The Image of Mahatma Gandhi in Advertisement: Subverting its Conventional Semiotics



Saba Anish and Dwijen Sharma



Saba Anish teaches English in J. B. College (Autonomous), Assam. She is currently pursuing her PhD in the Department of English, North-Eastern Hill University, Tura Campus, Meghalaya.  Her areas of interest are Semiotics, Literary Theory and Gender Studies.


Professor Dwijen Sharma teaches in the Department of English, North-Eastern Hill University, Tura Campus, Meghalaya. He has edited two books titled Indian Fiction in Translation: Issues and Explorations (2014), and Writing from India’s North-East: Recovering the Small Voices (2019), and has published widely in both national and international journals.







This paper examines some select advertisements featuring Gandhi to understand the semiotics built around his image and/ or certain objects associated with him like his specs, stick, slippers, spinning wheel etc., turning him into a sort of ‘fetishized’ object. It is argued that Gandhi’s image is endorsed in various advertisements to promulgate ideals like non-violence, truth, sacrifice, leadership and so on, for which Gandhi unwaveringly stood during his lifetime. Further, the paper also examines some select advertisements featuring Gandhi which destabilize and challenge the already established semiotics built around his image. Thus, it finds that the sign system is fluid in nature. The change in the value system in a society leads to a shift in the semiotics build around the social system.

Keywords: Mahatma Gandhi, semiotics, advertisement, social media, fetishism, post-capitalism


     One of the fundamental human characteristics is defined by the obsession with meaning. The question of investing meaning to the world involves the process of interpreting signs thereby creating a narrative of representation. Signs include within its ambit a myriad of mediums like words, images, pictures, sounds, flavours, odours, acts, photographs, and objects. However, they become meaningful only when we invest them with some meaning, for in itself they are unable to produce any meaning. This is what Charles Sanders Peirce meant when he said “we think only in signs” (qtd. in Chandler 16). The sign system is, therefore, entwined with the socio-cultural system. The semiotic approach, thus, assumes that all cultural practices are based on and convey meaning through the medium of signs.

This paper examines the images or objects associated with Mahatma Gandhi from a semiotic point of view. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation, has remained one of the most iconographic figures in Indian political, social and cultural spheres. Right from government posters and government advertisements to statues, paintings, cartoons, Gandhi’s images have dominated a myriad of representational and visual media. The objects associated with Gandhi like the spinning wheel, glasses, stick, slippers, etc. are re-examined through the application of semiotic standards. It also addresses how the use of Gandhi’s images in advertisements has turned him from a national figure to an artefact and an exhibit, building a semiotics of its own. The paper further establishes that the semiotics built around Gandhi’s image is rather fluid, which means, the sign system is contingent upon the social system, and with the change in the value system in a society, the semiotics built around a social system change. The paper also links such visual representation of Gandhi to the concept of commodity fetishism which in turn can be ascribed to post-capitalist discourse. 

Semiotics and Media:

            In his Course in General Linguistics (1916), Ferdinand de Saussure conceived of a discipline, which would be governed by the laws of linguistics, studying signs in social life. He observed that “by considering rites, customs etc. as signs, it will be possible, I believe, we shall throw new lights on the facts and point up the need for including them in a science of semiology and explaining them by its laws” (Saussure 17). Thus, Saussurean semiotics considers the signs found in any system as semiological phenomena, and the signs are interpreted using linguistics rules to get new perspectives.  

