When Paris Met the Mahatma

When Paris Met the Mahatma: A look back at Gandhi’s visit to the City of Light, and the complex confrontation between his philosophy and European modernity

01 December, 2011

MAGIC CITY WAS A LARGE DANCE HALL on Paris’s Left Bank, used over the decades for purposes as diverse as transvestite balls in the roaring 1920s and the storage of Jewish property confiscated by the fascist French government in the 1940s. It was seized by the Nazis and lavishly refurbished as a radio studio run by the Gestapo during the Occupation, and it was where French television broadcasting set up shop during the 1950s.

It was also the place where Mahatma Gandhi—on his way home from the Second Round Table Conference in London and en route to visit Romain Rolland in Geneva—made his only public appearance in Paris, on 5 December 1931, in the very same space where the celebrated Parisian drag queens Kymris and Monsieur Bertin once strutted their stuff.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts of the event, it was a strange evening. Patrons were ushered to their seats by girls “bizarrely uniformed in bright red skirts, leather boots, and wide leather belts from which hung cutlasses”, according to the journalist Robert Gauthier’s report in Le Temps. Gauthier observed that the “atmosphere, part circus, part dancing hall, the overheated room, the massive columns of red marble, the flashes of magnesium from here and there, and the floodlights ready to be lit into action were not on the same level as this leader of men.”

Further to the right, reporter Georges Suarez had a different take in L’Echo de Paris: “Mahatma Gandhi proves himself to be a great comic.... He appears crushed by his lamentable half-nakedness ... but, if his sandals are those of Mohamed, his little bathing suit does not conjure up Napoleon’s coat at Wagram.” According to Muriel Lester’s Entertaining Gandhi, an account of her travels with the Mahatma in Europe, Suarez was angry that he’d been denied a tête-à-tête interview with Gandhi earlier in the day after he snuck into the apartment where Gandhi was staying on Boulevard Raspail. He promised Lester he’d write nasty things about Gandhi if he wasn’t given access to the man, and he did.

By the time Gandhi arrived in France in 1931, he was an international celebrity. His 1930 Salt March had been widely covered by the foreign media—whose interest in the proceedings was mocked in a book-length satirical poem, called The Saint and Satan, published the same year:

At once the Press entire took up the chorus

And pestered every mile that lay before us;

The Press entire, becoming shrill and shriller,

Published each day some more exciting thriller;

They soon grew indiscreet and indiscreeter;

Sugar was sweet, but contraband salt was sweeter!

William L Shirer, then a correspondent with the Chicago Tribune, described the Salt March in his book, Gandhi: A Memoir, as “one of the strangest treks ever witnessed in India or in any other country. And it soon became one of the most reported, as dozens of Indian reporters joined the two or three local reporters who were in at the outset, followed by correspondents from all over the world.” United Press correspondent Webb Miller’s description of silent satyagrahis at the Dharasana Salt Works north of Bombay coming forward to be brutally whacked down by lathi-armed police was, according to Shirer, “flashed around the world—Miller’s graphic United Press dispatch was published in more than a thousand newspapers at home and abroad.”

In January 1931, Time magazine put Gandhi on its cover and named him Man of the Year. French newsreels had shown footage of the Salt March, which was also widely reported in the French press. When Gandhi landed in Marseilles on 11 September 1931 on his way to London, he was mobbed by reporters. In fact, the second supplemental volume of Gandhi’s Collected Works reproduces no fewer than seven press statements made by Gandhi in Marseilles—a city where he did not even pause long enough to spend the night—to the Daily Herald, the New York Times, the Bombay Chronicle, the Daily Mail, the Associated Press, the News Chronicle and Reuters. From the moment he arrived on European soil until his departure for Bombay from Italy, wherever Gandhi went, the press followed. Their dispatches, photos and films appeared around the world. By 1934, Cole Porter could write lyrics for his Broadway hit musical Anything Goes declaring, “You’re the top! You’re Mahatma Gandhi.”

