Portraits of Mahatma Gandhi

— Mukul Dey

Photo: Mukul Dey ArchivesPublished in 1948 by: Orient Longmans Ltd., Bombay, Calcutta, Madras.

My book Twelve Portraits had just come out at the end of 1917 and, with a view to making a collection of portraits of the great men of South India, I visited Madras in 1918. There I heard that a great leader of the Indians of South Africa had come to stay in Madras for a few days.

It was Mrs. Sarojini Naidu who took me one morning to the house where Gandhiji was staying at the time. I found him sitting on a taktaposh (wooden-bed) with only a loin cloth tied round his waist, talking to several people who sat round him on the floor. His hair was closely cropped, but he had a shikha, the vaishnava Hindu’s tuft of hair at the back of his head. It stuck me that he was a great saint and a political leader at the same time.

Mrs. Naidu then introduced me to Gandhiji and told him of my errand. Gandhiji smiled sweetly at me, as if signifying his consent to my doing his portrait. He went on talking to the people in the room, while I busied myself with my pencil. I finished the portrait within an hour. Gandhiji looked at it and said, ‘Do I really look like that? Of course I cannot see my face from that angle.’ Then he passed it round to the persons assembled there. At my request he put down the following words in Gujrati:
Mohan Das Gandhi
Phagun Badi 3, Samvat 1975
After thus putting his name and date on the drawing, he again gave me another of his characteristic smiles.

Photo: Mukul Dey ArchivesIn 1922, when my friend the late C. F. Andrews came to visit me in my studio in London, he admired this portrait so much that I made a present of it to him. It subsequently passed into the possession of the Visva-Bharati at Santiniketan, among other effects of Charlie Andrews. Through the courtesy of Sreejut Rathindranath Tagore, the General Secretary of the Visva-Bharati, this pencil drawing is reproduced here.

On my return from England in the year 1928, I held an exhibition of my work at the Indian Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta. Whilst the exhibition was in progress, I felt a sudden impulse to visit Mahatma Gandhi and do a portrait of him in the new medium of drypoint (something like engraving on copper or zinc plates) which I had learnt and practiced in England.

So I secured an introduction from C. F. Andrews, fearing that the Mahatma might have forgotten me, as so many years had passed since our first meeting. I also had a faint curiosity to see at first hand how this great saint lived in his hermitage at Sabarmati. He seemed to me to be a re-incarnation of our great saints Bhakta Kabir and Tulsidas.

On arriving there one morning in March 1928, I found that the Mahatma had gone to bathe in the Sabarmati near-by. When he came back shortly afterwards I presented my letter of introduction and was cordially received by him. He was surprised to know that such a frail and unimposing person as himself was worthy of being portrayed by an artist coming from such a great distance.

He permitted me to stay in one of the rooms of the school building of the ashram across the road. The Ashram is situated on the high bank of the river and is a cluster of tiled huts in a pomegranate grove. On the other side of the river can be seen the tall factory chimneys and big houses of Ahmedabad city. 

Early in the morning after prayers Mahatmaji would go out for a long walk with the inmates of the Ashram. He always walked very fast.

Returning to the ashram before sunrise he would regularly help the inmates in their domestic duties for an hour or so. After sunrise he would sit in the sun, and have his body massaged with ghee about 60 years old - almost black, with age - and at the same time put a thick coating of cold mud on his head and press it down with a towel.

At the same time his correspondence used to be read out to him by his Secretary, the late Mahadev Desai, to whom the Mahatma dictated the replies while he shaved himself with a silver Gillette razor.  Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel with his daughter Mani Ben and Miss Slade (Mira Ben) were also there; Mira Ben was specially asked by the Mahatma to look after my comforts. Here for the first time I came to know that Mahatma Gandhi is addressed as ‘Bapuji’ (Revered Father) by the inmates of the Ashram, just as we of the Santiniketan Ashram call Rabindranath ‘Gurudev’.

After the midday meal which was a simple affair and which I used to share with him, always sitting on his right, he would sit with his Charkha in the same hall. The room was almost without furniture. This was the time when I would generally make my drypoints on copper plates.

In the evening after prayers I would sit and watch the cranes and other birds coming back from all quarters to the trees of the Ashram as if to a refuge where they felt completely secure. The whole atmosphere was calm and peaceful but rather desolate with its background of tiny shrubs of neem and mimosa.