Most semioticians draw on the analytical approach of structuralism built on Saussure’s linguistic model, be it Levi-Strauss in his myth, kinship rules and totemism; Lacan in his study of the unconscious; Barthes and Greimas in their grammar of narrative. Nevertheless, all of them have been engaged, in their distinctive ways, in the study of deep structures underlying the surface structures of phenomena. Based on Saussure’s famous langue parole distinction, the traditional Saussurean semioticians have focused more on the langue, that is, the underlying structures and rules rather than specific performances tuning with parole. Saussure himself attempted to study the semiotic system synchronically, rather than diachronically. Even structural cultural theorists have followed the Saussurean model of priority, where social and cultural phenomena are prioritised within semiotic systems. This system of prioritization of structure over usage has been criticised by later Marxist theorists like Valentin Volosinov and Mikhail Bakhtin. Volosinov tried to reverse Saussurean priority of langue over parole, stating “The sign is part of organized social intercourse and cannot exist, as such, outside it, reverting to me a physical artefact” (qtd. in Chandler 14). Saussure was criticised for leaving out historicity in reading signs and, for later semioticians, the meaning of a sign lies in the social context of its use rather than its relationship to other signs within the language. The Prague school linguists, Roman Jakobson and Yuri Tynyanov, negated pure synchronism as an illusion stating that “every synchronic system has its past and its future as inseparable structural elements of the system” (qtd. in Chandler 14). Volosinov further observed that “there is no real moment in time when a synchronic system of language could be constructed . . . A synchronic system may be said to exist only from the point of view of the subjective consciousness of an individual speaker belonging to some particular language group at some particular moment of historical time” (qtd. in Chandler 14). Indeed, most contemporary semioticians in their study of sign system have reprioritized historical and social contexts. Even social semioticians like Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress have talked about the importance of the system’s social angle and declared that “the social dimensions of semiotic systems are so intrinsic to their nature and function that the systems cannot be studied in isolation” (qtd. in Chandler 14). However, contemporary social semiotics has drifted away from the structuralist concern of internal relations of parts within a self-contained system to the use of signs in more specific social situations.

Contemporary semiotic approach has stepped beyond its traditional academic discipline of analysing text to include in its ambit art, literature, anthropology and the mass media. While for the semioticians a text can be anything from films, television and radio programme to advertising posters, many theorists have suggested reading television and films in terms of language. Some even go to the extent of referring to grammar of media. Saussure’s structuralist model of semiotics prioritises language above everything and the French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss in his Structural Anthropology (1973) noted “language is the semiotic system par excellence; it cannot but signify, and exist only through signification” (48).

Claude Levi-Strauss analyses the customs, rituals, totemic objects, designs, myths and folk tales of the people in Brazil, not the way in which these things are produced or used in the lives of the Amazonians, but in terms of the message that their culture communicated. By moving away from the content and delving deep into the underlying rules and codes through which these practices and objects produce meaning, Levi-Strauss takes shelter in Saussurean structuralist approach, that is, to move from the parole of a culture to its underlying structure or langue. For instance, to study the meaning of a television programme or advertisement, the images on the screen have to be treated as signifiers, and the code of a television soap opera or advertisement as a genre. In this way, one can discover how each frame or image on the screen make use of the rules to communicate meaning (signifieds), and on the basis of which the viewer interprets the formal framework of a particular kind of television narrative. 

            Though most semioticians have accepted Saussure’s formulation of linguistics as a branch of semiology, Roland Barthes, on the other hand, tries to invert Saussurean assumption by asserting that semiology is a branch of linguistics. Roland Barthes, through his collection of essays, Mythologies (1957), has made a significant contribution in popularising semiotics as an important approach to cultural studies. Widening the scope of semiotics, Barthes, in his book, Elements of Semiology (1967), observes: “Semiology aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least system of signification” (9). Although the structuralist approach to semiotics is less popular now in the field of Cultural Studies and Media Studies, yet this does not undermine the importance of the study of semiotics in research.

            In Mythologies, Roland Barthes draws on “the world of wrestling”, “soap powder and detergents”, “the face of Greta Garbo”, “the Blue Guides to Europe”, to name a few, to demonstrate the semiotic approach of reading popular culture. It is a treatment that demanded the activities and objects to be read as signs, as a parallel to language system through which meaning is communicated. In a wrestling match, for instance, it is not the result that is Barthes’s concern, rather to look at the meaning of the event. For him, it is a text to be read, which would produce the “exaggerated gestures of wrestlers as a grandiloquent language of what he calls the pure spectacle of excess” (qtd. in Hall and Evans 21).