After the excitement of Gandhi’s brief stop in Marseilles, French papers and newsreels were filled with images from London of the diminutive and scantily clad Gandhi speaking to crowds of cheering British workers, on his way to meet the king of England or seated next to a beaming Charlie Chaplin. Outside Magic City on the evening of his speech, there was pandemonium. Tickets had been given out judiciously, to a lucky 2,000 people, and a crowd of hundreds mobbed the entrance, hoping to get in, or simply to catch a glance of the famous Indian. Even journalists with tickets and press passes had trouble at the door: the Le Figaro correspondent Gaëtan Sanvoisin, clearly a man not used to summary treatment, grumbled in his report about being hassled at the door, lamenting that the police were no help, as they were taking orders from “young men wearing blue-starred armbands”, apparently hired to help manage the crowd.

Inside, Gandhi was seated on the stage, accompanied by Madeleine Slade, whom he called Mirabehn—the daughter of a British rear-admiral and one of his most devoted disciples. He spoke in English, uttering a few sentences at a time, which were promptly translated into French. Press accounts from the right and the left were unanimous in their surprise at the apparently passive demeanour of the speaker, whose voice was described as “monotone” and who barely looked up at the audience while he spoke. Clearly, Gandhi was not as entertaining as the usual performers at Magic City, or perhaps his quiet delivery didn’t match his outsized reputation. Given that he had arrived from London earlier in the day by train and had already held two meetings—a lavish tea with the cream of Indian society in Paris and an informal meeting of “intellectuals” (in the words of Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai) at the tiny apartment of his hostess, Louise Guyiesse—he was probably exhausted.

A photograph of Gandhi at a Quaker meeting house in London during his 1931 trip. COURTESY L’ ILUSTRATION

A brief audio snippet from Gandhi’s speech at Magic City survives, in a newsreel produced by Pathé-Journal titled “Gandhi’s Visit to Paris”. In a firm voice, Gandhi declares, “It seems to me the world has become sick of blood-thirsty war. The world is disgusted with the lies and deceit that are the inevitable consequences of all war-like methods.” He pauses for his French translator, and as soon as the translation is finished, the audience erupts in applause. According to Robert Gauthier in Le Temps, this was all part of the staging: “Disarmament was the order of the day,” he sniffed, “and while propagandists distributed tracts and brochures among the audience, others passed along to Gandhi written questions which offered him the chance for easy applause.” Writing for the conservative Le Figaro, Sanvoisin was alarmed, rather than amused, by the sight of an Indian advocating independence from an imperial European power: Gandhi’s words, he warned his readers, “were nothing if not dangerous, and that is what the French public needs to know.”

Mahadev Desai transcribed some of the questions from the audience, as well as remarks Gandhi addressed to expatriate Indians. The questions ranged from whether independent India would put up trade barriers with France to why Gandhi no longer wore European clothes. Gandhi’s Collected Works contain a long, but incomplete, version of his full remarks at Magic City, which have been translated back into English on the basis of a French translation of his speech published in a January 1932 special issue of the magazine Régénération dedicated to Gandhi and India. The portion of the speech quoted in Le Figaro by Sanvoisin places the short surviving section recorded from the newsreel into the wider context that Gandhi gave it:

I tried to understand your great revolution, but I think that you want to address a greater message to the world because the Earth is tired of sanguinary wars. The universe is disgusted with the hypocrisies that are the necessary consequences of bellicose methods. The economic crisis which is tearing countries apart, not excepting the United States, is a consequence of the global conflagration, which we have been sufficiently mistaken to call the ‘Great War.’

Gandhi’s aim here is to relate the struggle of satyagraha in India with the larger economic and political crisis engulfing the world in 1931. His purpose in evoking the French revolution is to enlist his French audience as supporters of India’s cause. The next line of the speech, following the passage quoted above—naturally omitted from Sanvoisin’s report in Le Figaro—makes Gandhi’s mission clear: “Thus it seems to me that India’s struggle for independence is a movement in which every Frenchman and every Frenchwoman should take a direct interest.” Writing for a conservative newspaper, Sanvoisin had no interest in helping his readers see any connection between themselves and India’s struggle for independence from France’s imperial neighbour across the Channel.

