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Gaston Roberge - Review of 'Clothing for Liberation'

Clothing for Liberation - A Communication Analysis of Gandhi’s Swadeshi Revolution
by Peter Gonsalves
SAGE, 2010.

Comments by Gaston Roberge, Media Critic, Educationalist and founder of Chitrabani, Kolkata

After reading the book, I came back to the title and felt like summarizing it as follows: Communication Revolution Liberation. These three are seen in the light of Gandhiji’s experiments with truth. I do not mean that the title is wrong. I just say in three words what for me the book is about.

Recently we could see a movie entitled Bose, the Forgotten Hero*, a title that irked some people in West Bengal. I wonder if Peter Gonsalves ever thought of calling his book, Gandhi, the Forgotten Hero. Whatever his answer to that question, his book superbly demonstrates that Mahatma Gandhi could and should be better known and more lovingly remembered. Or perhaps, Gonsalves could have given a controversial aura to his work like Dr. Gëzim Alpion did when he wrote Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?** Even if there may be controversial issues regarding Mahatma Gandhi, the present author was not inclined to discuss them as such. Read this book and there will be no doubt in your mind that Mahatma Gandhi was a saint and one of the greatest leaders in human history. Gandhiji was in no way a “celebrity” in the academic sense. For most of what a celebrity does is, often under the guidance of an expert, done to foster the cult he/she receives from the public. On the contrary, all that Gandhiji did was for the sake of his human brothers and sisters – friendly or hostile as they might be. Gonsalves’ aim clearly is to make Gandhiji better known and, I would dare say, more loved. I would not hesitate to call the present book “Scholarship in the service of commitment.”

Since I emphasize ‘commitment’ as reverberating in the book, it may help the reader to situate the present book in the context of the author’s main concern. He himself points out in the very introduction of the book:
As an educator I was amazed at the extremely sophisticated levels of audio-visual creativity that impact young minds, so I decided to promote mass media literacy among teaching staff. The manual Exercises in Media Education was a practical response to this deeply felt need. (p.3)

The violent communal riots that accompanied the 1990s well into the new millennium only strengthened my resolve to redesign a media education for peaceful and responsible citizenship. (p. 4)

I did not have to look far for an appropriate model. I had always admired, although superficially, the courage of that one diminutive individual who brought down an Empire by the strength of his truth. As soon as the opportunity presented itself I plunged into a three-year historical and communication research on Gandhi’s atypical choice of a ‘clothing for liberation’. (p. 4)

Commitment, yes, and scholarship gives the measure of that commitment. For instance, Chapter One of the book, on ‘Gandhi the Communicator’, the longest (35 pages) and arguably the most important chapter of the book, has no less than 155 notes and references.

I say arguably because at the end of the chapter you already are convinced on the greatness of Gandhi as a national leader through his skill in communication. But then, however, vivid that conviction may be, from an academic point of view it remains – to use the term Gonsalves applied to himself before undertaking the present work – vivid “although superficially.”

It is at that point that Gonsalves brings in scholarship of the highest standard. He draws from Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure (Chapter 2), Victor Turner (Chapter 3) and Erving Goffman (Chapter 4) a number of key concepts from which he builds what I would call grids – from linguistics and semiotics, to symbolic anthropology and to the sociology of identity.

Through these grids, Gonsalves makes you see Gandhi in an academic light that permits you to both name some of the characteristics of Gandhi and see them in the larger perspectives of communication and revolution for liberation. This exercise, that at first might appear an indulgence in scholarly rationalizations, in fact gives a solid foundation to the conviction experienced at the end of Chapter 1 as to the greatness of Mahatma Gandhi. At the end of the book, that conviction is no longer superficial.

In his concluding chapter (Chapter 5) on Gandhi’s conscious use of symbols Gonsalves has these lines in which again he voices his commitment:
Symbols are made in the image and likeness of their creators – which is why it is most important to know who creates the symbols we consume, who controls the symbol-making processes, what are the values symbol-makers live by, what are their ultimate goals. We need to look behind the symbols to the histories of the symbol-makers themselves, who by reason of their competence, or social privileges wield the power to uplift or destroy humanity, or to fleece one part of humanity for the benefit of another. (p. 144)

After reading this book, I, for one, can only say:
Looking afresh at Gandhiji, I know in the depth of my being what he means: “another world is possible.”

* A film by Shyam Benegal, 2005.
** Alpion, Gëzim: Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity? London and New York, Routledge, 2007.
*** My addition, GR: Gonsalves, Peter, SDB: Exercises in Media Education, Mumbai, Tej-Prasarini, 1995.

Gaston Roberge
St. Xavier's College
30 Mother Teresa Sarani
Kolkata 700 016
Phone 33 2255 1165
22 June 2009

Gaston Roberge, SJ, is the founder of Chitrabani, Kolkata, in collaboration with Satyajit Ray, and author of 12 books, including Communication Cinema Development [1998] that won a national award.

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