            In the semiotic approach, along with words and images, objects too function as signifiers in the production of meaning. While the basic function of clothes, according to Barthes, is to cover the body and protect it from weather, they also perform the role of signs. A meaning is constructed that conveys a message. An evening dress may signify “elegance”; a bow tie and tails, “formality”; jeans and trainers, “casual dress”; a certain kind of sweater in the right setting, “a long romantic, autumn walk in the wood” (qtd. in Hall and Evans 22). Through these signs, clothes convey some meaning and function like language – the language of fashion. While the clothes are the signifiers, the fashion codes of consumer cultures correlating particular clothing combination with concepts like elegance, formality, casualness, romance are the signifieds. Such coding converts the clothes into signs which can then be interpreted as language. Such process of representation depends, for the production of meaning, on two linked operations: the first is the basic code that a particular piece of material is cut and sewn in a particular way (signifier) that fits to our mental concept of it (signified). The combination of both signifier and signified is in Saussurean parlance a sign. Now, having recognised the particular material as a dress or jeans that produces a sign, we move on to a second wider level that links the signs to broader cultural themes, concepts or meanings, for instance, a dress to formality and jeans to casualness. To Barthes, the first is the descriptive level that he calls denotation; and the second he terms connotation. Both, however, are dependent on codes.

            While denotation is basic and simple, endorsed by a wider consensus among people regarding the meaning, for example, dress, jeans, etc., the second or the connotative level is a complex one, in which whatever has been decoded at the denotative level using our conventional conceptions regarding dress enters a wider second kind of code, i.e. the language of fashion, which brings in broader themes and meanings associating them with wider semantic fields of our culture like elegance, formality etc. At the second and more complex level, the interpretation involves wider realms of social ideology, like beliefs and value system. This second level of signification has been suggested by Barthes as more “general, global and diffuse . . . It deals with ‘fragments of an ideology . . .’ These signifieds have a very close communication with culture, knowledge, history and it is through them, so to speak, that the environmental world [of the culture] invades the system [of representation]” (Mythologies 91-92).

Nevertheless, the major approaches are dependent either on Saussurean model or Peirce’s tradition. The celebrated Italian author Umberto Eco tried to bridge the two traditions. Interestingly, Umberto Eco defined semiotics as a branch “concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” (qtd. in Chandler 7). In fact, semiotics, far from being confined to the study of signs in everyday speech, incorporates anything that can stand for something else. In semiotics, signs can take any form ranging from words and images to sounds, gestures, objects etc. While for the linguist, Saussure, semiology is a science which “studies the role of signs as part of social life”, for the philosopher, Charles Peirce, it is the “formal doctrine of signs”, closely related to logic (qtd. in Chandler 8). Thus, for Peirce, every thought can be a sign. The contemporary approach to semiotics, however, is not to study signs in isolation, rather as an integral part of the semiotic sign system. The focus is on the creation of meanings, which includes not only communication but also the construction and maintenance of reality. In this sense, both semiotics and semantics are closely related as both delve into the meaning of signs. As pointed out by John Sturrock, while semiotics is about the ‘how’ of signs, semantics is about the ‘what’ of signs. According to C. W. Morris, semiotics embraces the following branches of linguistics in its fold: “semantics: the relationship of sign to what they stand for; syntactic (or syntax): the formal or structural relations between signs; and pragmatics: the relation of signs to interpreters” (qtd. in Chandler 8-9).

Although extensively used in textual analysis, semiotics is far more than simply an analytical tool. The medium of a text may vary from verbal to non-verbal and/or to both. In semiotic parlance, the term text is interpreted as message that has been recorded either as writing or audio or video recording etc. The element of recording makes it free from the sender receiver phenomena. A text, in this sense, becomes an “assemblage of signs (such as words, images, sounds and/or gestures) constructed (and interpreted) with reference to the conventions associated with a genre and in a particular medium of communication” (Chandler 9).  The theorists have used the term medium in varied ways to include in its ambit broad categories like speech, writing, print, broadcasting to specific technical forms within the mass media like radio, television, newspapers, magazines, books, photographs, films and records. The circumference also extends to include the medium of interpersonal communication like telephone, letter, fax, e-mail, video conferencing, computer-based chatting etc. Media is also classified on the basis of channels involved such as visual, auditory and tactile. Nonetheless, the multisensory human experience, in terms of representation, is restricted by the medium involved, and each medium, in turn, is curtailed by the channels that it utilizes. Interestingly, even in the most flexible of mediums, language fails in the representation of certain experience like smell and touch. Thus, the frameworks of representation offered by different media and genres are different. In fact, this difference in media led Emile Benveniste to remark that “we are not able to say ‘the same things’ in systems based on different units in contrast to Hjelmslev, who asserted that in practice, language is a semiotic into which all other semiotics may be translated” (qtd. in Chandler 9).

