Escape from Freedom

Published: January 6, 2010 - 13:51 Updated: January 6, 2010 - 13:58

The reformation of the self is the first step to independence, argued Gandhi in Hind Swaraj. In its centenary year, an exhibition takes this text as a reference point, and probes the 'progress' of India 
Aritra Bhattacharya Mumbai

The personal: For a moment, I considered my options: either I could move, and thereby save further escalation in tension, with the situation spiralling out of my control. Or I could stand my ground, in protest against an unwritten rule that I did not agree with.

This was six months ago. I was waiting for a friend in front of the US Consulate in Mumbai, and was asked by the security personnel guarding the citadel to move aside - standing in front of the Consulate building was not permitted. Perhaps, the very presence of a living body in the vicinity posed a threat.

The incident was relegated to the annals of memory, till recently, when I was reading Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's seminal text, Hind Swaraj. While explaining swaraj in the text, Gandhi ties the idea of freedom to the self. The English rule over us, he says in the text written in 1909, because we allow them to do so. We accept their subservience, and obey their laws, even if we do not agree with them. Unless we reform the self, the larger question of independence would remain a chimera.

A hundred years since the writing of Hind Swaraj and six months since the incident in front of the US Consulate, I wondered whether my act of not moving from the front of the Consulate building (thereby causing a ruckus, a heated debate, and inviting the presence of a few armed policemen behind me for 15-odd minutes) would be seen as a rudimentary act of 'swaraj' (independence) - against neo-colonialism?

Does it matter that I was the only one who stood his ground, while most others chose to move away? Few questioned, most obeyed.

The political: If this was a spontaneous detour, there was another at Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai. 'Detour': an exhibition curated by art critic Ranjit Hoskote commemorating the centennial of Gandhi's Hind Swaraj. A moment of revelation and rupture as we enter another new year.

For the uninitiated, Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj while sailing from London to South Africa on board Kildonan Castle in November 1909. He was one of the earliest to realise that colonialism was something to be overcome in our own consciousness first and says so in this text in explicit terms. Gandhi rues the way machinery (technology) has degraded Indian civilisation, and criticises the professions of western medicine and law for unhealthy indulgences and the loss of brotherhood.

While Gandhi's ideas, when read in literal terms, might appear obscurantist and archaic today, the spirit of what he tried to convey through Hind Swaraj remains relevant. And this relevance is what 'Detour' seeks to take as a point of reference.

'Detour' consists of 'five position papers on the republic' that trace the directions independent India has taken. The five artists whose work comprises the show - Ram Rahman, Sonia Jabbar, Samar Jodha, Ravi Agarwal and Dayanita Singh - ask what post-colonialism can mean as an opportunity for amplifying self-transformation, and how that opportunity has often been wasted or perverted by a narrow self-interest.

The post-colonial world can only be described as a neo-colonial one, and few will doubt the role television plays in espousing, pushing and proliferating this agenda. TV programmes today are peopled by glamourous child brides and vacuous celebrities discovering past lives in plush upmarket studios; news too is paid for, and ads, plug jobs, and promos occupy current affairs and prime time slots.

These are programmes that the working classes watch. After the alienation and drudgery of a tiring day, the TV is all they turn to, if they have one. It is all they have to reach out to the 'big picture', aspiring vicariously for the comforts of the rich. The same TV prevents them from 'looking inward' - so essential to Gandhi's swaraj.

Samar Jodha's prints from the 'Television' series capture the TV sets in rural South Asian homes, and in a way, point towards this limiting aspect of modernity. In Jodha's photographs, TV finds a place below the altar piece, perhaps substituting the role that gods performed, that of granting wishes and riches.

Sonia Jabbar's two creations: a 66-minute video titled 'Autumn's Final Country' that documents Kashmir's displaced women, and a 5-minute 40-second two-channel video titled 'Granted Under Fear'. The latter is the story of missing persons in Kashmir. A looped video based on still photographs of mothers, sisters, brothers and fathers, holding pictures of their missing kin; a documentary video of an armed forces parade plays in a dark room.

It forces one to think of life under 'occupation' forces. This is how it has been in Kashmir and the northeast - a life replete with disappearances, false encounters, and fear and hope as constant companions. This is how it could be, in vast parts of India, where the security forces are on a 'greenhunt', dreaming of 'doing an LTTE' to the Maoists, and also hapless, innocent people, as in Chhattisgarh's Salwa Judum. Thereby, blurring the line between armed, and non-violent mass democratic struggles, against greedy corporates, backed by the Indian State, out to ravage people's land, ecology, traditions.

Jabbar's video, however, presents a simplistic picture of life in a conflict zone. The lines between the oppressor and oppressed are not always so clear; no one can be sure who is a spy, who is a militant, who is an informant, who is an ultra; the reality in conflict zones is multi-layered.

Anand Bhawan: That does not bring back those who have gone missing. The video can only acknowledge the missing, as do Dayanita Singh's photographs - 'Allahabad'. In capturing the Nehru family's Anand Bhawan at Allahabad in all its 'glory' - bereft of people, peopled by portraits of tall leaders, empty beds, carefully arranged chairs and tables, bookshelves that seem to wait for their rightful masters, table lamps stuck in a time warp reminiscing those that studied under them, Singh seems to point to what's missing in post-colonial independent India: tall leaders who can forge an inclusive, secular, egalitarian idea of India, and take it forward.

The people in Singh's photographs, when they do occur at all, are peasants and working classes from the India that seems to have accepted subservience. They too, like their elite counterparts, have nothing to do with swaraj, or self-rule. The concept is alien to them. The neo-colonial, neo-liberal globalising world has caught their fancy; the leaders of yesteryears are only icons to be gaped at, as they are 'caught' doing in some of Singh's photographs.

In 1909, swaraj for Gandhi was foremost about self-rule; in 2009, swaraj for a vast majority of our people seems to be the 'corporate choice' between whether to hang out at Select City Walk Mall or Inorbit Mall, and other similar concerns.

In that sense, the exhibition, the text and spirit of Hind Swaraj as a point of reference, and then mapping the directions India has taken since and how it has faltered, seems ideal as a 'Detour'. One niggling thought: Is there a way in which this pursuit could have been more personal to one and all, not following the rigmarole of an art exhibition space?

Could it have been an opportunity to break the format, raise issues of neo-colonialism by multi-national corporations and the elite, the slow, infinite, man-made poverty of our feudal villages, thousands of farmer suicides while the Union agriculture minister runs the multi-million cash cow of a perfect 20-20?

Also, can our selves be reconstituted in this new year of fancy resolutions and how-to-fight-hangover bulletins? Can the personal become political in 2010?


The reformation of the self is the first step to independence, argued Gandhi in Hind Swaraj. In its centenary year, an exhibition takes this text as a reference point, and probes the ‘progress’ of India
Aritra Bhattacharya Mumbai

Read more stories by Escape from Freedom

This story is from print issue of HardNews