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Gandhiji The Commodity

Gandhiji The Commodity

November 27, 2009

Mont Blanc’s limited edition $25k Gandhi fountain pen has got people up in arms. But how fussed would Gandhi have been?

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.


  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    07.08.10 07:12 PM
    Hey crius, thanks for stopping by. I don't know how much of your comment applies to me or the opinion I expressed, but I agree completely that it was all about money at bottom... and if you're suggesting that the hype surrounding this pen was way out of proportion, I'm totally with you there too. Had he been alive, I think Gandhi would've given it perhaps a single passing remark given the billions of vastly more important things to consider in the world today.
  • crius
    05.08.10 03:30 PM
    wow!!!gimme some break.... is such a hype required for this??? where were the so called true INDIANs when so many movies were made on gandhi??? whatever it was in the end it was all about making money!!!! had it been an INDIAN company would the people respond to it in the same way??? when Gandhi's possessions are being sold at a fortune where were the deep rooted affinity towards the poor statement??? how many companies INDIA have done such an act of honouring??? everbody just wants to drag the other down...
  • Suchit Punnose
    Suchit Punnose
    12.06.10 01:16 AM
    Hi Barnaby,

    Hope Varkala is treating you well after your article! Knowing the tendency of well wishers of various causes in Kerala to be up in arms over trivia, I hope they have let you live in peace!

    I couldn't agree more with you.


  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    23.02.10 01:46 PM
    Hi James - seems I forgot to actually mention the agreement Mont Blanc have with Gandhi's foundation. From USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/money/world/2009-10-02-mont-blanc-india_N.htm):

    "On Tuesday, Montblanc chief executive Lutz Bethge handed over a check for $145,666 to Gandhi's great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, for his foundation.

    The foundation will get an additional 10,000 to 50,000 rupees ($210 to $1,050) for each pen sold, Goessler said."

    So that's the money I referred to, and I too was surprised to hear about it - still, I feel they're covering their bases more than anything. On your other point, I agree it's a little distasteful but as you say they're not really doing anything wrong. If anything, I would suggest that the controversy surrounding the pen is something they would welcome, as it generates a lot of interest. Those 241 pens must all be long sold.
  • James
    03.02.10 02:59 AM
    Hi Barnaby;
    I'm enjoying your posts. I visited Varkala myself; fantastic place.
    A small point I'd like to raise about this entry: You state that Mont Blanc are "raising money for Gandhi's legacy". How so? Surely, sales revenue goes directly into their own pockets, unless they have pledged a percentage to a charity of some description in his name - that would be raising money for his legacy. Call me a pessimist but I seriously doubt that's the case! I think it's a tacky bit of profiteering, but legal proceedings? Surely nobody owns Gandhi's image rights and so Mont Blanc aren't doing anything illegal, or immoral - even if it is a little distasteful.
    Anyway; as I said, I'm enjoying reading your posts...Keep well in Kerala!

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