One of my favourite places to visit in Melbourne is the Immigration Museum and last month I caught the final day of a magnificent exhibition on the life of Mahatma Gandhi – one of the greatest men ever to live and whose teachings and life informed, enriched and inspired me.
A great activist who changed the shape of our world by advocating for tremendous social change and justice years before Lenin formed his Bolshevik faction and before Mao Zedong embraced revolutionary ideals.
The 20th century had just begun when Gandhi developed his theories and put into practice a campaign of non-violent resistance to injustice.
Today is World Humanitarian Day (WHD). It is held every year on 19 August to bring attention to the millions of people around the world who are affected by crisis and conflict and pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service and to rally support for people affected by crises around the world.
A fitting day to honour the life of Gandhi and to thank my parents for their influence and guidance in believing social change can and must happen if we want a more just and equitable world.
In my Life Stories & Legacies Class, I often ask the students to write about their beliefs and values and reflect on who and what influenced and perhaps still influences them.
To reflect on how much their parents, teachers, the books they read, personal experiences and current events shape their core beliefs and actions.
We’ve had a tumultuous week in the Australian Parliament revealing the best and worst of our representatives.
A week where Gandhi’s ability to dissolve prejudice in others and inspire courage to act and practise what we preach was sorely needed.
World Humanitarian Day 2018
“Around the world, conflict is forcing record numbers of people from their homes, with over 65 million people now displaced. Children are recruited by armed groups and used to fight. Women are abused and humiliated. As humanitarian workers deliver aid and medical workers provide for those in need, they are all too often targeted or treated as threats.”
Only 1% of the 25 million people who have fled as refugees are ever resettled.
Gandhi believed we are all citizens of the world, unbound by exclusive loyalties of race or creed or class. He became renowned for shedding attachment to material things and at the end of his life, his only worldly possessions were his sandals, watch, glasses, a couple of spoons and bowls and a book of songs!
If only more people believed in such a universal society rather than nationalistic divisions, many more refugees and displaced people would be resettled.
The exhibition at the Immigration Museum approached telling Gandhi’s story by first introducing Gandhi as an immigrant. Indeed the forming of his philosophy to campaign for change in a non-violent way began when he lived and worked in South Africa and suffered discrimination because of his skin colour and ethnicity.
The exhibition combined digital and non-digital storytelling and made good use of extracts from the 1982 Richard Attenborough film, Gandhi and archival footage from documentaries and newsreels. At least Ben Kingsley, the actor chosen to play Gandhi, is of Indian heritage, his father being Gujarati and Ben’s birth name, Krishna Bhanji.
The books I bought and read about Gandhi acquired in the 1970s and it was great to refresh my memory and immerse myself in exceptionally well-laid out exhibits.
Gandhi’s Early Life
Incident At Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
Many people can point to a pivotal moment or event that either changed their attitude or thinking or forced them to change the direction they were heading in life.
Gandhi’s moment was outrage at the unjust humiliation of being ejected from the train despite having a ticket, and being ejected and roughly treated because he was ‘coloured’.
He had a long, cold night to sit in the waiting room and reflect on his undignified treatment and the general status of non-whites in South Africa. His legal training and political beliefs must have worked overtime as he imagined and planned an effective response – and considered the bigger picture, especially in relation to India under British rule.
The year my father was born (1922), Gandhi was actively promoting his doctrine of passive resistance and making headlines in newspapers. My Scottish grandfather (Papa) was well-read for a working-class man and actively involved in the trade union movement. No doubt he followed the stories of Gandhi when he visited England in 1931 and promoted peaceful negotiation of conflict.
Fighting and Marching For Equal Rights in South Africa
In 1913 the Cape Supreme Court ruled that only marriages performed under the Christian rites could be recognised. With the stroke of a pen, all Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian, and other religious marriages were nullified.
This judgement added to long-standing grievances of the Indian community including the three-pound tax on ex-indentured labourers and the law prohibiting Indians from crossing state borders.
Several Indian women, including Gandhi’s wife Kasturba, declared their intention to seek arrest until the judgement was overturned.
Gandhi advised two separate parties of women, the Phoenix Party and Transvaal Sisters, to cross the Natal border and break the law. They were then to urge the people of Natal to join Satyagraha and not reveal their names and addresses upon arrest.
The Phoenix Party was arrested at the border and sent to a hard labour prison for three months in Pietermaritzburg Jail. The Transvaal sisters, however, positioned themselves in Newcastle, Natal without arrest. Their influence spread quickly among the indentured labourers, helping incite massive strikes.
In 1915, Gandhi returned to India and continued to transform himself and the movement towards independence.
The exhibition had several display cabinets with a selection of traditional Indian clay figures, dating from the 1860s and 1880s, to provide a beautiful if at times idealised, representation of the human diversity of Gandhi’s India.
They included fine examples from the famous 19th century Indian workshops of Krishnanagar, Lucknow and Pune. These artefacts have rarely been seen in Australia since many were displayed in the Indian Court at the 1880 Melbourne International exhibition at the Royal Exhibition Building.
I have several friends and have had students who migrated here from India and my daughters have school chums who were born here from immigrant parents but like most people, I probably underestimate the sheer size and diversity of India geographically as well as population-wise.
