Mont Blanc, the Swiss accessories giant, recently launched a limited edition gold pen bearing the image of Mahatma Gandhi to coincide with the great man’s birthday anniversary. At aroundUS$25,000, it’s hardly a mass market item, but the very idea of it has many people up in arms. India’s own Gandhiji? Hero of the masses, champion of equality, reduced to being bought by the wealthy as a status symbol or investment and exploited cynically by a foreign company for profit? A Kerala advocate, Dijo Kappen, has openly stated his intent to pursue legal proceedings against Mont Blanc, and a public debate has begun.
It’s reasonable to say that the name Gandhi is amongst the top four or five most widely known in the world today. His image is perhaps even more widely known, and the irony of such a symbol of dignity and non-exclusivity appearing on a precious gold item for the elite is not lost on most. His mission of nonviolence has impacted and influenced people all over the world, and he has come to belong not only to India and Indians but global society as a whole, so the indignation is coming from all quarters.
The loudest voice of dissent has been Kappen, the Kerala advocate who is making it his own mission to ensure something like this never happens again. In Kappen’s words, “Gandhiji is the Father of the Nation and is considered the epitome of simplicity. Making him a symbol of a Rs 14-lakh pen is nothing but an attempt to degrade everything that Gandhiji symbolised.” At this point, one has to ask: what, exactly, would the Mahatma have said had he been alive to see this?
Well, here we are talking about a man who led millions in a revolt against violent external rule; to Kappen I would say that it seems improbable that he would have gotten hot and bothered if someone designed a nice pen with his face on it. No doubt he would be disappointed, having himself expressly sought to prevent use of his image – “I have no copyright in his portraits but I am unable to give the consent you require” was his response to a manufacturer who wanted his visage to decorate their roof tiles. However, I think it’s much more likely that he would have a problem with people actually caring to buy, own and covet such expensive items, but not given it much more than a passing thought.
My significant other also made an interesting point. People do like nice things, and if you want to honour Gandhi and have the means, why should it be wrong to purchase something classy? In Varkala, where I live, every store sells t-shirts with Gandhi’s famous portrait emblazoned on them. Ultimately, people will buy this pen for the same reason others buy those shirts: they would be proud to own and display something that honours the great man, and they can afford to buy it. It’s the same with Che Guevara, another icon that has been commodified, though his example illustrates the danger of going too far and losing that icon’s true meaning.
Sure, Mont Blanc will certainly have decided to produce this pen with the prospect of profits far greater in their minds than any idea of tribute to the man. They probably started with the concept of whether the pen would be saleable and then searched for ways to justify making it. However, in a world governed more and more by the bottom line, Mont Blanc are drawing attention to an important figure, raising money for his legacy and making a good few bucks on the side. It’s a tribute that fits perfectly with the times.