It is important to carefully parse Gandhi’s words here, or at least Sanvoisin’s translation of his original words. Gandhi does not argue that economic crisis leads to war—as has been suggested, with hindsight, to explain the outbreak of World War II. He blames the aftermath of what “we have been sufficiently mistaken to call” the Great War for the worldwide Great Depression. What Gandhi exactly means by “the global conflagration” is not clear. On the surface, it seems to mean the violence of the first World War, and it certainly must mean that. But for Gandhi, the violence of war was the extension of the violence inherent in an exploitative economic system whose logic of consumption and capital accumulation made conflicts of all kinds inevitable. For Gandhi, that system—as pursued by Britain, France and the United States—was defined by relentless economic and imperial expansion, which he saw as the rotten core of Western modernity.

As he had so eloquently argued in his seminal 1909 tract Hind Swaraj, Gandhi sought India’s independence from both Britain and the system it represented. While London was the capital of a mode of civilisation where every value was calculated according to its potential for economic gain, Paris was the capital of the philosophical roots of Western modernity, the centre of the French Enlightenment. But the essence of that Enlightenment—a vision of human progress through technological innovation and the spread of knowledge based on a rational apprehension of reality—was precisely what Gandhi rejected.

Gandhi was well-acquainted with French Enlightenment thought, as he explained to his audience at Magic City in Paris: “In my spare time I tried to read works concerning France. I read, in parts, Rousseau and Voltaire.” In Marseilles, a few months earlier, he told a gathering of students who had invited him to speak, “I have learnt something of the traditions of your country and of the teachings of Rousseau and Victor Hugo.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were among the contributors to the grandest project of the French Enlightenment, the 17-volume Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert and published between 1751 and 1765, whose humble aim was to compile all the world’s knowledge.

But Gandhi probably had not read the Enlightenment bestseller The Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies, an apologia for European colonial expansion whose authors included several of the leading intellectuals who had also contributed to the Encyclopédie. The history of the two Indies laid out the argument for France’s mission civilisatrice, presenting France as a more rational and therefore preferable coloniser to Spain, Portugal or Britain, France’s main rivals in the grand European race to seize control of land and resources around the world. The ideology of imperialism, the very enemy against which Gandhi fought his war of satyagraha, had taken on its full form by the early 20th century, but it was born of the Enlightenment—whose ideas inspired the French and American revolutions but also underpinned Napoleon’s imperial conquest in Egypt, a project in which scientific knowledge gathering and military conquest went hand in hand.

The “greater message” that Gandhi told his Parisian audience he felt they really wanted to give the world was his own, the message of nonviolent revolution. He ended his speech in Paris with a call to arms: “If you are convinced of the importance of the factors that could make youth throw themselves into the movement [during the Salt March] I invite you to meditate on them till you can engender a wave of public opinion in favour of this cause.”

Enlisting sympathetic Frenchmen and women to bend public opinion in Europe in favour of India’s independence struggle against the British was Gandhi’s overriding goal during his brief passage through France. When Gandhi’s hostess in Paris, Louise Guyiesse, asked him, “What can we do for you?” Gandhi replied, “without a second’s hesitation,” according to a letter she published about Gandhi’s stay with her in Paris: “You must arrange to publish exactly the uncensored news which I will arrange to send you through friends because in the French press, and even in the European press, there is nothing on India or it is lies.” In fact, the British worked hard to control public perceptions about Gandhi and his movement, imposing censorship, arresting editors and confiscating printing presses. Despite this, news of what was happening in India did get out. International coverage of the Salt March and the brutal repression of the demonstration at the Dharasana Salt Works succeeded in creating breaches in the public’s support for continued British rule in India. In Paris, Gandhi sought to widen those breaches. Gandhi’s nonviolent war, as he called his struggle more than once, consisted, on the European front, of a war of perception.

In response to Gandhi’s request, Guyiesse founded Les Nouvelles de l’Inde. Among the review’s collaborators were Gandhi’s great friend, the French philosopher and Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland, Rolland’s sister Madeleine, and Edmond Privat, who organised Gandhi’s lectures in Lausanne and Geneva, and travelled with him when he returned to Bombay at the end of 1931. Romain Rolland was also exquisitely aware that public opinion was an important battleground in the struggle for India’s independence, writing: “Official British agencies only allow a few minor stories to leak into the European press: arrests which appear isolated events, acts of individual violence, which have nothing to do with the national Civil Disobedience Movement, timid demonstrations restricted to one or two points on the immense peninsula in ferment.”

