Imaging the freedom tree: Review of ‘Insurgency and the Artist’ by Vinay Lal

Vinay Lal sets himself this enormous task to mark the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence.

Published : Apr 20, 2023 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

“Untitled” by Babuji Shilpi, gouache, 1942. From the Collection of Darshana Shilpi Rouget and Ajit Shilpi

“Untitled” by Babuji Shilpi, gouache, 1942. From the Collection of Darshana Shilpi Rouget and Ajit Shilpi | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Even 75 years later, the cover image on the dust jacket of Vinay Lal’s Insurgency and the Artist creates a sense of intense expectation in the viewer. Though untitled, it captures the stirring call of Gandhi’s prophetic command “Do or die” on August 8, 1942.

Insurgency and the Artist: The Art of the Freedom Struggle in India
Vinay Lal
Roli Books
Pages: 260
Price: Rs.2,495

The painting by Babuji Shilpi (gouache, 1942; From the Collection of Darshana Shilpi Rouget and Ajit Shilpi) suggests a panoramic view of the moment from different vantage points. It combines a Moghul artist’s perspective, situating each separate group of people at the same eye level by using stylised trees and barriers and platforms to suggest a vast concourse of expectant individuals ready for action.

The multitudinous crowd of Indians—men, women, and some children—are wearing different forms of clothes; many of them sport the singular white Gandhi topi, others wear turbans, Parsi pagdis, andred Turkish-style fez caps. Policemen standing by in their sola topis appear to be magnetically drawn to the Gowalia Tank Maidan of Bombay, as it was then known. There are even cameos of street vendors dispensing refreshments to those waiting in the sidelines of history as it happens.

One can almost hear the words “Quit India” circling through the air. Do we add, as the text does not tell us, that the term was coined by the trade union leader and communist Yusuf Meherally? The place is now known in Mumbai as the August Kranti Maidan. Somewhere in the melee, Aruna Asaf Ali with her young woman’s enthusiasm is waiting to plant the Indian flag on the ground.

The book’s dust jacket serves as a poster. When unfolded inside out, it reveals a galaxy of leaders around the central image of Gandhi. They are identified as belonging to the Congress, though that was not a permanent marker for some of them. The imagery suggests a tree—or Kalpataru—“The Freedom Tree”, as it has been named. There are matching motifs in the four corners, the Indian tricolour flying at the top, and two horsemen in each of the lower ends. They show Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose riding together at the left, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad at the right.

Rather unusually for him, Gandhi is shown with a small red tika on his forehead at the lower central part of the poster, framed within an “Om”. There are also crowned images of Mother India looking unusually young and maidenly.

Just decoding the many facets and personalities in the Freedom Tree poster allows us to contemplate the enormous task that Vinay Lal has set himself in retelling the saga of the struggle for freedom through the visual records that he has collected and re-interpreted to mark the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence.

Even from a cursory reading, it would seem that many of the women represented in the poster appear to be from South India. Some of these names are well-known, as in the case of Captain Lakshmi with her martial salute, representative of the famous Rani of Jhansi regiment under Bose’s Indian National Army that was created to liberate the country through Burma and the north-east.

Others, like Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, G. Durgabai Deshmukh, Aruna Asaf Ali, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, her sister-in-law Kamala Nehru, and a somewhat diminished-by-then figure of Annie Besant, could be declared pan-Indian.

As a Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), for over three decades, Vinay Lal wears many hats. As a prolific author of some 20-odd books that comprise a vast panorama of interests that include history, popular culture, cinema, art, and the enduring experiments in non-violent discourse in postcolonial societies, one shining strand always appears to be his abiding faith in the message and life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

“The Rani of Jhansi on Horseback kills an Englishman with her Sword”, artist unknown, opaque watercolour on paper, c. 1860.

“The Rani of Jhansi on Horseback kills an Englishman with her Sword”, artist unknown, opaque watercolour on paper, c. 1860. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Professor Lal has created a time frame for his study. It spans the era after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 (also called the First War of Independence) and to a few months following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948.

He does not pretend to be writing a historical record. Nor does he create what has now become the norm, a balance sheet of the victims and victors, the heroes and villains lurking in the undergrowth. Though in many of the vividly reproduced posters, prints, woodcuts with their often lurid mythological references to the eternal battle between neo-asuras and devas, it is difficult to actually draw a line.

