An author and a filmmaker, Ashok Ahuja has written, produced and directed two national and international award-winning feature films - Aadharshila and Vasundhara. Also a pioneer in digital art, the Delhi-based artist held his first show of Inkjet Prints and Computer Animation in January 2003.
Recently, the artist presented an exhibition in Ahmedabad, which explored the idea of text and architecture in the context of Mahatma Gandhi and his ideologies. In the exhibition, titled Navajivan Nagar, he presented works that questioned the concept of modernity and equality. “The exhibition marvels at the magic of texts, even as it studies their structure and density in relation to memory and perception. It examines the mystical nature of writing, the role of courage, of simplicity, beauty, innovation, and playfulness in the formation of ideas that reflect the truth,” says Ahuja.
The exhibition, Ahuja’s eighth solo show, was hosted at the press of Navajivan Trust that was founded by Gandhi in 1919. STIR speaks to Ahuja on his reflections about this body of work.
Rahul Kumar (RK): You have studied journalism, made films, authored books, and are a practicing artist. What was the genesis of the idea for this exhibit?
Ashok Ahuja (AA): To be invited to do a show at the Navajivan Trust was an opportunity, an honour, and a challenge at the same time. I wanted it, as always, to be honest to myself, relevant to the place, maintain the standards one has set for oneself, and even push the boundaries of the medium a little. The institution and the venue themselves offered the seed of the idea. The place is popularly known as Navajivan Press. It is actually a fully operational buzzing printing press where all of Gandhi’s own writing and whatever is related to his thought is printed for distribution around the world. So, the text had to be central to the theme.
RK: Please elaborate on the idea of text in your work. Which aspect was more intriguing for you – the structure of characters as mere strokes or the use of script to communicate?
AA: I am fascinated by ‘word’, particularly the written word. How, with just a small set of symbols that constitute an alphabet, almost the entire history of human thought is kept alive and made available to us. The abstract shapes of letters, beautiful in themselves, carry possibilities that hint at still unexplored mysteries. The relationship between text and idea is like a quantum leap! The show allowed me to explore some of these thoughts.
RK: The title references the trust that Mahatma Gandhi established and based itself deeply into the philosophy of Gandhi for equality and access. How does this body of work link back to this thought process?
AA: Gandhi seamlessly combined the local and the universal, the personal and the general. It was interesting to go back to Ahmedabad where many of his ideas were born and took shape. I have two points of reference with the city: the first of course is Gandhi, the other is modern architecture. The world-class institutions and beautiful contemporary buildings, a unique feature of Ahmedabad, were built by a generation of local wealthy citizens, who under Gandhi’s influence saw themselves as trustees of the people and invited the best talents from across the world - artists, educators, and architects - to bring their skills and expertise to the city. Navajivan Nagar examines the process of ideas becoming building blocks of dreams that can form the blueprint of a potential reality filled with light and beauty.
RK: In continuation, technology is a big leveller. Why do you think Gandhi’s ideas are still applicable in the world we live in? Evolution is the only constant. Why should humanity not move forward, and write new philosophies?
AA: Gandhi died before I was born, so he was more an idea that I grew up with. Many people have a difficulty with the historical Gandhi - he may have had his limitations, as all human beings do. It may be difficult to explain all his choices and actions but I still believe that much of his thought and method can provide a practical model.
Gandhi was a visionary who dug his roots deep into the past but was always ready to embrace the new. He was not opposed to technology. He only stood against its use to subjugate and oppress people. The role of the printing press was no less in his life than that of the spinning wheel with which he non-violently brought a mighty empire to its knees. It is a marvel how a selfless man with faith and belief in his bold ideas spun magic with simple words and wove not only the fabric of a nation, but the dream of a new life.
Navajivan itself means ‘new’ - a new life, a new way of being and living in this world. It is almost another name for modernity. The idea of renewal and evolution is already built into it. More than Gandhi’s ideas, it is his values, I think, that are much needed today. Ideas can and must evolve but values don’t change too quickly.
RK: What next? We would love to know about your upcoming projects.
AA: I am quite busy with the restoration work on my feature-films. I find that they are as relevant, if not more, today, than when they were made. Perhaps it is because they speak of fundamental principles on which one can base one’s life. Then there is always some writing in the pipeline. I have been working on a book on language and identity. It takes forward my research on the subject at Harvard University many years ago. And the next body of visual work is going to be a formal look at new architecture, I think.