BRITAIN WAS NOT THE ONLY EUROPEAN POWER focused on managing public opinion about its imperial enterprise during the tumultuous years leading up to World War II. The French mounted a huge celebration of their imperial might in 1931: the Exposition Colonial Internationale, which opened in Paris in May and closed in November, just before Gandhi’s arrival. It was a propaganda tour de force. Placed under the tutelage of Hubert Lyautey, Maréchal de France and Minister of War during World War I, the exhibition was designed, according to Paul Reynaud, Minister of Colonies, to “make the French people conscious of their empire”. An estimated eight million eager visitors attended the Exposition, where they were invited to “tour the world in a half a day”, visit what was unabashedly advertised as the “human zoo” and bask in the glory that was “greater France”.

The French India pavilion at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris. COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Remnants of pavilions constructed for the Exposition still remain in the Bois de Vincennes, where the exhibition was held. Every French colony was represented. At the human zoo, specimens of the different colonised races in their native costumes performed dances and ceremonies before an enthralled French public. A large-scale reproduction of a temple complex at Angkor Wat, the jewel of French Indochina, dwarfed the architectural embodiments of France’s other colonies, though French India boasted its own pavilion. Visitors could discover the wonders of les Indes Françaises in a structure meant to evoke a Hindu temple in Pondicherry, whose entrance was flanked by a pair of elephants created by the French sculptor Jean Magrou. Britain, which had put up a grand show of its Indian empire at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, declined the French invitation to participate in the Exposition Coloniale of 1931 due to “budgetary” reasons. Tiny Denmark happily accepted, showing off Eskimos from Greenland.

The only non-European nation present was the United States—presumably delighted to be considered a colonial power in 1931. The US pavilion featured a reproduction of George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon, which was supposed to showcase the American colonies of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Samoa, Alaska and Hawaii. (The latter two were not yet states of the union.) French visitors were thrilled to find in the faux Mount Vernon a bedroom outfitted for General Lafayette, ally of the American revolutionary forces. The irony of a former colony that had successfully fought for its independence from British colonial rule exhibiting at an international fair dedicated to the virtues of empire—and paying homage to the French general who helped them fight the British—was lost on both the French and the Americans. Nor was the American pavilion meant to inspire the French to come to the aid of any other British colonies, least of all India, which might wish independence. The French had managed to cling to a few small territories of their own in India after their defeat there by the British at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. The French possessions were Pondicherry and Karikal in what is now Tamil Nadu, Chandernagor in what is now West Bengal, Mahé in what is now Kerala and Yanaon in what is now Bihar. They would not give these territories up until after India’s independence. But, more than a threat to France’s tiny possessions in India, Gandhi’s movement was an affront to an empire that, while not quite as great as the one on which the sun never set, saw itself on the side of the conqueror rather than the conquered. The last thing France wanted was for Gandhi to inspire colonised subjects in Indochina or North Africa to embark on similar quests.

French fear of India’s potential to lay low the British Empire was fanned by hysterical articles filled with overtly racist views on European superiority and misinformation about India and India’s independence movement. The 23 September 1931 issue of VU magazine, published just after Gandhi landed in Marseilles, carried a lead article by Edouard Helsfy entitled ‘Why the British Will Lose India’, which warned French readers that India’s bid for independence represented nothing less than a threat to the fate of the West. Deploying a rhetorical bombast that still finds great favour among contemporary prophets of civilisational doom, Helsfy declared that Britain’s loss of India would be “grave, very grave, not only because it [England] cannot lose India without shaking up our colonial empire, but still and above all because old England, as we have known it, represented one of the major pillars of the whole of Western civilisation.”

The problem, according to Helsfy, was one of simple demographics: women outnumbered men in Britain, creating a growing population of old maids. “Do you know what an English spinster is?” Helsfy asked. “There is nothing more fantastical, more enthusiastic, more chimerical and, above all, more gullible. They are charmed by idealism and unreason. Yet, ten or twelve years ago, like all English women, two or three million spinsters became voters. What’s more, for the most part they are angry voters.… For the past ten years, these millions of old girls govern England absolutely.” (France did not give its women the right to vote until 1944.) Real men, Helsfy argued, could govern India’s hordes without much trouble—but the British had gone “soft”. The Indians, Helsfy continued, in a litany of tired arguments for European dominance, were like children; they were physically weak because they didn’t eat meat and most of them were born into abject poverty; they were divided by a multitude of different languages and by religion. The English had bettered Indians’ lives immensely by building railroads and schools and improving sanitation—and what did they have to show for it? An ungrateful, uppity population.

