demon (Raavan); from a helpless man to a dictator, and from a clever man to a ‘traitor and fool’.

We can understand Gandhiji’s ‘complexities’ by revisiting historical cartoons through the ages on his life.
(A Frankenstein of the East) Gandhi: “Don’t forget, Only disobedience, no Violence.Indian: “What if I disobey you?” 
(Source: Punch Magazine, 12 March 1930 / Accessed by Sanjeev Kumar) 
We can understand Gandhiji’s ‘complexities’ by revisiting historical cartoons through the ages on his life.
American Magazine attacks India’s greatest man.
(Source: The Life, New York / Accessed By Sanjeev Kumar)
Historical cartoons have the potential to unravel invisible histories. For example, looking at cartoons published during the late 1940s and early 1950s easily reveals that it was Ambedkar who was the torchbearer of the constitutional empowerment of women in independent India.

The literary sources of historical writing on the other hand only depicted Ambedkar as a hero for disadvantaged castes. The absence of cartoons related to the relation between Gandhi and Ambedkar may indicate the biases of Indian cartoonists or the irrelevance of the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate at that point of time, because not even the international press covered this issue.


An Urgent Need To ‘Rescue’ Gandhi From Both ‘Mahatma-hood’ & ‘Demon-hood’

Syama Sundar, in his book No Laughing Matter’, tried to show us how Brahmanical Indian cartoonists were in the past. In his book, he redrew some of the famous historical cartoons related to the life of Ambedkar and Gandhi. Ritu Gairola Khanduri’s Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and History in the Modern World is believed to be a fascinating read for anyone who would like to know the importance of cartoons in understanding history.

Gandhiji has now unfortunately been reduced to merely his gol chashma, jhaadu, or ‘Mahatmahood’. There is an urgent need to ‘rescue’ Gandhi from both this ‘Mahatmahood’ and ‘demon-hood’ and understand the complexities of his life and ideas as just one among us. ‘Reducing’ him only to a ‘Mahatma’ will be an injustice to both Gandhi and history writing.

(Sanjeev Kumar is founding member of Group for Social & Analytical Research (GSAR, India) & Jagriti Natya Manch. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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