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My Experiments with Kitsch: A collector’s search for Mahatma Gandhi

On Gandhi's death anniversary, trace him in Yoda, C-3PO, a Matroyshka doll, and on Mount Rushmore

Chirodeep Chaudhuri Published 29.01.19, 08:41 PM
Photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri has an intriguing collection of Gandhi figurines

Photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri has an intriguing collection of Gandhi figurines Image: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

As my collection grew, word spread among friends and other visitors to my home. Some alerted me to ones they had spotted and thought might interest me, others bought them as gifts – Gev picked up an Yoda-inspired one during a trip to the US, Omrita found a Matroyshka doll-inspired one in the lanes of Benaras, my student, Sreshtha, got me one from Krishnanagar, Yashwant gifted me a pen from his collection – one with a Gandhi portrait, Freny got me a red Bicholim pottery Gandhi bust, Jerry found a Mount Rushmore inspired one for my birthday and my wife, Rohini, keeping me in the dark, too started spending time online to land me a surprise for our anniversary. My aunt recollected seeing one in the back of a showcase in her mother-in-law’s room and got me that for my collection. It turned out to be of pre-independence vintage.

On another occasion, in a lane lined with antique shops in Chettinad, while walking with a colleague, I pointed out two shops to her and mentioned that I sensed Gandhi collectibles there. I did find things of interest – one I bought, the other was beyond my budget. “How did you know you would find any there?” she asked. It’s really difficult to explain it, but you develop a sort of sixth sense, I guess. Just to test me, she visited a few of the shops I had walked past. She returned empty-handed.

A Matroyshka doll-inspired Gandhi from Benaras

A Matroyshka doll-inspired Gandhi from Benaras Image: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

The hunt has also been amusing at times. At Dakhinapan, Calcutta, while I was strolling through the complex and enquiring at the different state handicraft emporiums whether they might have Gandhi statues, I encountered sales staff who seemed perplexed at the mention of the name. They chose to show me Buddhas and Ganeshas. To one sales woman, I showed a bank note with Gandhi’s portrait to explain what I was looking for. “Oooh! No, no, sir…we don’t have,” she said looking embarrassed. In Delhi’s Kharak Singh Marg, a salesman apologized for not having statues of Sonia Gandhi but confirmed that they have a Mahatma Gandhi in sandalwood. I guess I should have specified which Gandhi at the outset.

A Gandhi collectible of pre-independence vintage

A Gandhi collectible of pre-independence vintage Image: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

Gandhi in mother of pearl

Gandhi in mother of pearl Image: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

Collectors are hunters. The collector is forever following a scent and on a trail. He is obsessive. Alert, even, in ways you might not notice. Most importantly, to be a successful hunter, one has to love the chase. I often poke my head into antique shops hoping to sniff out my next trophy. I trawl websites like Ebay and Amazon. Of course, there are times when you return from a chase dejected. It happened to me near Udvada, where I spotted a bust of Nehru and Bose and enquired if there was a Gandhi. That had found a buyer the previous afternoon. A narrow miss…so near, yet so far.

A Yoda-like Gandhi figurine from the US

A Yoda-like Gandhi figurine from the US Image: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

In my collection, you will find the man both seated and standing, in mid-stride and even occasionally spinning his charkha. In some he’s smiling, in others he’s rather serious, sometimes looking benign, and, on one occasion, he looks like C-3PO from Star Wars. He comes in all kinds of materials and styles – clay, plastic, wood, ceramic, mother-of-pearl, terracotta, wax, twisted wire, brass, copper, aluminum, sandalwood and even 3-D prints.

Now I am waiting for a Gandhi in Chennapatna toy style – concentric wooden rings and all - to arrive in the mail. I recently met Noor Salma, in Chennapatna, near Bangalore. She is one of the craftsmen who make those colourful wooden toys that have given the town its fame. We discussed whether she could make me a Gandhi. I scribbled a possible design. She’s working on it. That will be number 49.

