The Aesthetics of Change

by Aditya Dev Sood

Gandhicropped I’ve been reading Gandhi’s writings off and on for several months now, but just last week I turned to Joseph Lelyveld’s recent book on him. I’d been thinking about the kind of attitude towards the present that Gandhi must have had, in order to undertake social change at such a spectacular scale. How did Gandhi balance his quest for change with the full possibilities of the present, the taste of the world as he found it? Does Gandhi’s life and thought have a particular aesthetic, and if so, how can we better describe it? Great Soul has many virtues, foremost among them, perhaps, being nuance, and both curiosity and sensitivity to the progressive way in which Gandhi came to acquire his moral compass, his powers of communication and persuasion, and the bouquet of social technologies through which he was able to effect change. Being neither acolyte nor nationalist historiographer, Lelyveld is able to read Gandhi beyond his canonization, first in India, and more recently in post-apartheid South Africa.

Lelyveld’s account of Gandhi’s experiences in the Free State of South Africa would suggest that he found its social universe about as bitter as it was sweet, and that no easy tasting of it was possible without immediately propelling the man back towards the urgent need to make this society and its laws more palatable. Gandhi had always known prestige and status in India, followed by acceptance and inclusion in London, but was confronted by increasingly constricting and constraining social barriers in South Africa. While the young Gandhi was primarily invested in advancing the status of Indian merchants to an equal or approximate footing with Whites, his consciousness is slowly, very slowly pricked in respect of these ‘educated Indians’ relative to indentured Indians or coolies. It is as if the staggered cline of inequality that Gandhi negotiated in South Africa were overstimulating his fight-flight reflexes, preventing him from retiring into any given status plateau, but driving him always to overturn the earth, to remake the social landscape in closer alignment with his own moral framework. While the unequal and iniquitous status of Black Africans in South Africa was never directly addressed by Gandhi, it nevertheless served as the larger backdrop and context within which Gandhi’s thinking developed.

Gandhi began his journey with lawyerly tools, serving as a kind of advocate and public interest litigator on behalf of the Indian community in South Africa. He used the higher principles and public proclamations of the British Empire to contest individual and institutional forms of apartheid which began increasingly rapidly to take root in South Africa after the Boer War. He wrote legalistic letters of protest to administrators of every grade, wrote letters to editors and eventually created his own mouthpiece, Indian Opinion. He organized and hosted meetings of the Natal Indian Congress to firm up and organize public opinion within the Indian merchant community. He eventually led minutely choreographed and highly stylized forms of public protests against racial and invasive forms of documentation required of the Indian community by the free government of South Africa. All these were important and increasingly effective tools through which to engage the government and spur it to action.

But the positive and novel dimensions of Gandhi’s vision came about not from the law, but from live experiments with living, conducted with and upon his own person, and among small social collectives, first at the Phoenix commune and then at Tolstoy Farm. He experimented with his diet, with mud-pack treatments on different parts of his body, with anal suppositories and enemas, and of course with his libido, forswearing sexual communion after having four sons with his wife Kasturba. He experimented socially by living with a couple, by living with a man, by living in camps as a medical volunteer during wartime, by traveling the railways third-class and even, inadvertently, by being imprisoned with indentured Indians and Black Africans. Throughout his life, but especially during his years in South Africa, it would appear that Gandhi was able to imagine new and better forms of everyday life and social organization on account of his having allowed his body and self to interact with its social and material context in new and unanticipated ways.

Lelyveld has a light touch and a deep feel for how Gandhi’s ideas gradually emerged, in response to the ideas and experiences he gained access to in South Africa. His reading of Tolstoy’s specific and vivid denunciations of the social hypocrisies of Czarist Russia, for example, may have triggered Gandhi’s interest changing the way privileged people went to the loo, failed to clean up after themselves and made other people clean up after them. In all of his communes, and in the many temporary camps and mass meetings over which Gandhi would preside throughout his life, he made hygiene and sanitation a central part of his agenda. At the Sevagram ashram, he taught his followers to defecate and urinate into two separate buckets. The stool was taken out and dumped into a field trench and covered over with earth and then with cut grasses. That bucket was then washed using the urine from the other bucket. In Gandhi’s understanding, the societal-functional cause for the existence of untouchability as a social practice was the need for a separate class of society that were required to deal with human excrement and other unclean substances. By focusing on the design and usage of communal and public latrines, he saw a way of eliminating society’s need for a servile underclass dedicated to sanitation and scavenging functions.

Later in his life, Gandhi described an ideal social community as one in which those involved in the composition and combination of foods would have the same status and goals as those involved in the inspection and evaluation of the qualities of stool created by the members of the community. Both groups would view the object of their inquiry with the same point of view — the amelioration of the individual and collective health of the community as a whole. For Gandhi at this point, food is equivalent if not identical to shit — from the point of view of the health of the community. This monistic theory of aesthetics seem to be based on his discovery that ‘the real seat of taste was not the tongue but the mind,’ by which he must also have meant his will. The taste of the tongue was based on habit, routine, context, and social normativity. It can easily be trained to taste otherwise, if only the mind could exert its will over the organ, and allow it to experience life other than it is habituated to doing. Gandhian aesthetics, therefore, involves a drawing away from the direct and uncritical experience of pleasure — no matter what the body tells you, it is only when experience is further interrogated and tasted by the mind that the stimuli of life can be acknowledged as beneficial and giving of health, even if not quite sweet. All kinds of food, non-food, other kinds of stuff, fabric, spaces and people must therefore be experienced uncritically and without prejudgement. Each must be considered, masticated, and then known and evaluated in terms of the larger social effects and resonances that they bring about on account of their production, distribution and eventual consumption.