Helsfy concluded: “If England one day soon should give up India, it will mean that England, as a great people, no longer exists. Should we congratulate ourselves for this?” The article includes a large number of photographs of Gandhi, as a young barrister, on the SS Rajputana before disembarking in France, addressing crowds in India, walking on a rain-soaked London street. The final photograph is of Gandhi sleeping in what looks like a jail cell on the floor with his papers and a brass jug nearby. The caption reads: “A nap in his native country. Will the awakening of the Indian beast be a danger for the British lion?”

Helsfy at least gets some of his facts right, even if his interpretation is wildly prejudiced. Le Miroir du Monde, an illustrated weekly, featured a Jules Verne sort of cover on its 19 September 1931 issue where planet Earth turns its spotlight on an image of Gandhi spinning. The caption under Gandhi reads: “Gandhi on board the ‘Rajputana.’ During the crossing, the Mahatma spins.” Inside, the article on Gandhi’s travels bears the headline: “Backstage with The Hindu Agitation”. There are contemporary photographs from Gandhi’s European tour: we see Gandhi trying on a life preserver, a photo of his British hostess, Muriel Lester, Gandhi at a meeting in London, the simple room where Gandhi stayed. The article promises to shed light on the mysterious Indian leader: “The famous agitator Gandhi, in Europe to attend the Round Table Conference, excites by his passage a great deal of curiosity. It is, in effect, a curious spectacle, this ‘untouchable’ who, by the influence of his patriotic ardour mixed with stoicism, has been able to morally subjugate Indians of noble birth, authentic Englishmen, and will be able to interact on an equal footing with the ministers of His British Majesty.” The article, written by an “Afghan reputed writer and traveller”, proceeds to present alarming details about “the diabolical organisation of Hindu terrorism” which, the writer claims, has its origins in “secret Hindu societies.” No wonder Gandhi was keen to have sympathetic Europeans help get the truth out about him and the Independence Movement.

FRENCH AUTHORITIES AND ALARMISTS needn’t have fretted so much about Gandhi’s brief sojourn in France. Despite his worldwide fame, for the majority of Parisians, his visit was at most a passing curiosity. Paris in 1931 may have been reeling from the global depression and trembling at the rumblings of war in Europe, but it was also the world capital of jazz, of modern art and of the art of seduction of all varieties. Josephine Baker, the African-American singer and dancer whose nearly naked performances—she was most famous for a number in which she performed a danse sauvage in nothing more than a skirt of artificial bananas—was a huge star in Paris at the time. She performed her hit song ‘J’ai deux amours’, or ‘I have two loves’, a veritable love song to French colonialism, in the Togo-Cameroon pavilion at the Exposition Coloniale. The two loves in the song are a home country, clearly somewhere in Africa, and Paris. Here is my translation of the original lyrics sung by Josephine Baker in 1931. (A later version substituted Manhattan for the exotic homeland.)

They say that beyond the seas

Over there under a clear sky

There exists a town

In an enchanting setting

And under the large black trees

Every evening

All my hope turns toward it.

I have two loves,

My country and Paris.

My heart is ever ravished

By both of them.

My savannah is beautiful

But why deny it?

What really bewitches me

Is Paris, the whole of Paris.

Josephine Baker was crowned the “Queen of the Colonies” at the Exposition Coloniale, and her show featuring half-naked African dancers was among the exhibition’s biggest attractions. The liquor company Pernod used her image and evoked her song as part of a 1931 advertising campaign. Josephine Baker, a girl from St Louis, Missouri, singing in fluent French about her home in some exotic faraway land was of a piece with the “Hindu” temples confectioned by French architects for the Exposition. The Exposition created an image of life in the colonies that was palatable to French visitors—colonial policemen casually strolled

the Exposition as friendly guides rather than as armed agents of colonial repression—an image domesticated to French taste.

