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It was on a chance visit to Riverside that I saw a figure towering beneath the blue of the California skies that seemed strangely familiar and brought back memories from my childhood in India-a bronze sculpture of a man wearing a dhoti with a shawl hung over his left shoulder and draped partially over his chest, leaving most of it bare.
Beneath his breast bone, his stomach seemed hollow. His head was bent and through his glasses perched on his nose he gazed down at his path; balding and well past his prime, he nonetheless appeared to be in a perpetual forward motion. Unsmiling, his face did not appear grim rather, it had a contemplative look. Signs of age were visible on his jowls and around his mouth.
A sunken grey and black marble walkway surrounded the statue, and etched on the wall was this quotation by Albert Einstein: “Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this, in flesh and blood ever walked upon this earth.”
Sculptors Madan and Aruna Garge of India have not only created a realistic figure, they have also developed a narrative of Gandhi’s life at the base of the piece. The Mahatma is shown bending down to grab a handful of salt from the Arabian Sea by the shores of Gujarat in defiance of the salt tax imposed on the Indians in 1930 by the British. The soft swell of bronze at the very bottom is evocative of the ocean waves; his wife Kasturba, her sari draped over her head and shoulders, is a step behind by his side. Another scene shows Gandhi being thrown off a railway carriage in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa; yet another depicts him at his spinning wheel making khadi cloth, his left arm outstretched holding a spool of thread.
His message of non-violent struggle has continued to reverberate across the globe during and well after his death. His spiritual heirs include Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. An image of King, the American civil rights leader giving one of his many speeches, stood tall and imposing on the other side of the base. Behind him a much smaller image of Nelson Mandela had been fashioned from the bronze and farther back, almost merging into the background, were the face and figure of Cesar Chavez, famous for his activism for farm workers’ rights, particularly in California. Fewer people may have heard of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, but the Afghan leader known as the “Frontier Gandhi” fought alongside the man from Gujarat to free his country from the same master; he is shown bearded and as being deep in thought.
It took me back many years to my childhood home in Calcutta where the gramophone would belt out a song that at times still rings in my ears, though I do not recall much of the words except the refrain of “Gandhiji ki Jai”; it had a catchy beat and the music flowed like the waves. Little images carved out of polished bamboo of Gandhi clad in a dhoti and carrying a walking stick proliferated in stores as wall hangings or desk ornaments.
The charkha or spinning wheel shown in the sculpture stood as a symbol of the independence struggle-the effort to achieve self-sufficiency from the production of cloth at home as opposed to purchasing material made from cotton grown on Indian soil but manufactured in the mills of Lancashire. It was Gandhi who spearheaded the production of khadi, a homespun cloth useful for daily use. Another potent message may lie in the support of natural fiber and hand-loomed fabrics. Cotton and linen are plant products and hand-loomed textiles typically use vegetable dyes which are not harmful to the environment; moreover, production of such material uses little or no fossil fuels such as coal. These facts may well have particular resonance today.
I recall that college students in Delhi during my time sported khadi kurtas in jewel tones of green, purple, blue, yellow and crimson which were typically worn over jeans. Years later, when I visited India again, I found myself buying some mauve and black floral print khadi fabric and getting a sundress tailor-made.
The sculpture is the brainchild of Lalit Acharya, founder of the Riverside Mahatma Gandhi Peace Foundation, who felt that a monument dedicated to Gandhi would be a good symbol of peace in his city, which saw a build-up of racial tension in 1998 when police shot a black woman.
Placed in a prominent section of the Main Street Mall in downtown Riverside, this symbol of peace and activism remains visible to all local residents as well as visitors and is in fact, right across from the historic Mission Inn. Viewers may note that the Mahatma passed away on January 30, 1948 and this year marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of his assassination. A little known fact is that the United Nations declared Gandhi’s birthday, October 2, be recognized as the International Day of Non-Violence.
Artists express their message through symbolism and imagery and indeed, the Garges’ have demonstrated that they are adept in their art. Gandhi’s classic pose, the forward stride and a walking stick in his right hand, contains a message that may prove timeless and influence generations to come.
Apala G. Egan is a teacher, translator, and writer.