What is left out

It is also instructive to be aware of what has been left out. While he tells us from the outset why he has not included Babasaheb Ambedkar in his pantheon, citing his rise in the public imagination to a later date, those of us in the South of the Vindhyas will surely suffer from what might be labelled, subverting a term made famous by Gayatri Spivak, the epistemic angst of being Dravidian subalterns.

Must we remind him that it was in a train, in a third-class compartment of course, that Gandhiji heard (as the story goes) that wearing khadi was a luxury for the poor? It was in Madurai that he finally shed the layers of his Gujarati garments in exchange for the loincloth and upper-body cloth of the South Indian peasant.

“Vinay Lal does not pretend to be writing a historical record. Nor does he create a balance sheet of the victims and victors, the heroes and villains lurking in the undergrowth.”

Never mind, Lal’s erudition plasters these rifts along with the artistic reproductions. There is, for instance, a wonderful portrait of the tribal hero, now designated freedom fighter Birsa Munda (1857-1900) in the Chota Nagpur Plateau by Upendra Maharathi (page 176). Lal frames Munda’s rebellion within the larger struggles citing the Deccan riots of 1875 and the Mappila uprisings of the 1880s and 1890s.

As Lal observes: “The fact that these agitations were often directed at moneylenders and landlords, as I have mentioned earlier, may lead some to question whether these should be viewed as manifestations of nationalism, but the rebels often saw clearly the collusion between these native elites and the white man’s rule even if some historians chafe at these easy associations. But none of this, as far as I am aware, even decades later, elicited the attention of Indian artists, when the Congress positioned itself as the champion of the rights of the subaltern Indians.” Since the area has been contiguous to those that led to the emergence of the naxalite movement, one can only say: explain that to a naxalite.

“Kalpataru: The Freedom Tree” by M. Thimmiah Sresty, chromolithograph, 1946. (Collection of Anil Relia Ahmedabad) 

“Kalpataru: The Freedom Tree” by M. Thimmiah Sresty, chromolithograph, 1946. (Collection of Anil Relia Ahmedabad)  | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The Hinduisation of Gandhi

To revert to the Kalpataru poster, this is what Lal tells us in Chapter 10: “In real life, it became difficult for many people to look past Gandhi; here one must read the names of the other figures, while Gandhi looms large over everyone and occupies the most significant mass of the body of the tree. What is not less notable is the distinct Hinduisation of Gandhi. It is very much the case that Gandhi never thought of himself as anything other than Hindu, or more precisely as a believer in the varnashrama dharma, but it is equally true that he did not think of himself as only a Hindu, and that he similarly fought for a secular state. Still, the printmaker here, envelops Gandhi within the sign of aum (Om), and places the figure of Bharat Mata underneath him. The small vermilion dot in the middle of his forehead is most unbecoming of Gandhi, it is not to be seen in any photographs of him, but this was obviously a liberty that the printmaker felt entitled to take. He is identified as Aryadesh ke Aadarsh Neta, Maryada Purushottama Mahatma Gandhiji.

He adds: “This poster was released in 1946, and perhaps the communalisation had proceeded so far along that Gandhi was being identified as the principled leader of Aryadesh, literally the land of the Aryans; but the use of the phrase ‘Maryada Purushottam’, the supreme perfect man who is also peerless places him in the genealogy of Ram.” (pages 224-225)

What makes these remarks interesting is that in Chapter 1, titled “The Art of the Freedom Struggle and the historian”, Lal seems to underline his reasons for his epic study in no uncertain terms. “The India we grew up in was poor, even desperately poor, but the country was at peace—or at least was not being convulsed, as seems to be the case today, by the targeted killing of political and intellectual dissenters, the lynching of Muslims merely suspected of transporting cows to slaughter, the open calls for a Hindu rashtra, the brash celebration of Gandhi’s assassin as a martyr, or the merciless trolling of ‘liberals’ as ‘anti-national’, and what might be called a political climate that feeds on hate, fear, vindictiveness and suspicion.” (page 11)

Elsewhere, he reminds us how the poets and itinerant saints and singers have kept alive the soul of India. By his meticulous collating of reproductions by the Indian artists, Professor Lal has grafted new branches to the Kalpataru of India’s Freedom Tree.

Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer, critic, and cultural commentator.

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