Three bullet marks on his frail and fallen body, blood dripping down his khadi wrap, wailing faces all around him - the picture of Mahatma Gandhi dying in the arms of his followers is once again haunting the people of India, 72 years after his death. The painting, made by an artist in Kerala in July last, has been shared many times on January 30, the anniversary of Gandhi’s death. Political leaders like Rahul Gandhi and Kanhaiya Kumar shared the painting online. It’s also become the cover of Kerala Budget 2020 and Finance Minister Thomas Isaac duly credited the artist, a courtesy shown by few before him, including Gandhi and Kumar.
Tom Vattakuzhy, the artist, painted the picture when the thought had struck him many months ago, at his home in Muvattupuzha, a Kochi town. It has not been as easy as converting thought to an image. Tom did many days of research and study before he began the painting. “The political scenario in India is changing, so are the secular values that we once dreamed of. We are going through such times that there is a tendency to interpret history in a different manner. As an artist, I should not work in a bubble. Art should echo the times the artist lives in,” says Tom, speaking to TNM over the phone.
‘Not given credit’
He calls his Gandhi painting the ‘History Painting: Death of Gandhi’. When Tom shared the History Painting on Facebook, there was a lot of public response. It was like they had been waiting for something like this, he says.
“But my friends, who saw my work shared, lamented that I was not credited, that I was nowhere in the picture. A painting does not happen in a jiff, there is a lot of work behind it, from the moment it is conceived to the point it gets a visual form. You don’t create for the sake of creation. You create when an idea touches your mind. And in this case, I needed to read a lot of history, meditate, think. Maybe it is negligence or else, ignorance, that makes people forget these basic courtesies, like crediting the author. You expect a layman to be culturally unaware but you don’t expect a national leader to be. Perhaps he (referring to Rahul Gandhi) did it too soon, without the time to think. I hope he’d acknowledge (my work). It is not just about my work. Every art work deserves respect and it is thoughtless not to credit an artist,” Tom says.
On the day Rahul Gandhi posted the picture, Tom wrote on his Facebook page: “As a painter of this work, I am happy that it is reaching out to multitudes in the width and breadth of our country. When our horizons of freedom are at stake, when our historical past is at stake, I wanted this painting, as an indelible poignant memoir, to be etched into the soul of every Indian and keep reminding us always of how our father of the nation died or rather (got) assassinated. But it saddens me as a painter, to see the work being circulated like a fatherless child without acknowledging its authorship.”
Tom is glad that the painting has become the cover of the Kerala budget document. It will also send out a message that art is something that is in tune with the times you live in, he says. Tom feels that art is often trivialised as a sort of romanticism that a niche group of people who visit galleries indulge in.
He is not sure what really attracted people to the picture of Gandhi’s assassination. “It could be at an emotional level, or it could be Gandhi’s posture. But do people see its depth?” he asks.
The question the painting asks
The angle of the picture is significant, the artist states. The view offered by the painting is of someone standing at a height, not on the ground – perhaps someone closer to the killer, Nathuram Godse.
“Most of us tend to see only what’s on the surface. But, an insight is just as important. The painting asks the viewer, ‘where do you stand in the picture’. It makes one question oneself – where do I place myself in the picture, am I standing by Godse?” he says.
Tom extends the theory to everyday life. When an accident occurs, for instance, people remain mute spectators, not coming to the aid of the fallen. “We are becoming a passive society. All types of evil grow in the silence of others.”
Another much-discussed painting
Another painting of Tom’s that was much talked about is the one he made of Mata Hari, the Dutch exotic dancer, who was executed in France allegedly for being a German spy during World War I. Tom’s painting 'Supper at a Nunnery' had Mata Hari and nuns sitting around a table, in a similar posture as Jesus Christ and his disciples for the Da Vinci painting Last Supper. There was much furore then, and Tom was accused of hurting religious sentiments. Mata Hari in the picture is bare-chested and this appears to have offended some.
Tom Vattakuzhy's painting - Supper at a Nunnery
“It all comes down to how you look at a piece of art. Whether it is cinema or literature, it is not only about what the story is, but how the story is told. The ‘how’ matters a lot. A picture is beyond words, it is a dialogue from the heart to heart and only those who have compassion and humanity in them can understand one,” Tom says.
He refers to the recent chain of issues when the Church has been accused of many ‘misdoings’ and none of them received the same response as the painting did. “No one was seen on the streets, burning anything. That showed hypocrisy,” Tom says.
Love and compassion are the essence of every religion and yet what these religious institutions do is to move further away from that very essence by adopting ways of violence for political gain, Tom says. He did not see Christ as someone with a beard and long hair. He did not see Christ with a certain colour or gender or race but as a feeling of love and compassion.
“Christ, to me, is an emotion. Christ is there in pain and poverty. I am not part of any ‘ism’, except humanism. Mata Hari is someone who had to bear the ills of a patriarchal society. We live in a world where nudity is seen as vulgarity. Being nude means you have nothing to cover or hide. Their problem was that Mata Hari was baring her chest. In every such controversy, no one seeks the truth,” says the artist.