Encashing Gandhi – Ruhe, Melancholia and Fetishes

2 September, 2009 at 18:41 Leave a comment

This is piece from Shiv Visvanathan, who calls himself a social scientist in some paper. In the article, he tells the story of Peter Ruhe, a German collector who roamed India befriending people who took photographs of Gandhi. Most of them were old stalwarts, forgotten and abandoned by a later generation. Most of these photographers were quietly middle-class and delighted to be befriended by a foreigner, conversant about Gandhi and interested in them. They were happy to part with the photographs for a small sum. One man was quietly cornering the market in Gandhian memorabilia, especially photographs. Ruhe now possesses a heritage of photographs aided by the Berne Convention which guarantees protection of artistic work making them prohibitively expensive now. At one level, one can be rational and say that Ruhe’s market instincts have contributed to the public good. As a society, we deface monuments, defile statues and are quite content to display our literacy on archaeological buildings. The craftsmen, the designers, the photographers who have kept our traditions alive are ignored, celebrated only if discovered by a foreign expert. At one level, one can be happy that Ruhe’s efforts saved these pictures from “oblivion” and the indifference of the current generation of Gandhians deep in dentures and mothballs.
Even Gandhians have been parasitic on the earnings from Gandhi as property. For all these years, Gandhi’s writings were copyrighted material, but as the copyright expires, it is up to us to be bold and Gandhian and declare Gandhi as a commons. It is time to invite the world to the celebration of Gandhi and stop treating the expiry of copyright as the great deficit. Once Gandhi becomes part of the world commons, we can start reinventing him again. I think the best words in this context were said by Fidel Castro. The youthful Castro once said, who would dream of a copyright of Quixote or Shakespeare. Who could dare think of patenting jazz? Unfortunately, such an obscenity is becoming an everyday event. World legacies are being transformed into property to be sold through the tourist trade or they become part of kitsch in the world of brands and souvenirs. Yet Gandhians keep silent as Ruhe appropriates their pictures. Is it “melancholia” or a frozen sadness, where a group is unable to mourn, but is caught in the immobility of a memory that neither redeems, liberates or invents. It is a lazy fetishism that reprimands others but refuses to do anything new. Memory is not just recollection. It is remembrance. It is a reinvention of an event and community and involves both individual biography and collective consciousness. One reinvents the social through acts of retelling. Gandhi is legacy, monument, history, memory. The sadness begins when he is treated as property. What gives Peter Ruhe the right to own and charge for photographs of Gandhi? My Answer: He is parasitic. He is foreigner. He is clever.

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    Entry filed under: Citizen-Journalism, India, News-Media, Politics, Pragati.

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