            The frequency as well as fluency of a medium makes it more transparent or invisible to its users. In routine applications, the awareness of a medium tends to lose its effectiveness as a means to an end. A medium tends to fulfil its primary function only when it is transparent. The choice of any particular medium may have influences of which the reader may not always be conscious. The over familiarity with the medium may have an anaesthetic effect on the reader, a possible numbness that leaves the reader with no choices in its use. This might subtly and imperceptibly redefine the reader’s purpose as opposed to the pragmatic or rationalist approach, where the means are meant to suit the reader’s end leaving him/ her in control of the medium.

Harbouring on the growing importance of medium, media theorists have argued that the technical means and systems have overtaken the traditional role of means by ends; a claim that tunes with Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism— “the medium is the message” (1967).  Some theorists consider media as wholly autonomous entities with specific purposes of their own rather than being merely functional. But the underlying fact that holds good for any medium is that whatever may be the purpose, medium becomes a part of the purpose. In this context, Claude Levi-Strauss has used a term called ‘bricolage’, meaning the creative process. Far from being a calculated choice in terms of adoption of medium that is technically best adapted to a specific purpose, it involves a “dialogue with the materials and means of execution” (qtd in Chandler 10). In such a dialogue, the handy materials offer themselves as more adaptive which might lead to a modification of the original purpose. Such acts of creation are no longer purely instrumental, rather “the bricoleur ‘speaks’ not only with things . . . but also through the medium of things” (Chandler 21). The medium itself becomes expressive. The concept of ‘bricolage’, which was devised by Levi-Strauss for mythical thought, was extended by Chandler to include the use of any medium for any purpose. For instance, writing is shaped not only by the author’s conscious purpose, but also by factors like media involved: language and writing tools, social and psychological processes of mediation etc. Chandler also opines that each and every writer is not a bricoleur, for there are writers who are in complete command of the media they use, as opposed to those who are greatly influenced and shaped by the media they use. It’s more like the media using the writers instead of the writers using the media.

While a text is greatly influenced by the fundamental features of design of different media, we cannot negate the role of socio-cultural and historical factors in shaping how different media are used vis-à-vis their cultural contexts. Many cultural theorists have observed not only the growing popularity of visual media over linguistic media in the contemporary times but also the shifts in their communicative functions. For instance, referring to the popularity of visual media, Kress and van Leeuwen in Reading Images (1996) states, “the dominant visual language is now controlled by the global cultural/ technological empires of the mass media, which disseminate the examples set by exemplary designers, and, through the spread of image banks and computer-imaging technology, exert a ‘normalizing’ rather than explicitly ‘normative’ influence on visual communication across the world” (4).  Nevertheless, the ever-growing interactions of semiotic structures and languages have led the Russian cultural semiotician, Yuri Lotman, to coin the term ‘semiosphere.’ It refers to “the whole semiotic space of the culture in question” (qtd in Chandler 11). Lotman has derived this concept from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of ‘noosphere’, which means the arena where the mind works. For Lotman, semiosphere is about functioning of language within a culture. But, according to John Hartley, “there is more than one level at which one might identify a semiosphere – at the level of a single national or linguistic culture, for instance, or of a larger unity such as ‘the West’, right up to ‘the species’; we might similarly characterize the semiosphere of a particular historical period” (qtd. in Chandler 11). Such concepts of semiotics offer a more unified and dynamic approach of semiosis instead of its discourse as a specific isolated medium.

Semiotic Analysis of Advertisement:

            We come across several advertisements and posters both government and private that use the image of Gandhi and various other objects associated with the life of Gandhi, like his stick, glasses, spinning wheel, slippers etc. that definitely convey some general and at the same time some deeper levels of meanings for the spectator. Here we are studying a few sample advertisements taking the Saussurean model that Barthes applied in understanding the language of fashion. Below are two government advertisements: the first advertisement (Figure 1) for a government programme on cleanliness known as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, and the second advertisement (Figure 2) for the Khadi and Village Industries Board. While Figure 1 displays the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s logo of Gandhi’s spectacles, Figure 2 displays a (charkha) spinning wheel, a symbol for hand woven clothes that is promoted by the Khadi and Village Industries Board.





