Gandhi Transformation Series:
Reflections on the Life and Work of Gandhi through Painting
by Kate Brelje
The Gandhi Transformation Series is a collection of works by Kate Brelje created in the spring of 2007 in response to the content of Professor Tim McElwee and Prof. Richard Johnson’s course on Gandhi. The original objective of the project was to use visual representation through weekly posters that incorporated the class readings and discussion in a brief presentation at the beginning of each class. By the end of the semester, the posters painted in acrylic on poster board numbered ten and revealed a coherent chronological organization.
The paintings transitioned from representational style and biographical subject matter to abstract and conceptual subject matter. The first three paintings are rooted in pivotal transient biographical events. The next three show a stylized representation of the Mahatma present in three of his most groundbreaking philosophies. The following three leave Gandhi the man behind and display abstracted interpretations of his concepts present in a world devoid of his corporeal presence. The final painting is a personal depiction of Gandhi from the eyes and mind of the artist. This transformation reveals the underlying message of the artist: to learn from Gandhi’s life and teachings and apply them to the viewer’s own mission and work, continuing the legacy. To grasp a better understanding of the series as a whole, one must examine each work individually to see how the pieces fit together, not only stylistically but contextually.
The first painting in the series begins unfolding the biography of Gandhi. Entitled “The Desert,” it is a portrait of Gandhi and his wife Kasturbai in the early years of their life together. Gandhi, dressed in an English suit with an English haircut, stares directly at the viewer. He went to England as a young man to study law, only to become frustrated at his inability to work in the courtroom upon his return to India.1 The piece shows Gandhi’s early adulthood as a place of distance, emptiness and frustration. He sought to fit into a mold which he was not capable – young husband (at the age of thirteen), young father, western lawyer, successful and profitable man capable of providing for his family.2 Kasturbai stands at a distance from her husband because during this time, his relationship with his wife was purely sexual for his part and this scarred their relationship.3
This period of Gandhi’s life in some ways mirrors the experience of figures in Christianity. Jesus’ time spent in the desert being tempted by the devil prepared him for his ministry, through a painful time of reflection which emboldened his beliefs and spirit.4 In the same way, Gandhi spent time in disjointed relationships, in foreign schools, and in a state of internal frustration in order to come to the realization that he step forth from the broken image of himself that society had dealt him and live by his religious convictions. Train tracks are shown in the background approaching the two. This symbolizes the coming of that pivotal moment in Gandhi’s life when he refused to leave his seat for racist reasons on the train to South Africa.5
This piece exhibits the most use of realism and is based on a photograph of Gandhi from 1906.6 The following two paintings also employ photographs as the initial script for the depiction of Gandhi, though the compositions are of the artist’s creation. The use of poster board reflects the artist’s desire to create paintings that are unpretentious and simple. At the beginning of the process, she was not sure what form the project would take, and thus began simply open to the creative suggestion that ensued. Even the use of acrylic paint was an effort to utilize resources already in her possession.
Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa are depicted in the second painting, “The Seeds of Satyagraha.” Gandhi stands in the foreground, with a determined look in his eye. Small seeds fall from his hand, the seeds of his future nonviolent campaigns in India. Behind the figures, hills appear plowed in rows symbolizing the groundwork Gandhi was laying for future endeavors. While in South Africa he fought the injustices requiring the Indian population to submit fingerprints and register identification to the local police force and invalidating all marriages not cemented in Christian churches.7 These measures took away the right of children to own land that their parents pass down to them, due to their illegitimate status, among other repercussions. The nature of the oppression aided in the male willingness to allow the involvement of women, since they had as much at stake by the dissolution of their wedded legitimacy as men. The success of his action in South Africa laid a foundation and a path for his work in India.8
The basis of these actions was a concept and practice called satyagraha. This term will be explained more in-depth for the fourth painting, but briefly it literally means “soul force.”9 The individual’s soul seeks truth and finds the interconnectedness of all beings, thus encouraging the individual to live in a peaceful, loving lifestyle, seeking the truth in each individual and situation.