I did four different drypoints of him and a few pencil sketches, and also a portrait of Kasturba Gandhi, who was always besides her husband. The Mahatma showed me the greatest kindness during my fortnight’s stay at the Ashram. He was so kind as to offer me half of the school building at Sabarmati to start an Art School according to my own ideas; unfortunately this was never realized, as I fell ill at the beginning of the hot weather in April 1928. So I left Sabarmati.

In September 1945, I went to Allahabad to do some portraits of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. In the course of a conversation with him, I brought up my old plan of establishing a National Art Gallery and gave Pandit Nehru the skeleton of my scheme. I suggested that the Mahatma would be the fittest person to be the Chief Patron of such an Art Gallery as I had discovered, whilst staying at Sabarmati, that the Mahatma had a deep love for the Fine Arts.

In the course of his conversations with me he had made various clever suggestions about art education in India. Pandit Jawaharlal grew enthusiastic over the matter and asked me to visit Mahatma Gandhi again and discuss the scheme with him. Shortly afterwards, I proceeded to Bombay, and found that Mahatmaji was recuperating at the Nature Clinic in Poona.

I went there on 15 November, 1945. I presented Mahatmaji with a copy of my Twenty Portraits and laid my scheme for the National Art Gallery before him. Mahatmaji laughingly remarked, ‘You have only produced twenty portraits in twenty years? Is that all you have done?’ I joined in the laugh and said, ‘If you come to my Studio at Santiniketan you will see for yourself what I have done.’ Mahatmaji blessed my scheme and said everything would come right in the end, and there would certainly be a National Art Gallery when India had obtained her independence.

I stayed in Poona for three days and my visit was amply rewarded, as I was able to make several pencil and crayon drawings and pen and ink sketches of the Mahatma.

Gandhiji loved to visit Santiniketan and he stayed there on several occasions after his return from South Africa. Mahatmaji’s deep regard for this ‘Abode of Peace’ where in turn the Maharshi, his eldest son the Philosopher Dwijendranath Tagore, called Baro-Dada (eldest brother) by Mahatmaji, and his youngest son the poet Rabindranath Tagore communed with nature was always evidenced by his words and actions.

He would always take off his shoes near the village of Bhubandanga, a mile away from the precincts of the Santiniketan Ashram, and enter it with great humility of sprit just like a king visiting an ancient ‘Tapovana’ (forest hermitage). Thus he came one evening, the 18 December, 1945, and sat down to the prayers with the inmates of the Ashram.

Next day, early in the morning, the Mahatma held his usual congregational prayer at the Mandir attached to the Ashram.
Later in the day Bapuji and his party visited my studio and stayed for about an hour. Among other things, I showed Bapuji the drypoint portrait of Kasturba Gandhi which I did at Sabarmati in 1928. I presented the portrait to Bapuji. He was immensely pleased and held it tenderly close to his eyes, as if he was talking to her for a while.

Mahatmaji invited my wife and myself to visit him at Sevagram. The interest which he showed in the various objects of art at my studio encouraged me to think that I might possibly find a way through him of establishing a National Art Gallery, Museum and Art School.

We arrived at Wardha Station on 8 August, 1946. After an hour’s traveling in a tonga through a bleak hilly countryside, we suddenly came upon a number of tiled huts surrounded by trees and plants looking like an oasis in the desert. This was Sevagram, where Mahatmaji and his associates lived a simple and austere life of toil.

What at once stuck us about the place was its exceptional cleanliness and profound silence; even the crows perched on the top of the trees had forgotten to caw, and the dogs to bark. Everyone in the Ashram was busy with his own work, moving about quietly. Through the deep silence I felt peace creeping into my soul, and I forgot all about the object of my visit for the time being.

I soon discovered that I had come there at a most inopportune moment and did not wish to trouble Bapuji about my own affairs. It was already too late to discuss things other than those of more pressing and immediate interest. I therefore only sought his blessings on my project. Bapuji, through his infinite kindness, readily gave me his blessings and I departed from Sevagram on the day which was his day of silence.
When I went to him to do my obeisance just before my departure, he handed me a paper containing his message and smiled at me with uplifted arm in a gesture of blessing. Silently we turned back homewards, little thinking at the time that we should never see his smiling face again.

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