Hare Krushna’s Gandhi is the first commissioned by the collector

Hare Krushna’s Gandhi is the first commissioned by the collector Image: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

The next morning I dropped in at his home before we started shooting. Hare Krushna was busy at work. He had been up all night making and rejecting. My apprehension, however, was proving right. He had got the basic figure – a standing figure of a man with a walking stick. I knew he was crafting the father of the nation but others may not have recognized him. Not yet. Success or failure lay in the details. I asked him how he planned to make Gandhi’s spectacles. Though he had created Gandhi’s waistband watch, he had forgotten about the iconic pair of glasses. He dispatched his little son to find some wire around their house. As he went about putting the final touches and figuring out how to make it stand, I gently suggested he should give Gandhi a moustache. An inch of black thread was found and Gandhi, slowly, started looking more like Gandhi.

Hare Krushna’s Gandhi is the first in my collection that I commissioned someone to make for me.

I have always been a collector – like youngsters of my generation I too collected stamps and coins. I also collected nut-bolts. I had, at one time, about 65 of them in different sizes, mostly picked up off the streets of Chembur as I walked to school or my tuition classes. I also collected BEST bus tickets but I got over that before I reached my teens. The nut-bolts collection grew for a while and I would spend many an afternoon polishing them with a rag soaked in kerosene. With age I got into more age-appropriate collections like comics – Batman comics – and books about cities. And masks, too. But I ran out of wall space.

As a photojournalist and travel photographer, as I crisscrossed the country on assignments I would often spot statues of our political leaders dotting the landscape of mofussil India. I found myself especially drawn to the statues of the father of our nation – none a work of art, but ordinary statues, staggering in variety. My earliest recollection of a Gandhi statue goes back to Dev Benegal’s 1994 film, English, August, based on Upamanyu Chaterjee’s book by the same name. It had irreverently featured a statue, propped with a stick up its posterior to prevent it from toppling. I remember the hoots of laughter in the dark auditorium. Perhaps, with that memory, I found myself making pictures of Gandhi statues whenever I would come across them. I think my desire to procure and own (that peculiar collector’s trait) kicked in at some point without me being conscious of it. Until, one day, I saw my friend Naresh Fernandes’s collection of figurines of world leaders and icons. Until, that other day, when my eyes fell on that crude plaster of Paris seated Gandhi on the outskirts of Patna.

Around December 2017, I was in the village of Kotpad, Odisha, at the residence of Gobhardhan Panika, the master weaver, photographing the weaving of the famed textiles of the region. As we broke for lunch, we were introduced to a man who had been waiting for us outside the Panika residence. He was shy but on being egged on by our host, from his bag, he pulled out a four-handed Goddess - who I thought was Laxmi but happened to be Saraswati - and a Ganesh and other assorted creations. His name was Hare Krushna Nayak and he used to be a weaver until he met with an accident. The injury to his leg left him incapable of operating the loom and he eventually lost his livelihood. That’s when, one day, out of boredom he began fiddling with grains spread out to dry in his house and hit upon the idea of stitching them together with thread to create strips of varied lengths which he would then cut and twist to make various shapes and figures – animals, birds, flowers and even Gods.

I had an idea and so after lunch went to visit Nayak at his residence and asked him if he would like to try his hand at making me a figure of Mahatma Gandhi. I didn’t expect him to get as excited as he did. “I have never made one but I will not disappoint you,” he told me. “We are leaving tomorrow evening. So,will you be able to make it by then?” I asked. “I will stay awake the whole night if I have to,” he replied with a big smile on his face. “And I’ll make it in yellow,” he added.

Hare Krushna Nayak stitches together grains with thread to create strips of varied lengths which he then cuts and twist to make various shapes and figures

Hare Krushna Nayak stitches together grains with thread to create strips of varied lengths which he then cuts and twist to make various shapes and figures Image: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

A figurine in his collection reminds Chaudhuri of C-3PO from the film Star Wars

A figurine in his collection reminds Chaudhuri of C-3PO from the film Star Wars Image: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

I have been collecting Gandhi figurines, if I remember correctly, since 2009. It all began in Patna while my friend, Jerry Pinto, and I were heading towards the Sonepur Mela. We had stopped to buy a bottle of water and I came across a woman selling plaster of Paris busts of European women, earthen flower pots and an assortment of rather ugly bric-a bracs. In the middle of all those was a pair of crudely finished Gandhis sitting cross-legged. I can’t remember why I bought it. It wasn’t pretty like the other curios in my collection at home.

It didn’t feel right to keep him alone for long and so a hunt began to give him company.

Indian independence leaders on Mount Rushmore

Indian independence leaders on Mount Rushmore Image: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

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