                               Figure 1. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

Figure 2. Khadi and Village Industries 




At the descriptive or denotative level both these advertisements demonstrate or display things that were an essential part of Gandhi’s life. Both the specs (glasses) and the charkha (spinning wheel) at this stage are mere signifiers. However, at the connotative level or at a deeper level, we realise that they are not simply specs or charkha (spinning wheel) that were used by Mahatma Gandhi, rather they conform to a language of ideology, in other words, Gandhi’s ideology of cleanliness, self-reliance, non-violence, truth, sacrifice, etc. which convey, in a way, the meaning of all those values that Gandhi stood for. Thus, at the connotative level, we decode deeper meanings that stand as signifieds thereby making the specs (glasses) and the charkha (spinning wheel) signs, a bridge between the signifier and the signified. The advertisements in Figure 1 and Figure 2 are Barthesian texts which communicate Levi-Straussian cultural message. As Mahatma Gandhi is the Father of the Indian nation, and as he is highly respected by Indians irrespective of their caste, class, colour, creed, religion and so on, the objects associated with him are ‘fetishized’. Mahatma Gandhi had a vision to find sanitation and hygiene in every Indian home. Thus, in Figure 1, his round frame specs (signifier) become the vision of a clean India (signified).  Therefore, it seems, Figure 1 becomes the logo of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Gandhi also believed in self-reliance and also gave thrust to swadeshi and village industries. Thus, in Figure 2, the charkha (signifier) becomes the instrument to become self-reliant and promote khadi and village industries. Thus, Gandhis’s spectacles and Charkha are signifiers that have signifieds which are of immense socio-cultural significance. Thus, at the level of signified, in view of these two advertisements, we are transported to a wider and deeper perspective where Gandhi’s ideal or idea overshadows the mere objects. 

            The next two advertisements employ Mahatma Gandhi’s image to testify Levi-Strauss’ idea of a ‘bricolage’ (choosing from a diverse range of things), where the medium is not in tune with the original purpose. A look at the advertisements below will give an idea of this: Figure 3 is an advertisement for Tata Steel that deals with building materials, and Figure 4 is an advertisement for Mont Blanc Pen. In these two advertisements, i.e., Figure 3 and Figure 4, there is the growth of value culture around Gandhi’s image, which makes it an influential medium for advertisers to propagate their products. Interestingly, through certain code level associations, Gandhi’s image is made to appear as an integral part of the products, irrespective of the fact that there may not be any apparent connection between the two. Yet, the long established semiotics of Gandhi’s image makes the medium a message, i.e. the medium functions as an end.




Figure 3. Tata Steel








Figure 4. Mont Blanc


Both the advertisements use similar projections: Gandhi’s face along with a tag line. Though apparently the images and the product in Figure 3 and Figure 4 seem to have nothing in common, yet the image and the words partake of a medium that the bricoleur has chosen in both the cases. While making these advertisements, the image designers (bricoleur) have kept in mind Gandhi’s life ideals to propagate the objectives of both the companies. In such advertisements, medium becomes an autonomous entity and it serves, in the sense of McLuhan’s, more like a message rather than a medium.

             Of late, there has been a shift in sign system or what can be called the denaturalizing of sign. The shift in sign system is evident in some of the advertisements that used Gandhi’s image. Consider, for instance, the two advertisements below. Figure 5 is an advertisement for Jasmine Hair Oil, Figure 6 is an advertisement for Israeli Craft Beer. Although semiotic codes or conventions regarding Gandhi has been established in the advertising world, yet, the advertisements in Figure 5 and Figure 6 claim that Gandhi’s image is not necessarily fixed. The ideology and the value system that have evolved centring Gandhi’s image no longer holds good in the world of signs that is constantly shifting. Some advertisements like that in Figure 5 and Figure 6 have broken the stereotype of such projections.