The same is evident in the images of a “Hindu dancer” which haunt the photographic archives of the Paris cabaret scene in the 1930s. A young woman, of apparent Indian or other South Asian origin, assumes poses not like any seen in classical Bharatanatyam or Odissi dancing. Though she wears bells around her ankles, her costume is extremely abbreviated, her little skirt barely reaching mid-thigh. One photo shows her chatting up French men in suits at the bar. Who was this woman, and what was her story? The mute photographs do not say.

She was not the only Indian performing in Paris when Gandhi came to town. Ravi Shankar gave his first ever performance on the sitar on 3 March 1931 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. He was 10 years old. Shankar’s older brother, Uday, had embarked on a dance career in London in the late 1920s. He created two “Indian” dances with the celebrated Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, ‘Oriental Impressions’ and ‘Radha-Krishna’. The success of these performances convinced him of the potential in Europe for Indian spectacle. He returned to India to fetch his family. The Uday Shankar Company of Hindu Dancers and Musicians settled in Paris, where young Ravi began his musical career.

At the time of Gandhi’s arrival, in other words, Paris had a distinct fascination for the exotic—so long as it was neatly packaged and domesticated to appeal to European sensibilities and flatter European tastes. The obsessive attention to Gandhi’s lack of dress, and the dismissive, even insulting comments about his nakedness, such as referring to his dhoti as a “little bathing suit”, were a way of dressing down, as it were, the threat he represented to empire and to the European domination of non-Europeans in the colonies.

Gandhi was very well aware of the impact of his costuming both on the Indian masses he wished to inspire at home and on European audiences of all sorts. His transformation from a dapper man-about-town in London as a young student who dressed in bespoke suits into the Mahatma clad only in a dhoti was of a piece with the evolution of his political persona. When asked by a French member of the audience at Magic City why he no longer wore European clothes, Gandhi replied, “I am poor, and like thousands of Indians, I do not allow myself to wear European clothes. First, because they are too dear. Secondly, because they are quite unsuited to the climate of my country and, lastly, because it does not provide work for our Indian workers if we wear European clothes.” A 1931 cartoon published in a French magazine depicting Gandhi’s visit to France shows a French woman offering him a pair of trousers.

Gandhi theatricalised his voluntary poverty. Asked by a French customs officer upon landing in Marseilles whether he had anything to declare, Gandhi replied, “I am a poor mendicant. All my earthly possessions consist of: six spinning wheels; prison dishes; a can of goat’s milk; six homespun loin-cloths; one towel; and my reputation, which cannot be worth much.” This reputation had brought reporters from all over the world to the docks of Marseilles, who filmed and photographed Gandhi descending the gangplank along with a considerable entourage that included Mirabehn, Sarojini Naidu, Mahadev Desai, Charles Andrews and a bevy of aides toting bedding, more cans of goat’s milk, typewriters and other paraphernalia.

Gandhi’s voluntary simplicity may have been baffling to the general European public, but in fact the philosophical roots of his asceticism were themselves European. As Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph have pointed out, Gandhi’s allergy to modernism—to its positivist teleology, its faith in technology and its fealty to knowledge as a form of domination—had its origin in what they call the “other” West, or those “Europeans who doubted, dissented, and resisted empire and modernity”. Among the earliest of these Europeans who influenced Gandhi was the writer and social reformer Henry Stephens Salt, whose book A Plea for Vegetarianism Gandhi had picked up as a young student in London. Gandhi was also avowedly influenced by Rousseau, Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau, all of whom wrote extensively against a progressivist vision of modernity. Rousseau was famously the black sheep of the Enlightenment, derided by Voltaire for his gauche inability to suavely banter at the Parisian salons where the philosophes gathered under the patronage of elegant hostesses.

