An Exhibition marking the Centennial of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj

– Ranjit Hoskote 

This exhibition, which I have titled ‘Detour’ (to be held at Chemould Prescott Road in December 2009), coincides with an international seminar organised by the independent academic platform Jnanapravaha: both exhibition and seminar are dedicated to the centennial of the publication of Hind Swaraj (1909). I propose ‘Detour’ as a critical celebration of this epochal text, in which Mahatma Gandhi – then still the South Africa-based lawyer M K Gandhi – laid the philosophical foundations for the Indian struggle for liberation.

Cast in the form of a dialogue between an Editor who represents the reasoned and peaceful mode of emancipation and a Reader who embodies the spirit of violent and aggressive revolt, Hind Swaraj was written in Gujarati, on board the HMS Kildonan Castle, in the space of the few weeks it took Gandhi to return from the UK to South Africa.

While the English translation rendered the title somewhat blandly as ‘Indian Home Rule’ (this did not prevent the colonial government from banning the book), the true import of Gandhi’s ideas lay elsewhere. Hind Swaraj proposed the model of an ethically self-reflexive individual rather than a revolutionary state as the basis of an emancipated society of the future. Gandhi’s model emphasised the individual’s awareness of his responsibility, and indicated the ultimately coercive, violent and repressive nature of such external sources of authority as nations or states. Gandhi arrived at this conception through a transcultural process of convergence, drawing on exemplars as diverse as Tolstoy and Emerson, the Upanishads and the Gospels, the syncretic teachings of Mahamati Prannath, and the principled anarchism of Thoreau.

Indeed, when we place Gandhi’s ideas in the context of the utopian and redemptive strand of late-colonial Indian thought, it takes its place among a set of proposals for a newly imagined India that valorised the renewal of the individual ethical and aesthetic consciousness over the institution of new forms of nationality and statehood. Gandhi shared, with his near-contemporaries Rabindranath Tagore and J Krishnamurti, a suspicion of the party, the nation, the state, recognising that these intended instruments of human freedom could assume a life of their own, as weapons dedicated to the enslavement of the human spirit.

And when we consider a hundred years of Hind Swaraj, we also consider a little over six decades of an independent India; and we compare the foundational text with the practical outcome; the gaps and overlaps between the two entities; and the various trajectories on which India, incarnating one among several geographical translations of the conceptual Hind of Gandhi’s title, has launched itself.

In ‘Detour’, I hope to bring together five distinctive bodies of testimony to these various trajectories. I have chosen to concentrate on the work of five eminent contemporary photographers: Dayanita Singh, Ram Rahman, Ravi Agarwal, Samar Jodha, and Sonia Jabbar.

These artists have – over the decades and in various sectors of experience – traced the tremors and textures of India’s collective life, its crises and afflictions. They have mapped the journeys of individuating selves through a turbulent, transitional society.

For each of these artists, the activity of image-making evolves in intimate relationship with her or his philosophical and political concerns: the photographic exploration proceeds in tandem with a close attention to the problem of how the contours of the political, social and art-historical contemporary are to be defined. The questions of liberty, justice, equity and dignity, the themes of a vexed collective memory, constrained human agency and a vitiated lifeworld are powerfully present in the works of these artists.

I would like ‘Detour’ to grow from the juxtaposition of significant suites of work, or ongoing projects, by Singh, Rahman, Agarwal, Jodha and Jabbar. These will function as position papers, offering oblique points of entry into the kaleidoscopic reality of the Republic in mid-passage.

I also plan to work with key texts by Sunil Khilnani, Ramachandra Guha, Amitav Ghosh, Partha Chatterji, Shahid Amin, and other contributors to our understanding of the ‘idea of India’, in the mise en scene of the exhibition, thus mobilising a free-floating relay between image and text.

The title of the exhibition, ‘Detour’, refers to the manner in which one must sometimes go away to come back, move away from the object of love or attention in order to more fully understand it. The photographic image, in the same vein, registers a detour: it is generated at a remove from experienced reality, comes to birth in the photographer’s imagination, then connects back with the circumstances that first sparked it off.

The above note is sourced from:

Ravi Agarwal