 Figure 5. Jasmine Hair Oil







        Figure 6. Israeli Craft Beer (Malka Beer)


     Such comic representation of Gandhi destabilizes and challenges the already established semiotics relating to Gandhi’s image. The signifier, signified and sign relationship that has been explained in the context of representation of Gandhi’s image is totally shaken. Such images of Gandhi flaunt any established code or convention of socio-cultural context. The image of Gandhi in the advertisement of Jasmine hair oil (Figure 5) is far removed from any impression that is associated with Gandhian ideology. The image of a man, who has remained bald through the major part of his life, projected in hair oil advertisement is definitely aimed at poking fun. Similarly, in the advertisement of Israeli Craft Beer (Figure 6), Gandhi’s image is again tuned with unrelated projections. The image of a man, who has remained vegan and teetotaller almost throughout his life, projected in beer (alcoholic beverage) advertisement is definitely aimed at poking fun and subverting the principles of a legendary human being, who led India to independence with truth, non violence and sacrifice. He considered drinking alcohol as a social evil. While projecting a subtly smiling, bald and grey moustached Gandhi sporting black goggles on the beer bottles, the advertiser hints at Gandhi’s experiment with truth and his philosophy of refraining from anything that kills one’s soul.

The denaturalizing of signs as evident in the advertisements displayed in Figure 5 and Figure 6 is perhaps because of the complex interplay of subjective factor in the production of semiosis and the culturally shared signification. The world we live in is constituted of signs and, to understand it, we need to invest meaning into it. So, the subjective effect along with the social and historical factors leads to a gradual erosion of Saussurean semiotics. This gradual shift from structural semiotics has been finely captured by Teresa de Lauretis in the following words:

In the last decade or so, semiotics has undergone a shift of its theoretical gears: a shift away from the classification of sign systems – their basic units, their levels of structural organization – and towards the exploration of the modes of production of signs and meanings, the ways in which systems and codes are used, transformed or transgressed in social practice. While formerly the emphasis was on studying sign systems (language, literature, cinema, architecture, music, etc.), conceived of as mechanisms that generate messages, what is now being examined in the work performed through them. It is this work of activity which constitutes and/ or transforms the codes, at the same time as it constitutes and transforms the individuals using the codes, performing the work; the individuals who are, therefore, the subject of semiosis...Although for Eco meaning production or semiosis is a social activity, he allows that subjective factors are involved in each individual act of semiosis. The notion then might be pertinent to the two main emphases of current, or poststructuralist, semiotic theory. One is a semiotics focused on the subjective aspects of signification and strongly influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, where meaning is construed as a subject-effect (the subject being an effect of the signifier). The other is a semiotics concerned to stress the social aspect of signification, its practical, aesthetic, or ideological use in interpersonal communication; there, meaning is construed as semantic value produced through culturally shared codes. (qtd. in Chandler 14-15)


            The semiotic analysis of advertisements displayed in Figure 5 and Figure 6 helps us understand that meaning is not created objectively. In fact, we partake in the creation of meaning on the basis of codes, which are really difficult to read as these are elusive and obscure. So, the advertisements displayed in Figure 5 and Figure 6 make us realize that even the most realistic signs may not be what they appear, paving way for what may be termed as “denaturalizing” signs (qtd. in Chandler: 15). In the process of deconstructing and contesting established signs, the privileged and suppressed realities come to the fore, perpetuating the construction and maintenance of reality, which itself is a system of signs.

Destabilizing Fetish in Post-Capitalist Society:

            The irony lies in the fact that the image that has been largely used by the government to propagate government policies or actions so far is now taken over by the corporate world, the market force. Whatever may be the purpose, such projections of Gandhi destabilize the semiotics associated with Gandhian ideology, thereby establishing the fluidity between the signifier and the signified and that the signifier representing Gandhi and his images need not always evoke a positive signified associated with Gandhian ideology. Such comical projections of Gandhi can be likened to the changing attitude of a post-capitalist society towards fetishized objects. Things that were considered fetish, as having a sacred connotation at one point of time, in the wake of Marx’s capitalist theory of commodity being structured by their use-value and exchange-value, have been destabilized as the old value system, which has fissured, is replaced by a new value system. So, it is easier for the post-capitalist society to accept the sacrilegious act against the fetishized objects. In this sense, Gandhi, in Figures 5 and 6, has been turned, by the advertisers, into a fetishized object, whose comical representation is not something that is either profane or unacceptable.