A 1931 cartoon published in France depicting Gandhi on his voyage to Geneva via Paris and a French woman offering Gandhi trousers of honour. POULBOT / LE COUP DE PATE

Rousseau’s humiliation in Parisian society sent him running back to Geneva, which he mythologised into an ideal republic where simple living among equals had none of the artifice of Paris. His ‘Letter to D’Alembert on the Theatre’, which he wrote as a critique of an article D’Alembert had written for the Encyclopédie, was an attack on the Enlightenment project of social progress through art, especially art as craft. The notion of craft, the rendering of natural resources into useful objects, the domestication of Nature to social purpose, was at the heart of the Enlightenment project. In his letter, Rousseau objects to the theatre as a perverse imitation of real life. The spectacle that most upsets Rousseau is not the one that takes place on the stage but the one that takes place among the spectators who dress up, representing themselves as something they are not, in order to impress and seduce each other. Women, made up and dressed up for this purpose, were for Rousseau the most perverse, the most unnatural spectacle at the theatre.

One can’t help thinking of Gandhi’s alarm and even repulsion at the seductive spectacle of dressed up or made up women. Throughout his life, beginning in South Africa when he punished some young men at Tolstoy Farm for flirting with some young women by cutting off the girls’ hair so they won’t be attractive any more, Gandhi admonished the women around him not to ornament themselves in any way. Dress, makeup, jewellery—all was artifice, and artifice that represented a moral threat to the ideal society Gandhi envisioned of men and women living as desexed equals. It was the society Gandhi attempted to create again and again at his various settlements and ashrams. Just as Rousseau’s idealised Geneva republic was conceived as the antithesis of the salons of Enlightenment Paris, Gandhi’s Tolstoy Farm was created to be everything Josephine Baker’s Paris was not.

There is a telling exchange between Gandhi and one of his readers, which followed his 1936 dialogue on contraception with Margaret Sanger, the American feminist and birth control pioneer. In the exchange, which was published in Harijan and can be found in the Collected Works, the reader objects that Gandhi has not “taken into consideration that man is above all an artist and a creator”. He argues that the arts of love and war are essential to the human condition, and he specifically places Gandhi’s allergy to artifice in line with the “other” Western thinkers who inspired Gandhi. Man, he declares, “cannot be ‘simple’ as Rousseau, Ruskin, Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Gandhiji would like him to be”. Gandhi responds:

Man is undoubtedly an artist and a creator.… His artistic and creative nature at its best taught him to see art in self-restraint and ugliness in uncreative union.… His eye for art taught him to seek enjoyment in usefulness. Thus he learnt at an early stage of his evolution that he should eat not for its own sake as some of us still do but he should eat to enable him to live.… Similarly, when he pondered over the phenomenon of the pleasurableness of sexual union, he discovered that like every other organ of sense, this one of generation has its use and abuse. And he saw that its true function, its right use, was to restrict it to generation. Any other use, he saw, was ugly and he saw further that it was fraught with very serious consequences as well to the individual as to the race.

Gandhi leaps to the defence of the thinkers his reader derides: “The correspondent has chosen unhappy (for him) names for his illustrations. Rousseau, Ruskin, Thoreau and Tolstoy were first-class artists of their time. They will live even after many of us are dead, cremated and forgotten.” For Gandhi, the greatest artistic achievement was the creation of a society freed from the tyranny of human compulsion, a society freed of artifice as midwife to hedonism and violence. “There is neither beauty nor art in what is going on today on the Abyssinian frontier,” Gandhi concluded, referring to the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36.

AT THE TIME OF GANDHI'S VISIT, Paris was the capital of Western art, letters and music. Pablo Picasso painted his Woman with Yellow Hair in the same month that Gandhi delivered his speech at Magic City; Man Ray, Piet Mondrian, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst and Joan Miró were also working in Paris at the time. Django Reinhardt’s Quintette du Hot Club de France was performing jazz in packed Paris clubs that also hosted American jazz giants Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ray Ventura, while Josephine Baker remained a huge star in Paris throughout the 1930s. Many of the American writers who had flocked to Paris in the 1920s had left by 1931, but Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were still there, along with French writers like André Malraux and Louis-Ferdinand Céline; the surrealist writers André Breton, Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard were among those who protested the Exposition Coloniale at an event called “The Truth About the Colonies”.

1930s Paris was a place where gay men and women could live and love openly. Its nightclubs, opium dens and brothels were documented by the Hungarian photographer Brassaï, whose 1933 book of grainy black-and-white images of Paris nightlife confirmed everything Gandhi thought dangerous about sensual enjoyment and social degeneracy. Finally, Paris was the capital of eating for the pure pleasure of eating, the city where the restaurant was invented, whereas Gandhi was obsessed with the need to eliminate pleasure from eating.