The clay figures displayed from the Krishnangar, Lucknow and Pune regions, 1860s-1880s. (Museum Victoria Collection) Also figures from Mumbai.
Various people and occupations represented:
- everyday men, poor villager, ‘Palanquin’ carrying army officer, washerman (dhobi), female labourer, office messenger (peon), woman of high rank, drummer, Parsi (Zoroastrian) house servant, Hindu writer, priestess begging for Hindu goddess Kali, musician, cloth dealer’s servant, woman spinning yarn, Muslim man, priest for Hindu goddess Kali, horse keeper (ghorawalla), Hindu clerk, dancer (nautch girl), goldsmith (sonawalla), man carrying bundles, merchant (banian), woman from mercantile class, Parsi (Zoroastrian) gentleman, Hindu tailor, Brahmin woman, policeman, domestic ‘half-caste’ worker (ayah), Muslim gentleman, agricultural female worker (ryot), priest, Muslin cloth seller, potter at wheel, fruit seller, water carrier, horse groom, Bengali man, teacher (pundit), woman wearing lace shawl, seated priest sewing, poor villager.
Clay figure modelling in India
Clay figure modelling has been widely practised in India for hundreds of years. Models of humans, animals and scenes from everyday life have been used for worship, as toys, ornamentation and for ethnographic purposes. A gradual shift towards naturalism in clay figure modelling in certain regions increased during the 18th century with the arrival of Western traders, European settlers and planters who took souvenirs home from India.
While the manufacture of traditional clay toys and religious idols continued, the manufacture of naturalistic clay models was centred in the regions of Krishnanagar, Lucknow and Pune. The establishment of government art schools in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay (now Mumbai) during the late 19th century further increased European influence on the various styles of clay modelling.
The advent of international exhibitions, the first held in London in 1851, saw an increasing interest in the peoples, customs and traditions of the non-Western world. The established tradition of clay figure modelling in India was an obvious way to represent an often idealised Indian people, life and culture.
What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
Salt March was Right Against Might…
On 6 April 1930, Gandhi and his followers produced salt on the shores of Dandi, breaking the Salt Law. Time magazine declared Gandhi the “Man of the Year’ in 1930 and more than 1300 newspapers around the world reported the Salt March.
In June 2011, Time magazine declared the Salt March as the second most influential protest in the world.
My parents were married the year Gandhi was assassinated (1948) and after living through the tragedy and horror of WW2, my father threw himself into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and like many others, he was certainly inspired by Gandhi.
When I was a child I can remember the conversations of adults who visited our home and the discussions between my parents about the merits of various methods to effect change.
One name was often mentioned – Mahatma Gandhi, an activist who changed the shape of the world by encouraging people to fight for change by non-violent civil disobedience.
In the 1930s, Gandhi’s main concern was for the untouchables, whom he called the Harijans or Children of God. He strongly campaigned against systems of privilege and deliberately did the cleaning duties, particularly the cleaning of toilets, considered the duties of the untouchables.
The removal of the worst features of the caste system occupied him during this decade.
He transformed his own ashram at Sabarmati into a centre for training untouchables and edited a paper called Harijan, contributing most of his later writings.
The Brotherhood of All Religions
Gandhi was a deeply spiritual person who believed religion was a private matter and that each person made their own approach to God. Any attempt to create a religious state unacceptable as was any other way of differentiation between people.
His life-threatening fasts to achieve a goal legendary, and none more so than towards the end of his life when inter-communal massacres at the time of India’s liberation derailed a smooth transition to independence.
His attempt to solve the religious divisions, notably the divide between Hindu and Muslim led to a pilgrimage through the most troubled regions. Sadly, he died at the hands of a religious fanatic and his dream of a society without social or religious discrimination died too.
Gandhi Championed a Simple Life
Gandhi worked hard on a practical level to rehabilitate and promote the Indian village, reviving agriculture, industry, education and other features of the rural culture of India. He believed his vision of communal reconciliation and a thorough reformation of Indian society at this basic level would benefit everyone. he had a desire to turn the tribes of India into self-supporting farmers.
The combination of good farming and craftsmanship would ensure a sufficient but not luxurious life.
A spinning wheel similar to the one he used and an example of spun cotton was on display. Gandhi never asked anyone to do anything he did not and he spent 15 minutes spinning every day – his meditation time – a therapeutic exercise he recommended.
Gandhi’s ideas came with strong moralistic and anarchistic leanings.
‘The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form… self-government means continuous effort to be free of government control, whether it is foreign, or whether it is national… The ideally non-violent state will be an ordered anarchy.’
Women he regarded as the most exploited class of India, next to untouchables. He believed men and women were complementary – equal in status, but different in function. He campaigned for the abolition of purdah, child marriage and all customs that discriminated against women.
He believed that once women were liberated from male exploitation they would develop a high degree of sexual restraint and solve India’s population problem without other birth control methods, which he saw as an encouragement to indulgences.
Gandhi’s ideas and action challenged and changed our way of thinking.
A complex, courageous man who continually transformed himself to remain engaged with the times and true to his ideals.
Most of the protest movements that followed his death and liberation struggles in other countries whether it was the civil rights movement in the USA, anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam marches, the campaign against racial discrimination and Apartheid or a free Tibet – all owe a great deal to Gandhi’s legacy.