            The analyses of the representational techniques of Gandhi vis-a-vis advertisements can be traced to the concept of commodity fetishism, a concept rooted in Marxist thought and specifically central to Frankfurt School philosophy. It was Theodore W. Adorno who claimed that commerce and market has so much invaded the human psyche that psyche itself is shaped by commercial forces. In their famous book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer propounded the theory of cultural industry to demonstrate how human imagination ranging from artistic, spiritual to intellectual activity gets commodified when subordinated to the commercial laws of the market. For the consumer, the cultural goods and services sold in the market promise a richly developed creative individuality. In his book, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Guy Debord offered the theory of ‘le spectacle’ whereby advanced capitalism, mass communication media together with a government exploiting these factors have resulted in a spectacle that transforms human relations to objectified relations among images and vice versa. Advertisement is a strong example of this where the audience passively allows cultural representations of themselves to become the active agents of their beliefs. In such a spectacle, arts and instruments of cultural production are commodified that transforms an aesthetic value to commercial value. Every artistic production or expression is shaped like a commodity that is saleable in the market as artistic goods and services. Considering the perspective of commodity fetishism, the advertisements featuring Gandhi turn him into a sort of artefact that is saleable in the market. The advanced tools of mass communication make it easy to convert Gandhian ideology into a spectacle that has both creative and market value. The whole range of philosophy and ideology associated with Gandhi’s life is first turned into a spectacle, in other words a visual signifier conforming to the socio-cultural and historical codes (signifieds) of a time in the past of nation’s history, and then colouring and transforming the whole discourse into a sort of fetish. In the capitalistic backdrop, commodity fetishism transforms a cultural commodity (in this case the visual psychological representation of Gandhi) as a product with economic life of its own. In a capitalist economy, every aspect of human concern is treated as a commodity that can be bought and sold in the market. Gandhi’s visions, his ideology and his philosophy are camouflaged either by representing him or fragments of his body along with objects he used into a visual product which now comes with a market value.

Jean Baudrillard, falling back on Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism, attempted to take into consideration the subjective angle of buyers towards consumer goods. Advertising assigns a kind of mystification, in other words, turns goods and services into cultural mystique that encourages consumers to purchase products that flatters their construction of cultural identity. In his book, For a Critique of the Political Economy of Sign (1972), as an improvement upon Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism and the exchange value versus use value dichotomy of capitalism, Baudrillard developed the semiotic theory of sign. In his book, Baudrillard tried to establish how immense transmutation of all values like labour, knowledge, social relations, culture, nature etc. are converted into economic exchange value. Signs and culture are made to appear as if they are enveloped in fetishism, a mystery that is equivalent and contemporaneous with commodity.

Developing the idea of semiotic fetishism, Jean Baudrillard works out a relationship between the social subject and the object, where the object gradually comes to incorporate subject positions, along with ideas and material form. For Baudrillard, the “fetish is the site of a merging or confusion of subject and object and, especially in the later work, the object seems to be primary” (Dant 11). For Baudrillard, the use-value of any commodity, like its exchange-value is a fetishized social relation. The object becomes a commodity, available for exchange only when it is valued in terms of a code of functionality that reflects innate human needs or desires. The object or its thing in terms of use is “nothing but the different types of relations and significations that converge, contradict themselves and twist around it” (qtd. in Dant 11). So, the object of consumption does not have an isolated, asocial existence separated from human needs, rather its existence is determined as a sign in a system of relations of difference with other objects. The process of consumption, as explained by Baudrillard is “not as the realisation of objective needs or of economic exchange but as the social exchange of signs and values” (Dant 11).  

In Baudrillardian perspective, objects function as signs in a code of significatory value that can be manipulated within the registers of functionality and ostentation. The same object can be a part of both the registers as useless gadget combines “pure gratuitousness under a cover of functionality, pure waste under a cover of practicality” (qtd. in Dant 12). Depending on an object’s demonstration of ostentation, a sign value that accrues to the possessor of the object, turns the object itself into a fetish.