The style of this second piece mirrors that of the first. His physical appearance has changed greatly: his hair is cut short, rather than in the English fashion, and his clothes likewise take on a more traditional Indian style. The inspiration for his appearance comes from a photograph of him during the satyagraha campaign in South Africa in 1913.10 Gandhi emphasized the connection between inner and outer transformation, that one must reflect in all actions his moral and religious beliefs.
The third painting shows the metaphorical campaign for Swaraj, or self rule.11 Gandhi is shown in traditional, simple clothing. His unpretentious, humble stance reveals the deep introspection required of all followers of nonviolence – first a quest for personal self control, then a larger battle for hind swaraj, or self rule for Indians.12 Without self examination and purification, the political pursuit for rights and self governance is futile. Gandhi appears alone in this piece to articulate the importance of the individual commitment to peace before engaging in mass scale social movements. The composition is asymmetrical and primarily empty except for the thin frame of the Mahatma. This uncomfortable space creates a feeling of vast aloneness, a place where self control often takes its seekers. In Gandhi’s hands in a pile of sand symbolizing the plea “India for the Indians.”
The fourth painting marks the transition of the series from biographical content to stylized representation of the Mahatma’s concept of satyagraha. Satyagraha, or soul force, as stated earlier seeks to find and uncover truth. The way of truth requires those that seek it to live for the love and unity of all. In the piece, Gandhi bows his head in acknowledgment to the superiority of the love, the soul force which flows in all beings. Throughout Gandhi’s writing on politics, religion, policies, and various other topics, one unchanging facet present in his ideas continues to surface – throughout everything runs a strong attitude of love for all living things. Love ruled his interactions with political opponents, members of different religions, and the British. Where there is conflict, love overflows and has the potential to overcome the problems and humble those involved.
Gandhi’s theories about political and social configuration and change are intimately rooted in religious belief. The fifth painting, “Fruit of Truth,” displays an interpretation of his model for religious beliefs. Gandhi is located in the foreground gazing at an apple hanging from a branch of a tree winding up from the ground behind him. The tree, multicolored and woven, reaches up to the sky, slowly segmenting off until separate branches move further and further from the trunk. The trunk is Truth, firmly rooted and cohesive, breathing life into each branch. The branches, however, stretch out from the base losing traces of truth with each inch they gain towards the outside world. These are the different religious beliefs and traditions. Now they appear to be diametrically opposed in practice, but Gandhi believed that each held a grain of truth, some facet of its ultimate origin that linked it with the others.13
The apple which hangs from one of these branches is satyagraha, the life and existence of love for all. No one branch could bear this fruit, but rather the seeking of truth yields it. Gandhi eyes it with an excitement and almost jealously, wanting to discover and harness the power of the soul-force, but his image only reflects poorly on the surface of the apple. During the height of his work in India, Gandhi believed that the satyagraha that he and his followers had was a strong form of satyagraha that resulted from purity and integrity. Near the end of his life, however, he became depressed at the results of his life’s work and thought that the satyagraha instead had been weak.14 While the young form of Gandhi glories at the apple, only a faint reflection appears on the apple to demonstrate the later thoughts of Gandhi.
“Peace” is the subject and title of the sixth painting. Gandhi again appears in the foreground in his stylized spiritual form, only now his head is fully bowed and arms raised. Hands of several shades and positions lift the Mahatma’s arms to the sky. Satyagraha strengthens their bonds as a red ribbon winding through their forms. Any serious peace effort requires cooperation and relies on the work of more than one individual, no matter how charismatic he or she might be. Gandhi continuously formed relationships with people during his campaigns; even those who were considered his enemies with opposing views on policies. When one forms a relationship with another, however, it is easier to see their humanity and take the conflict out of a personal attack context and put it into perspective as a disagreement on policy. This peace begs the viewer to look beyond traditional stereotypes and slurs, to form relationships with others in order to benefit the whole of humanity.
