has many remarkable works of art. Of them one is astonishing. This is a large painting by Polish artist Feliks Topolski.
Its subject is Mahatma Gandhi. No big deal in that! There are countless portraits of that man, some of them being famous such as Jamini Roy’s seated Gandhi and Nandalal Bose’s strident ‘pilgrim’ in Noakhali.
So, what makes Topolski’s painting astonishing? This, that it portrays dramatically and magnetically Gandhi’s assassination by a man holding a smoking gun. A depiction of Gandhi's assassination by a celebrated artist has to be of interest. But how does that make it 'astonishing'?
The work is astonishing because Topolski painted it before the assassination. Before?
That is right, and that is what makes the work astonishing. In a stroke of prescience, he painted a possible future assassination of Gandhi well before January 30, 1948. The work, anticipating the event in startling detail, is, in a sense, figurative. There he is, Gandhi, looking all of his 79 years, in fact, more. It is almost as if he has suddenly aged to become something like 89, slumping, with a gnarled right hand raised in an ambiguous gesture that could suggest surprise, forgiveness, an appeal. The assassin too is portrayed with startling clarity, to the front of the stricken figure, facing us.
But the work is important for more than its anticipative, prescient theme. It’s saying something that is barely audible, but is impossible to ignore. The dying man is doing something as life ebbs out of him. He is speaking and his raised hand is also part of the message that is being conveyed.
Is ‘Rama’ on his mind in the painting? I am certain he is.
Gandhi became, as Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay has said, an ‘ichhamarani’, meeting the end he desired for himself in the ideal that Tulsidas describes in chaupai 10 of the Kishkindhakanda of Sriramacharitamanas: Janma janma muni jatanu karahin / anta Rama kahi avat nahin — sages strive from birth to birth, yet in dying they fail to say ‘Rama’. And despite his assassin’s contesting in court the belief that Gandhi invoked ‘Rama’ as he fell, that invocation will be immortally linked with Gandhi’s last moments.
But ‘Rama’ apart, there has to have been something like the last full sentence spoken by Gandhi. And it has been recorded by Pyarelal as having been spoken something like two minutes before he was shot without any knowledge of imminent death. Referring to his delayed arrival at the prayer ground that evening, Gandhi said in Gujarati to Abha Gandhi and Manu Gandhi, “I hate being late”. This very ordinary comment, a workaday remark, has no significance beyond its contextual salience. But such is the mystique of men like Gandhi that it has been raised to great metaphorical height by Lanza del Vasto, the Italian philosopher. Vasto imagines Gandhi looking his assassin in the eye and saying, “Brother, you are late.”
Metaphors are untruths that seek to convey a truth. And so Gandhi telling Godse, in this imaginary line, that he, the assassin, or his act, the assassination, was late in coming is both a fantasy and a verity. Gandhi had done everything in his power to stem the blood-tide of India’s Partition but he could not avert it, could not prevent butchery, rape, abduction, dispossession. He had said words to the effect of ‘Partition over my dead body’. Partition had happened and he was not dead. Not for five and a half months after the division. He to be washed into that river of defeat. And on 30 January, 1948, he was drowning but he was late, according to his own time, his own chain-watch, dangling famously and now reproachfully, at his waist.
Different eyes read different meanings into works of ideational art. His up-raised hand in the painting, and his tremulous forefinger can indicate a different thing to each beholder. To me they seem to say ‘Hold it! Don’t proclaim me an ichhamarani…I am not going with any sense of fulfilment…I am late…I have missed the boat…Don’t miss yours…But perhaps that is what was meant to happen…this young man who has just shot me… His violence is only a sign of the violence everywhere around us…Hatred….Spite…Intolerance…Hindu and Muslim…India and Pakistan…This way it will never end…this conflict…Now it is up to you to change things…to stop this intolerance in thought and word and deed...Don’t you miss the boat…don’t you be late…’
That finger addresses us. The assassin’s smoking gun addresses us too.
Topolski gives us the choice between the signalling hand and the smoking gun.
And then the master artist offers us two extraordinary redemptions.
The first is from the hand, firm, young, confident, rising to hold the dying man’s hand as it is about to come down. It says ‘See, Bapu, I am not late…I am right here…’
The second is another figure, above the prone figure’s right, which is unquestionably the Mahatma in an after-life, stronger and younger than his 79 years, perhaps, at a 69, moving out of the mortal frame, haloed, and confident that he has been heard, heeded.
Today, on the anniversary of that day, we can and must do better than lament the tragedy of that assassination, tragedy that it was, the greatest that has visited Independent India. We must see the smoking gun for what it is: A sputtering tube of insanity. And we must see the brave and strong hand that has been raised to hold Gandhi’s.
The hand raised by civil society to warn and check intolerance has without doubt slowed its spread. But the polarisation of our people, which is the psychological co-efficient of Partition, remains high on the divisive agenda. And terror, in all its gruesome versatility, is delighted by the polarisation. The two — fundamentalist terror and fundamentalist intolerance — fulfil each other.
Festivals used to be communal flashpoints. Our collective good sense has made riots over festivals rare. But elections, democracy’s great festival, load the communal gun. Bihar grabbed it, ejected the cartridges from its muzzle. But we cannot be too vigilant, we cannot be complacent. The steaming mouth is only at one remove from the smoking gun.
The unnamed hand that Topolski shows ready to clasp Gandhi’s is now supporting more than one man’s dream for India. It is supporting India.
# This article is originally written for HT. Author Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor in history and politics, Ashoka University. The views expressed are personal.