In 1931, Gandhi could not have been less interested in the cultural life of Paris. But in 1890, as a young student newly arrived in the West, he had been more curious. In his autobiography, Gandhi describes learning French as part of the education he understood a young gentleman lawyer should have. Moreover, “French was not only the language of neighbouring France,” he writes, “but it was the lingua franca of the Continent over which I had a desire to travel.” Gandhi wrote that he had “a keen desire to see Paris” and that he wanted to visit the Exposition Universelle and see the Eiffel Tower built for it. When he arrived, however, what impressed Gandhi the most were the churches, which appeared to him as sanctuaries from the assault of the Paris streets. “I had read a lot about the fashions and frivolity of Paris. These were evident in every street, but the churches stood noticeably apart from these scenes. A man would forget the outside noise and bustle as soon as he entered one of these churches.” As for the Eiffel Tower, Gandhi agreed with Tolstoy, whom he quoted as having said “that the Eiffel Tower was a monument of man’s folly, not of his wisdom. Tobacco, he argued, was the worst of all intoxicants, inasmuch as a man addicted to it was tempted to commit crimes which a drunkard never dared to do; liquor made a man mad, but tobacco clouded his intellect and made him build castles in the air. The Eiffel Tower was one of the creations of a man under such influence.”

Gandhi was singularly unimpressed by the trappings of modernity displayed by a city like early 20th-century Paris. He told his audience at Magic City: “the air of India is charged with electricity—not the same sort of electricity that illumines the streets of Paris, but a sort of spiritual electricity that goes right up to the hearts of children.” For Gandhi, the Eiffel Tower, France’s proud testimony to its then superior technological and industrial savoir-faire, “was the toy of the Exhibition”. Its only usefulness was moral. “So long as we are children we are attracted by toys, and the Tower was a good demonstration of the fact that we are all children attracted to trinkets. That may be claimed to be the purpose served by the Eiffel Tower.”

Headlines in the French newspapers that carried news about Gandhi’s visit to Paris in 1931 were full of stories of human folly. The world was in the grip of crisis. Gandhi told Romain Rolland days after his Paris visit that unless Europe embraced nonviolence, “I see nothing but perdition. A process of disintegration is going on in front of me.” But nonviolence didn’t have a chance. Positions on the extreme left and right were hardening across Europe, fired by mass unemployment and economic uncertainty. French papers carried stories on Hitler’s rise, on the Sino-Japanese conflict, on masses of workers losing their jobs. “Unemployment Registration Rises to a Rate of 10,000 per Week”, warned the communist newspaper L’Humanité on the day of Gandhi’s Paris speech. For Le Figaro, a newspaper read by more financiers than factory workers, the bad news was the devaluation of the British pound sterling. If the French right was worried about Gandhi setting a dangerous example for French colonies and for a country threatened by the Nazis, the French left dismissed Gandhi as “a charlatan” who had betrayed India’s struggling masses by caving to the British in London. If Gandhi had picked up L’Humanité on the day of his Paris visit, he would have read: “The fraud of reformist nationalism is obvious today to the millions of the oppressed. The agricultural crisis has gotten worse. The peasants are hungry, industry is paralysed, workers are complaining! Burma, Kashmir and the province of Bengal are boiling.” For the right, Gandhi was an antiwar, anti-imperial agitator. For the left, he was a craven agent for the Indian bourgeoisie and a cowardly instrument of British imperial power. For a handful of intellectuals and idealists, he was, as Muriel Lester put it, “the newest type of revolutionary, quietly and convincedly giving his message that Truth and Nonviolence are the greatest and most active forces in the Universe and that by their means alone can be overcome insolent might.”

Like Rousseau, Gandhi fled Paris for Geneva. He spent several days in quiet conversation with Romain Rolland at his villa near Villeneuve, holding daily prayer sessions with his entourage. After a visit to Rome where Mussolini received him but the Pope refused, finding Gandhi’s lack of dress unacceptable in the Vatican, Gandhi returned to India. He arrived in Bombay on 28 December 1931; six days later, he was arrested by the British.