The seventh painting marks another shift in the series. While “Be the Change” appears to have stylistic similarities to the past three, there are differences which mark the transition away from Gandhi the man and spiritual being to abstracted representation of Gandhian concepts. For this painting, the artist meditated on Gandhi’s famous quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”15 Hands finger paint the visage of Gandhi smiling as abstract lines ripple and pull from the fingers. A spiral resonates from one of the fingers on the left hand, creating ripples and waves extending beyond its immediate surroundings. The hand individuals extend to the world, touching it with love and concern, sets in motion movements beyond the originator’s control. The right hand’s action of painting the face of Gandhi is a personal choice and element for the artist. She utilizes her trade and resources to paint her picture of Gandhi, to communicate the truth that she witnesses and testifies to. Green spirals grow from the wrist, acknowledging that each action done by someone out of love plants seeds to encourage the growth of humanity.
Stylistically, the piece is more abstracted and takes the focus away from Gandhi. While his picture is again centered, the foreground is taken up by the hands creating his visage. Gandhi is corporeally gone, but his song of hope and cooperation will continue to be sung by those who follow his teachings and find truth in his words. The responsibility shifts from the Mahatma to the here and now, to those impacted by his life and driven by love.
“The Constructive Program” is the subject of the eighth painting. Green tendrils drop from above and grow from below with a gap in between them, as dark green string entwines and connects them. Woven in the tendrils is a simple spinning wheel which releases its yarn winding throughout the left side of the picture plane. The green tendrils are the upper and lower classes of Indian society. Gandhi believed that through his proposed Constructive Program the deeply divided economic spheres of society could be united through compulsory physical labor.16 Each day or week, no matter one’s occupation, all would participate in manual labor. Through this work each person would grow closer to those working with him from every cross section of society, fostering relationships that would ensure that resources are more evenly distributed. If someone in the middle class, for example, had excess resources to help an impoverished friend, would she not share those resources? Through these relationships, cemented by physical labor, Gandhi sought to transform society, much like his own use of relationship formation in conflict resolution with the British.
The final abstract painting, “The Nonviolent Soul,” displays peaceful living and interaction in the world. A small reddish orange flame is encapsulated in a calm circle representing the spiritual fervor and passion driving the peaceful acknowledgment of the soul. A thick blue skin protects the soul and ripples out to calm the bombardment of conflict and violence, in the form of red and purple spikes attempting to attack the soul. The soul is not content to simply hold up in its own self righteous contentment, however. Yellow beams wriggle forth reaching out to the violence surrounding the soul, encouraging healing and transformation through communication.
The last painting in the series is an artistic epilogue. “The Quiet Man of Peace” displays three pictures of Gandhi which the artist most connects with when depicting her personal view of Gandhi. His primary picture located in the center was painted in thick, calligraphic lines, creating a bold, simple figure. His head is bowed, again, attesting to his humility and quiet persona as a seeker of truth, peaceful revolutionary, and student. The other depictions show his love and determination. This piece represents one view of Gandhi the man. There are many different concepts and pictures in the minds of people across the globe displaying who Gandhi was and what his message means to them. The painting begs the audience to search themselves for definitions of who this man was: a revolutionary, a fool, an idealist, a holy man, a secular leader, a visionary, a traitor?
Creating The Gandhi Transformation Series was a challenging artistic and academic process. It grapples with how to communicate the writings and concepts of an historical figure while simultaneously and intimately communicating with the viewer in a way that is engaging and requires personal reflection and thought. The impact of the series lies on the shoulders of the viewers.
Kate is a senior art and philosophy double-major. Her work on Gandhi was also submitted for the 2008 Student Research Symposium at Manchester University. Kate is currently studying abroad in Sapporo, Japan, with Brethren Colleges Abroad.
1. Easwaran, Eknath. Gandhi the Man. Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1975. 20.
2. Johnson, Richard L.. Gandhi's Experiments with Truth. Lanham, MD: Lexinton Books, 2006, 3-5.
3. Johnson, 9.
4. The Bible New Testament Luke 4:1-13.
5. Johnson, 6.
6. Easwaran, 23.
7. Ibid., 43.
8. Johnson, 17.
9. Ibid., 10.
10. Easwaran, 45.
11. Johnson, 11.
12. Gandhi, M.K.. The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Washington D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1960.
13. Johnson, 335-6.
14. Ibid., 141-2.
15. Moncur, Michael. "Mahatma Gandhi." The Quotations Page. 24 Mar 2008 <http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Mahatma_Gandhi/>.
16. Johnson, 27.