Saturday, May 08, 2010

Clothes down the occupation: Gandhian freedom fashion

Gonsalvez, Peter (2010). Clothing for liberation: A communication analysis of Gandhi’s swadeshi revolution. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

The connection of homespun cloth—khadi—to India’s liberation is well known. But the progression of Gandhi’s increasingly radical dress and the communication elements and effects are documented and evaluated in Clothing for liberation: A communication analysis of Gandhi’s swadeshi revolution by Social Communication professor Peter Gonsalves (Salesian Pontifical University, Rome). For scholars of semiotics, social movements, nonviolence and Gandhi, this is a welcome addition to the ever-growing oeuvre of Gandhicentric analysis.
Gonsalves organizes his analysis in five sections. First, the overview and amazing statistics of Gandhi’s prolific output as assembled under the initial order of Nehru into the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, the sweeping blockbuster (or at least wheelbarrow buster) of 100 volumes of Gandhi’s writings, averaging 500 pages each. From his study of this and of other Gandhi scholars’ analysis, Gonsalves concludes that Gandhi “was convinced that only a communication strategy that was methodologically planned, hermeneutically relevant, creatively symbolic, morally disciplined, geographically extensive and founded uncompromisingly on satya [truthfulness] and ahimsa [nonviolence] would succeed” (p. 2).
Second, Gonsalves examines Gandhi’s fashion evolution through the lens of the theories of Roland Barthes, French cultural analyst, structuralist and semiotician. Key to this set of connections is the synthesis and illumination of the structuralist approach as “its fundamental tenet lies in its attempt to study not just the elements of a whole, but the complex network of relationships that link and unite those elements” (p. 50). In a cascading exegesis of what Gandhi’s choices denoted and signified, we see clothing communicating at several interlocking levels to a wider and wider cross section of India’s masses.
Third, Gonsalves turns to the tools and theories of cultural anthropologist Victor Turner for a view of the diachronic socio-psychological implications of the symbols Gandhi grew, from his political thinking about swadeshi to his definitional social drama. Gandhi spinning and Gandhi wearing fewer and fewer items of clothing drew him closer to the masses and his careful communication of that produced a nonviolent one-two punch that surprised an empire.
The British Government considered Gandhi’s switch from politics to social work just another new obsession. Only in 1930, when it became evident the khadi campaign was a part of a larger political struggle against the Empire, did the Government wake up to the consequences of Gandhi’s symbolization. But by then it was far too late to stop the rivers of men and women in white khadi walking courageously to manufacture salt at Dandi on 6 April 1930. Moreover, salt, a new symbol of freedom from the English yoke, was born (p. 82).
Fourth, Gonsalves directs the lights of symbolic interaction theory as offered by Erving Goffman to scrutinize the coherence and ever-sharpening resolution of the rhetoric and performance of Mohandas Gandhi. How did Gandhi conceive of his people as performers in his epic battle and how did he prepare and deploy them? How did his self-assessment coincide with his intentions for his nation? His first series of great battles was internal, waged concomitantly to the social struggles. “His desire to bring his exterior self in line with his interior principles was far from easy. It took him nearly 33 years” (p. 96).
Finally we come back ‘round to Gandhi himself to his unique ‘approach to symbolization.’ As he rejected the symbology that had been coopted to oppress his people he discovered his own symbols, drawing deeper, from the ‘bottom of society’ (p. 125) to an overarching purity that was irresistible and motivational to people supposedly noted for their fatalism and acceptance of poverty and oppression. As he shed accoutrement, he came into sharp focus to the millions in hundreds of thousands of villages, eliciting their loyalty based on identification with a champion, their hero.
Using western scholarship to evaluate Indian messaging is instructive, offers welcome connections, and is simultaneously suspicious, though the foreword by Keval Kumar asserts that the more worn path of identifying Gandhi’s clothing choices in the context of the spiritual evolution toward the Hindu sanyasi is inadequate. What Gonsalves gives us are the nonverbal communication theoretical elements that can see the fabric of Gandhi’s strategies synthesizing the spiritual, political, strategic and communication master into his holistic liberatory leadership over decades.
There are some hints at why it took so long for the liberation of India despite Gandhi’s national leadership and abilities to rouse the nation. For example, his decision to call off the huge hartal [stop work] and satyagraha struggle that began in 1921 and had made such amazing progress. On 22 February 1922 a crowd of approximately 2,000 in Chauri Chaura burned 22 police to death and Gandhi not only fasted five days in penitence for his self-perceived role in prompting the mob, but called off all protest, was promptly arrested and charged with sedition 10 March 1922, and essentially challenged the British judge who next presided over Gandhi’s trial to either resign the bench and join the struggle or sentence him to the maximum. Judge Broomfield played his part, acknowledging Gandhi’s special status and then indeed sentencing him to six years. Violence—historically regarded as the quick way to win—set back Gandhi’s efforts again and again. Despite his astonishing communication abilities, he was either forced to—or was too fast to—shut down campaigns when any violence broke out anywhere.
Gonsalves contributes a firm piece of scholarship to the study of Gandhi’s life and how he became the message. Just as “there is no way to peace; peace is the way,” (attributed to A. J. Muste) Gandhi’s very appearance became his message. His semiotics of struggle were remarkable in that they enmified no one, just poverty and oppression, while appealing to everyone, including those called enemy by others, to feel the friendship in seeking truth and nonviolence. His words are measured by the hundreds of thousands and ultimately his nonverbals were quite important and can be seen in just a few small but highly important symbols, from his scant diet to his scant clothing. His stage presence to his people and the world is exegeted deeply in this valuable volume.

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