Correction to This Article
A photo caption with an Aug. 21 Style article about India's Eternal Gandhi museum incorrectly said that Abraham Lincoln is depicted in a mural of "messengers of peace." The image depicts Henry David Thoreau.
Letter From India

Pushbutton Gandhi: The Mahatma Goes Multimedia

A water-filled urn projects Gandhi messages; behind it a mural of messengers of peace includes Lincoln and Buddha.
A water-filled urn projects Gandhi messages; behind it a mural of messengers of peace includes Lincoln and Buddha. (Photos Courtesy Gandhi Museum)
By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 21, 2006

NEW DELHI -- Gandhi is now available at the push of a button. The frail, half-naked ascetic who fought British colonial oppression with nonviolence and austerity is the focus of a multimedia museum here, his life, values and words popping out from computer screens, laser beams, musical bamboo poles and other hands-on electronic gadgets.

The Eternal Gandhi museum seeks to bring the nation's founding father to people growing up in an India the world-famous ascetic never envisioned, one filled with foreign cars, cellphones, fast-food chains, malls and multiplex theaters.

"Gandhian values of nonviolence and truth are relevant for all times. But the challenge was to get this message across to the younger generation. So we used the medium of technology that they are so fascinated with," says Savita Singh, director of the Eternal Gandhi museum and memorial.

The $2.15 million exhibition, which opened last year, is an expansion of an older, more solemn memorial, the sprawling colonial-style house where Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life. It was on its grounds in 1948 that Gandhi, walking to a daily prayer meeting, was shot dead by a Hindu radical.

For many years, the house has been a pilgrimage destination for millions of Indian and foreign visitors. At the entrance, a large statue of Gandhi with two children holding a dove greeted the visitor with a sign saying "My Life Is My Message." Visitors reverently took off their shoes to enter the grassy grounds. The things in his room -- his glasses, walking stick, sandals, spinning wheel and wood cot -- were preserved as they were when he was alive.

Now the house also has what claims be India's first hands-on, multimedia museum. But in a society where officials young and old closely guard their authority, it is largely hands-off for visitors. Instead, about 18 young docents, picked from underprivileged families and clad in Gandhi's trademark handspun clothes, control the buttons and the visitor's experience.

"We don't encourage the visitors to touch, because these are sensitive and expensive machines," says Singh. "Our visitors are not as disciplined and sophisticated like those visiting the Smithsonian or the New York museums. A number of our visitors are villagers and are unfamiliar with computers."

The museum uses archival film footage extensively in several exhibits. In the first gallery, a small touch-screen computer slides along a mud wall that, in a blend of tradition and the modern, is coated with cow dung that in Indian villages is traditionally viewed as a purifying agent.

Moved along the wall by a docent, the screen presents a tableau of events from Gandhi's life in film and photographs -- his childhood, sepia-toned family portraits, the scene from Richard Attenborough's 1982 film "Gandhi" when he is thrown out of a first-class train coach in South Africa, and many others.

In a section about Gandhi's tireless campaign against India's caste system, a docent encouraged visitors to form a human chain around a carved pillar. When the visitors held hands, the pillar lit up. The mere act of people touching strangers whose caste was unknown to them was meant to remove biases at this exhibit, called the "Pillar of Castelessness," the docent explains.

"The light comes on, and the caste prejudice vanishes," he says.

The museum is full of beautifully designed displays -- high-gloss Brio-like trains and cows, ornate xylophones that play Gandhi's favorite prayer songs, laser beams that illuminate his prison journal, quilts that light up and mud huts with murals. But some visitors commented on the divergence between Gandhi's life and the medium.

"As you walk through the video-arcade-meets-spiritual-mall, you cannot make up your mind what should you respond to," says Kavita Singh, who teaches art history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "The sophisticated technology? The beautifully handcrafted objects in which it is embedded? The series of bad ideas that they serve? Or the fact that it is, of all people, Gandhi who is the unfortunate victim of this project?"

"I came expecting a spiritual, reflective experience about Gandhi in a serene and quiet museum," says American tourist Zahava Doering. "But where is Gandhi in all this?"

The exhibit that perhaps most illustrates this incongruity is one dealing with the humble Indian spinning wheel, or charkha . Gandhi often sat at one, producing handspun cloth -- and also a revolution. The cloth became a potent metaphor urging Indians to rise up against the British and throw their Manchester textiles into bonfires across the country. The charkha also represents Gandhi's belief in the power of manual work that gave employment to millions in Indian villages.

At the museum, the charkha is renamed "e-Charkha" and "laser Charkha." As the docent spins the wooden wheel, a computer screen on the wall shows how the fibers come together to make the fabric, while another weaves together the words of Gandhi's message. The "Laser Charkha" senses the visitor's moving hand to produce music.

Museum director Singh says the new museum caters to a wide range of visitors, including thousands of young visitors from schools across India. But she acknowledges it may not be for everyone. "People who don't want to see the multimedia exhibition on Gandhi can skip it and go straight to the prayer grounds, or his room," she says. "Or watch the documentaries or even visit the center where the museum imparts income-generating skills to poor women and youth."

"Gandhi can be discovered in many ways, this is just one," she says. "What makes his message eternal are not these computers anyway."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company