Revisiting Gandhi: The Art of shelly Jyoti includes four bodies of work that have been nearly a decade in the making – Indigo Narratives (2009-17), Salt: The Great March (2013-16), The Khadi March: Just Five Meters (2016-17), and Bound By Duty: An idea Swaraj and Collectiveness (2018).
Centred upon historical references within the cultural context of modern Indian history and contemporary times, my work focuses on Gandhi’s philosophy of nation-building as a means of creating and sustaining moral and peaceful societies.
The first chapter of my journey was in 2008 when I collaborated with Chicago based American-Japanese artist Laura Kina in a two-person exhibition titled Indigo Narratives. As an Indian artist, my reference was the 19th century indigo revolt in eastern India, Neel bidroh. Gandhi’s subsequent intervention, the Champaran movement of 1917-18, was his first satyagraha on Indian soil after he returned from South Africa. Indigo holds an important place in the post-colonial identity of India. The farmers of eastern India were forced to grow indigo crops for British/Eurocentric needs and lived life of oppression, drudgery and subjugation for hundreds of years. In this work, I touched upon socio-political narratives of that period inspired by a play titled Neel Darpan (1857) written by Deen Bandhu Mitra. The play was subsequently banned by the British because of the horrific portrayal of colonial times. Furthermore, I explored indigo as a plant colour and dye. As a designer, my passion for Indian textiles also propelled me to explore the ajrakh textile traditions, ajrakh means indigo in Arabic. I created my first artworks experiencing and learning about the magical reverse block printing technique with natural colours that can be traced back to Indus Valley civilization. I met Junaid bhai Khatri, son of Dr Ismail Bhai Khatri who assisted me in my indigo project. The journey of indigo in my work began in 2008 and has remained one of my primary means of artistic expression.
The second chapter in my journey was Salt – The Great March, where I delved more deeply into the possibilities of establishing alternative societies where Gandhian ideals of swadharma and sarvodaya could be adhered to and sustained with sincere implementation. I was investigating – can swadharma become a movement for uplifting societal values? And, if so, how could textiles, both as material objects and artistic forms, be used to “stitch together” communities otherwise separated by the tensions, violence and degraded human values. I created installations of khadi with Sanskrit calligraphy, giving a kinetic look in the form of structured sails, depicting the walk of Gandhi and hundreds of volunteers before beginning the famous Dandi/salt march. What I mean by ‘swadharma’ within the context of my works is the ‘adherence to one’s moral duty’ towards the society and unto oneself. In this sense, I have purged the traditional negative meaning attached to it and have turned its meaning towards the ‘performative nature of duty’ which is done voluntarily, whole heartedly with a sense of purpose that would eventually make an individual happy and contented.
The genesis of the third chapter of this show The Khadi March: Just Five Meters was a quote from Gandhi’s speech ‘If you can ensure them three annas instead of the three pice that they get today, they will think they have won Swaraj. That is what Khadi is trying to do for the spinners today. (Harijan, 2-1-1937) I felt the need to consider the concept of 5 meters of fabric, the basic length needed to cover oneself. I explored the idea of how 30 crore urban population could bring on another social movement effortlessly by buying five meters once a year as a swadharma towards country. The featured works in this exhibition have two aims, one to touch upon the idea of swadharma towards country, and secondly, to explore a solution to help bridge and connect the urban population with rural people that make up seventy percent of India’s population. It was a call for action for urbanites to engage with weavers, spinners handicraft makers. The use of khadi installation as topis, jackets, and flags in this exhibition is used both as a symbol and as a material that expresses qualities of self-purification, self-reliance and independence.
For the fourth and most recent chapter of my journey, Bound by duty: An idea of Swaraj and Collectiveness, came the idea of the ethical and spiritual self as a foundational source for bringing about social changes and emancipation. I turned to Gandhi’s most important work Hind Swaraj1 to seek answers to my own dilemmas. I wished to understand the meaning and salience of the relationship between self, swadharma, swaraj and social transformation. This was particularly appealing to me considering how technology has entered our lives and how empowered we are in today’s world as citizens who can be so connected to others globally. Having lived over sixty years, I am not comfortable with neglect of the ethical and spiritual self in the philosophy of radical materialism, to which according to Gandhi will result in the degradation of our civilization. This is where I have found Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj enlightening. Gandhi directly reflects on the relationship between the self and social transformation through undertaking a critique of modern civilisation.
I examine the elements of Gandhi’s critique of modern civilization, noting his emphasis on an evolved ethical and spiritual self for creating an alternative perspective of a better world. I continue to explore the idea of swadharma, where one does not have to await a social revolution to create better societies, and, that a better world cannot be sustained without work on the self. Swaraj (self-rule) has to be experienced by each person for themselves, and to further add that ‘real home rule is self-rule or self-control.’ My inspiration is akin to a micro-organism school of fish where trillions collaborate together underseas, displacing water to create ocean currents and waves. I examine the idea of ‘collective impact’ or ‘collectiveness’ in societies that are evolved ethically and spiritually, to bring social changes for better alternate societies. In this exhibition I was attempting to, in essence, build an “aquarium of fish” with ajrakh printing, natural dyes and needlework in an installation where shades of blue khadi fabric symbolize the water body that is the genesis of the beginning and end of life.
As a way of reflecting on, and summing up my work in this exhibition Revisiting Gandhi, I used twenty meters of hanging khadi textiles in a site-specific piece titled Residue, Reflections, Reproductions. In the process of creating the ajrakh scrolls, I place lengths of fabric under each sheet before block printing the material laid out on the studio tables. The marks on the sheets are the outcome of the process of many prior works in progress, residue from the left-over dyes. I hope to convey through this piece that the last decade of my life has been a period of intense study on Gandhi as well one of finding my own self, my own dilemmas, introspections, self-transformation and of reading Vedic literature to connect to Gandhi and the endless ocean. I feel through this process I’m coming closer to comprehending and understanding my life and artistic journey.