The Gandhiist aesthetic also requires that we not indulge the mindbody in what it already knows and enjoys, but rather that we offer it new and alternative options and evaluate what kind of response we receive from it. This explains many different aspects of Gandhi’s life and interests at once, especially his midlife vow of chastity. Gandhi never explicitly says this, but we may extrapolate from his other comments to argue that because we already know that our bodies enjoy sexual congress, nothing can be gained from indulging this yearning, while there is much to gain from experimenting with the body’s other truths. Such experimentation requires an attitude of openness and an avoidance of prejudgement or even of preference. In contrast to the flamboyant and expressive tastes of his sometime partner and companion Hermann Kallenbach, Gandhi said that he was in search of 'simple simplicity.' In practice, that meant continuously experimenting with all kinds of new positive and negative forms of stimulus to his own body, which might open up the senses and the intellect to a richer form of communion with the lived universe, allowing it to be tasted more fully beyond his socially-conditioned preferences.

Upon his return to India, Gandhi began advocating a new kind of approach to rural craft, based on the writings of John Ruskin, and his personal observations of contemporary rural life. This approach was called khadi, being based on the example and model of homespun cloth, called khadi, being made of khaddar, homespun yarn. Gandhi became deeply invested in the socio-economic effects that the growth of khadi spinning, ginning, weaving, and dyeing could have for India’s villages. Each of these activities would necessarily involve a local carpenter, a blacksmith, and sundry other tradesmen gainfully employed and engaged in one another’s productivity. The khadi movement was therefore poised against industrialization itself, which in Gandhi’s understanding was the central cause of the misery and impoverishment of India’s villages.

The ethical and organizational principals implicit in the khadi value chain could also be applied to other cottage industries, involved in the production of goods as diverse as soap, incense sticks, honey, jam, and juice. The khadi mark continues to be nurtured by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission of the Government of India for these and a variety of other goods, for which Gandhi continues to serve as brand ambassador. The non-exploitative, non-violent, community-oriented character of the khadi movement, moreover, has since become the model for any number of non-profit organizations and community networks like SEWA in Gujarat, and ultimately informs and inspires microfinance organizations in South Asia and Africa. In the United States, particularly in the Pacific West Coast, vegetarian, organic, green and slow food movements, family and craft-based agricultural businesses, and even large businesses that similarly pledge to not be evil, all hark back to the ethical aesthetic of Gandhi's khadi movement.

I've always found it noteworthy that Gandhi made the charkha his artisanal tool of choice, rather than, say a more simple cotton ginning tool, which might twang loudly or a more sophisticated fabric loom, which might require greater focus and attention as it clatters. His choice surely had something to do with the healing and restorative powers of the device, which he experienced first hand, and which he wrote and spoke about at length. It allowed the ‘cunning of the hands’ to be expressed, it allowed the mind to unravel and come to rest. It could even bring about silent community, when several people worked on their respective wheels together. On account of quiet, meditative penance of work at a charkha, something of value was also created, almost as an excrescence. Long after Gandhi’s martyrdom, Gandhians have echoed his view that the wide-spread adoption of charkha-s in people’s home might be expected to have tremendous socionomic benefits if significant numbers of the population were to adopt it. This argument seems to recall those made by other kinds of group enthusiasts, like those who pursue and advocate running, cycling, meditation, Indian classical music, prayer or community volunteering, and on account of the popularization and global diffusion of Gandhian thought, it has become to hard to tell who is echoing whom.

Actual homespun khadi fabric can be coarse and uneven, with variable thickness of fibre and density of threadcount. To Gandhi’s eyes, this did not make it an extreme and alternative kind of fabric, to be added to one’s personal repertoire and therefore expand one’s personal style, but rather represented the asymptotic possibility of the absence of style, preference and apperception itself. Here, Gandhi reveals himself as a high modernist, anticipating the ascetic-aesthetic arguments of the Bauhaus, the Russian avantgarde, and other shapers of modern visual culture, value, meaning and total-life-style. In the world of India’s fine fabrics, khadi is like burlap or canvas, the blankest surface, the most basic and therefore pure form of material. It both represents and allows the achievement of Gandhi’s austere, ascetic and abstract aesthetic ideal of simple simplicity, affording a surface upon which the body’s pleasure-seeking senses will never alight for very long, but which the mind will continue to savor.

Gandhi’s aesthetic asks of each of us that we seek out and critically appreciate the underlying meaning of things, as revealed through their societal and moral effects, and not merely their visual play upon the senses or their commercial play in the marketplace. This requires a kind of coolness towards the present, and a quiet dedication to its progressive unfurling, rather like the colorless cotton thread that rises out of the spindle and now coils quickly upon the charkha. Whatever new thing comes out of an equitable and inclusive system of relations must inherently be good, and if only our mindbodies are given the chance and opportunity to experience it, we will eventually come around to its taste.