Simply Does it

Gandhiji believed true art is always simple and natural and there should not be any need for the artist or the writer to explain it to the viewer or the reader, says Dr Varsha Das

Can a person who wrapped his body with unstitched cloth, got his head shaved, moved among unprivileged and exploited people, fought for freedom and justice all his life be remotely connected with arts and aesthetics? This description befits only one person in this world, and that is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known as Gandhiji or Bapu. Surprisingly, he did have very clear views on art and literature – they were as simple and straightforward as he himself was. He believed that “All true art is always simple and natural.” It should be understood by all. There should not be any need for the artist or the writer to explain it to the viewer or the reader. Gandhiji’s views on beauty are connected with human beings and the nature, and that is not limited to what one sees with one’s naked eyes. Real beauty, according to him, is purity of heart. For example he wrote in the journal Harijan, dated April 7, 1946: “Why can’t you see the beauty of colour in vegetables? And then there is beauty in speckless sky. But no, you want the colours of the rainbow which is a mere optical illusion. We have been taught to believe that what is beautiful need not be useful and what is useful cannot be beautiful. I want to show that what is useful can also be beautiful.”

Beautiful and useful are not mutually contradictory terms. Rainbow, as we know is an arch showing prismatic colours in their order formed in the sky opposite sun by reflection, double refraction and dispersion of sun’s rays in falling drops of rain. It looks beautiful. Even Gandhiji might have found it beautiful. However, since it is not a solid substance, only an optical illusion, it fades away after some time. Gandhiji draws our attention to illusive beauty of rainbow, and not to get trapped by such illusions in our day to day life.

“Truth (Satyam) is the first thing to be sought for, and Beauty (Sundaram) and Goodness (Shivam) will then be added unto you. Jesus was, to my mind, a supreme artist because he saw and expressed Truth; and so was Muhammad, the Koran being the most perfect composition in all Arabic literature–at any rate, that is what scholars say. It is because both of them strove first for Truth that the grace of expression naturally came in and yet neither Jesus nor Muhammad wrote on Art. That is the Truth and Beauty I crave for, live for, and would die for.” (Young India, 20 Nov, 1924)

Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), Russian writer and thinker, was one of those whom Gandhiji deeply respected. They had never met, their age difference was almost 40 years, but they did write to each other. Tolstoy’s book What is Art? And Essays on Art was first published in Russian in 1898. His essays on art were published between 1861 to 1905. The book was translated into English by Aylmer Maude, and was published in 1930. In his Introduction, Maude says, “Tolstoy was intensely interested at different times in many different subjects but was always interested in art…It took him fifteen years to elucidate the ideas expressed in What is Art?” Tolstoy was no more by the time Gandhiji could lay his hand on this book. However, we do find some similarity in their views on art and beauty. Great thinkers often think alike.

In the second chapter of What is Art? Tolstoy says, “What is this strange conception of ‘beauty’, which seems so simple to those who talk without thinking, but in defining which all philosophers of various tendencies and different nationalities can in a century and a half come to no agreement? What is this conception of beauty on which the dominant doctrine of art rests?”

In the fifth chapter of the same book, Tolstoy defines art. He says, “If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art.”  While describing Brahman in the Upanishada we come across the concept of Neti Neti, (Not this, not this) because it is difficult to fathom the concept of Brahman. Tolstoy has also used similar process of negation while talking about beauty. He says,  “Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not as the aesthetic physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensible for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity.”

This is so similar to what Gandhiji wrote in Young India, on November 13, 1924, “There are two aspects of things – the outward and the inward. The outward has no meaning except insofar as it helps the inward. All true art is thus the expression of the soul. The outward forms have value only insofar as they are the expression of the inner spirit of man.”  

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