A photograph from 1940 features a rather distraught Mahatma Gandhi stepping out of his office hut at Sevagram Ashram near Wardha, a pillow on his head as protection against the blazing sun. Another, dated 1945, shows him seated calmly on a plantation chair propped onto a boat to Midnapur, accompanied by Sudhir Ghosh and Ramkrishna Bajaj, both participants of the freedom movement. A third, from 1940, chronicles a sense of stillness — two prolific figures, Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore in meditation at Santiniketan.
These photographs are captured by the Mahatma’s grandnephew Kanu Gandhi (1917-1986), and offer a glimpse into the minutiae of the quiet, quotidian life of the last ten years of the widely photographed public leader. Forty-three of these photographs are on display in Mumbai for the first time at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation housed within the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (CSMVS). The exhibition, titled Kanu’s Gandhi , is presented by the Delhi-based Nazar Foundation and follows the publication of an eponymous book, the third title in the Nazar Photography Monograph series. Curated by photographers Prashant Panjiar and Sanjeev Saith, it is a thoughtful manifestation of Kanu’s work, which had, until recently, remained obscure and unacknowledged.
Having travelled to Delhi, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Panjim since 2015, the exhibition has had several iterations across the country. Meanwhile, coinciding with the Mumbai chapter, another set of prints will be on display at the ninth edition of the Chobi Mela in Dhaka in February.
In Gandhi’s footsteps
Kanu spent his early childhood days with Gandhi at Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Ashram, and accompanied him from then on when the latter decided to move to Sevagram Ashram in 1934. He was a staunch supporter of Gandhi and in his steadfast ways, carried Gandhi’s luggage, sang bhajans for Kasturba [Gandhi’s wife], administered the accounts, and supervised clerical activities at Sevagram. Owing to his interaction with journalists and photographers who often visited Gandhi, Kanu developed a predilection towards photography. He was extremely young when he began photographing Gandhi. The process of taking pictures was never a conscious, calculated one for Kanu; he didn’t think of the exercise as a deliberate documentation. With a Rolleiflex camera and a roll of film — gifts from industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla — as his paraphernalia, Kanu embarked upon pursuing his interest. Though at times, he ended up giving away photographs to local newspapers and government agencies without demanding credit or a fee.
Snapshots from the past
Over the years, Kanu took around 2,000 photographs of Gandhi, some of which were mounted as an exhibition for the first time in 1995 at the Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery. the exhibition was a result of the efforts of London-based artist Saleem Arif, who had gotten in touch with Abha Gandhi, Kanu’s wife.
Three years later, some of the photographs were produced as a photo essay in a special issue of Outlook magazine (where Panjiar worked as picture editor), commemorating Gandhi’s 50th death anniversary. “I was keen on getting the images from a reliable, primary source. I had heard about the works, but didn’t know whom to contact,” says Panjiar. An assignment in Rajkot in 1997 led him to Gandhi’s grandson, Gopal Gandhi, who in turn introduced him to Gita Mehta, Abha and Kanu’s daughter, who helped him acquire the images. Several of the larger prints have been restored, and the entire collection is now housed at the Gandhi Research Foundation in Jalgaon. Carefully curated by Panjiar and Saith, the photographs in this exhibition come together cohesively to sketch the larger narrative of India’s struggle for Independence.
Kanu often broke away from the conventions of photographic composition. Furthermore, he was constricted by Gandhi through three impositions: no flash would be used, Gandhi would not pose for him, and the Sevagram Ashram would not fund his photography. He meticulously preserved the contact sheets in albums, evident from the careful numbering in Gujarati.
Kanu, however, doesn’t feature in any of the photographs. He led a rather sequestered life, and upheld reverential distance from the Mahatma, yet kept a close, watchful eye, perhaps standing on the fringes or lurking in a corner. “It is the distance that Kanu maintained from the Mahatma that lends a certain kind of intimacy to the photographs. He captured an introspective, inward-looking Mahatma,” says Panjiar. This, then, suggests that Kanu was perhaps the only observer of certain important moments in history. The private moments of a popular figure are recorded in all their quietude, capturing a rather brooding, reflective, Gandhi. For instance, the photographs of Gandhi at the railway station during his journeys across Bengal and Assam, or alighting from the train in the midst of a horde of people, encapsulate a pensive yet peaceful appearance.
The images pique the viewer’s curiosity; going through the photographs, it is palpable how Gandhi gradually became more and more withdrawn, possibly on account of the growing tension on the national front, his dealings with the British, or on a more personal level, the death of his wife Kasturba in 1944.
For instance, a photograph of Gandhi sitting beside the body of Kasturba almost strikes as elegiac, and is a poignant reminder of a particularly precarious moment in time. In fact, Gandhi had barred Kanu from taking a photograph as Kasturba lay dying in his lap at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune.
Through the years in which he keenly photographed Gandhi, Kanu refrained from seeking accolades or hogging the limelight. He published, along with Abha, a booklet titled Bapu ke Saath , which comprised several narrations about their time with Gandhi, but made little mention about his photographs. Through this series of once-relegated images, Kanu can after all be honoured as a photographer who neither garnered due recognition, nor amassed appreciation.
Kanu’s Gandhiis on at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, CSMVS, till February 26