Clothing for Liberation

Peter Gonsalves, Clothing for Liberation: A Analysis of Gandhi’s Swadeshi Revolution, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2010, ISBN 978-81-321-0310-3, pp. 164, Rs. 350

The author, Peter Gonsalves, is an accomplished scholar in the field of media studies and communication. He is a professor of the Sciences of Social at the Salesian Pontifical University, Rome and even served as Head of Department. He began his career in the field of media while he was working for rural development at Bosco Gramin Vikas Kendra, Ahmednagar – Maharashtra. He was responsible for founding ‘Tej-prasarini’, a multimedia production centre geared toward spreading awareness of the urgent need for pro-life education. He promoted a series of teacher-training manual under the title of ‘Quality Life Education’, first among which was his own work: Exercises in Media Education (1994). Over the course of his career, he has served as president of INTERSIG, the international wing of SIGNIS, a world association of communicators for a culture of peace, and has coordinated the establishment of a five-language web portal for the Salesian Society of which he is a part.

Based on his impressive resume and my hear-say knowledge about him, I set out to read this book with great expectations. The book is the final result of a study undertaken with the view of analyzing the communicative impact that clothing had in the life and activity of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), who came to be renowned as the ‘Father of the Nation’ (India) for his decisive role in galvanizing the masses and organizing a systematic and effective though non-violent struggle for Independence from the oppressive imperial rule of the British. The author endeavours to use the communicative theories set forth by Roland Barthes, Victor Turner and and Erving Goffman as a framework for a deeper analysis which brings to light Gandhi’s unique sartorial strategy for India’s liberation: the creation of a ‘fashion system’ through the laborious unfolding of the swadeshi ‘social drama’ while he remained the undisputed ‘performance manager’ of the thirty-year-long freedom struggle (Front flap).

The book is well laid out with a foreword by Dr. Keval Kumar, whose pioneering article ‘Gandhi’s Ideological Clothing’ opened up the way for further study and research on the impact of Gandhi’s clothing, to which this book is a response; a neat list of all the tables, figures, photographs and abbreviations that feature in the book, an enlightening introduction, four substantial chapters that form the core of the book and a fifth chapter that introduces the ‘Gandhian approach to Symbolization’. It basically doubles up as a conclusion and a springboard for further research. The author presents six constitutive principles of a Gandhian approach to symbolization, but does not choose to elaborate much since he feels that there “a substantial amount of research and reflection is already available” (p. 127, footnote 1). The last pages of the book are dedicated to a pictoral history of clothing in the life of Gandhi, a brief yet well-selected appendix highlighting the impact of Gandhi’s communication, a glossary of Indian terms, a fairly detailed bibliography and an index.

The first chapter attempts to provide a broad outlook of ‘Gandhi the Communicator’. Thus, the various aspects of the communicative activity of Gandhi are briefly and lucidly presented. This includes the verbal, written as well as the non-verbal engaged in by Gandhi over the course of his life. Such a presentation helps provide a backdrop for the rest of the book and situates the reader in the context of Gandhian communication. The details are backed up by scholarly research; the copious notes at the end of each chapter bear witness to this fact.

The middle chapters, that is the second to fourth chapters, which form the crux of the book are quite demanding to read and assimilate but offer interesting insights into Gandhian philosophy and lifestyle. They also help to understand in part, the reason for Gandhi’s widespread appeal and efficacy.

The second chapter is dedicated to analyzing Gandhi’s fashion system using the ideas of Roland Barthes. Barthes (1915-1980) was a French cultural analyst, structuralist and semiotician. His work Système de la Mode (The Fashion System) serves as the reference point for the ideas developed here. Barthes’ semiotic theory of Denotation, Connotation and Ideology throws up startling insights when applied to the Indian ethos. It helps one to understand how something as mundane as clothing could be turned into symbols of oppression or liberation. The reader is led to understand the reasons for Gandhi’s sartorial choices and the consequent impact it had on the freedom struggle and on the world.

The third chapter looks at Turner’s concept of ‘Social Drama’ and its application to the Swadeshi Revolution begun by Gandhi. Turner (1920-1983) developed the science of ‘comparative symbology’ which aimed at analyzing symbols within time frames, both in relation to other symbols as well as in their impact with all the actors involved while at the same time remaining embedded in practical experience (p.73). Turner breaks down the of ‘social drama’ into four phases: 1) Breach 2) Crises 3) Redressive Procedures and 4) Reintegration. Each of these phases is taken up separately and systematically treated within the context of Gandhi’s swadeshi movement. The aim here is to show the power of the symbols chosen by Gandhi and their role in his overall strategy.

The fourth chapter is as interesting as it is brilliant. It delves into the personal life of Gandhi and gives an insight into Gandhi: the man. While, throughout the book Gandhi is spoken of with regard to his socio-political activity, in this chapter the foundations of his socio-political activity are uncovered. The person of Mahatma Gandhi is made the object of study using Goffman’s ‘Dramaturgical Model’. The final result is a holistic understanding of the personality of Mahatma Gandhi and the effect of that personality on the Indian freedom struggle.

The author deserves praise for producing this wonderful and timely work. He has done a good job of using theories to analyze and uncover the value of Gandhi’s symbolic communication through clothing. As I have mentioned earlier, the book offers a number of useful insights both in the field of communication and in the rediscovery of Gandhi’s influence. For a student of communication like myself, the book was a real treat. Not only did it offer me lessons in communication and its application but also helped me to better understand and appreciate the role of Mahatma Gandhi in the freedom struggle. The communicative dimension of the freedom struggle is usually just mentioned in passing if not side-stepped altogether and therefore, this work comes as refreshment in that regard. With regard to the content of the book, I found three typos which fortunately do not cause much confusion. However, I also discovered two glaring mistakes in references. Apart from these minor faults, the book is terrific. I heartily recommend this book for all those interested in the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi as well as those with an interest in media studies.

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