In advertising parlance, Gandhian image lend a fetish quality to the objects in terms of signs of reverence and fascination that stand above and beyond simple consumption. The quality of fetish is attested by celebrating certain ritualistic practices (cleanliness, hygiene, non-violence) associated with Gandhian ideology, which in turn

revere the object, a class of objects, items from a ‘known’ producer or even the brand name of a range of products. These ritualistic practices will involve expressing desire for the object and fantasizing about its capacities prior to its consumption. The object itself becomes a sign for these fantasized and desired capacities so that its use or enjoyment can re-stimulate the play of fantasy and desire. (Dant 18)


            This fetish associated with Gandhi and his ideology is palpable not only in advertising, but across mediums that visually project Gandhi both in positive and negative light. From the monumental 1982 biopic “Gandhi” directed by Richard Attenborough, Shyam Benegal directed “The Making of Gandhi” (1996) to the popular portrayal of the Mahatma in Rajkumar Hirani’s “Lage Raho Munna Bhai” (2006), the celluloid has projected Gandhi in various shades. From an iconic projection in “Gandhi” to idealising Gandhian values in the contemporary settings by eulogising Gandhigiri in “Lage Raho Munna Bhai”, filmmakers throughout have had a magnetic attraction towards the different aspects of Gandhi’s life and his ideology. Danesh R Khambata has produced a Broadway-style musical on Ganhi’s life and works; while a Canadian punk rock band, Propagandhi has created music influenced by Gandhi’s politics and his style of rebellion. Gandhi is also projected in a new light in Disney Cartoon channel’s animated series titled “BAPU”. Visual projection of Gandhi is strongly felt in Jason Quinn’s graphic novel Gandhi: My Life is a Message wherein the art work is adorned by Sachin Nagar. In these varied projections, as in advertisements, Gandhi is turned into a cultural artefact that carries the saleable stamp with it.    

From the study of the advertisements featuring Gandhi or Gandhi’s image, it has been found that, in addition to revealing socio-cultural contexts, the texts under study, particularly the texts in Figure 1 and Figure 2, hint at the past and a crucial period of Indian history. Such advertisements do not display Gandhi’s image as an isolated existence  rather as a continuum in time pointing towards a historicity in socio-cultural context. In this sense, Gandhi or Gandhi’s image in advertising text becomes a part of organised social intercourse that cannot exist outside time. Such semiotic approaches of advertisements featuring Gandhi turn advertising into interesting linguistic genre. 

Considering the vast gamut of literature on Gandhi, including art works, statues, photographs, advertisements etc. it can be safely said that Gandhi occupies a semiotic space both at the national and international arena. Be it in the print, visual or audio-visual medium, a whole range of semiotics has evolved centring his life and works testifying Lotman’s coinage of ‘semiosphere’. The multimedia literature on Gandhi can be read as function of languages within culture. Furthermore, the frequent use of Gandhi as an image along with the objects he used in the advertising texts has produced a semiotic culture in itself. Apart from government departments and government policies, Gandhi’s image now endorses a variety of products globally. A strong medium in itself, Gandhi’s image, in the world of advertisements, has both a national and international appeal. The image automatically draws into the audience’s consciousness, a set of codes spanning an era of socio-cultural, political and historical events associated with India’s struggle for independence.  Thus, there is the growth of value culture around Gandhi’s image, which makes it an influential medium for advertisers to propagate their products. It is noticed in the advertising texts, say the texts in Figure 3 and Figure 4, how Gandhi’s image has been made to associate with products that have no apparent connections. Thus, in such advertisements, the long-established semiotics of Gandhi’s image makes the medium a message.

The study reveals that in post-capitalist set up, Gandhi and his ideology, through strong visual medium of advertisements, have been converted into artefacts that have economic value of their own, artefacts that can be sold and bought in the market. By ascribing commodity status and saleable status, advertisements have turned Gandhi into a cultural and commodity fetish. However, in post-capitalist society, with the change in the value system, such fetish objects are frequently desecrated. Further, the semiotic analyses of the advertisements featuring Mahatma Gandhi, particularly advertising texts in Figure 5, and Figure 6 have proved the fluid nature of sign system built around Gandhi’s image.




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