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Magazine | Revisiting the villages along Gandhi's Dandi Yatra

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The Salt March to Dandi commenced from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, which is about three hundred and eighty kilometres away. The point of departure was the ashram’s gate near a tamarind tree that Gandhi named Sarva-Sakshi Amli, or, the All-Witnessing Tamarind. Standing in an otherwise barren terrain, the now fallen tamarind tree witnessed everything before and after the march. Beyond it, half a kilometre from the ashram, lies Dandi Bridge. In 1930, the first satyagrahis to Dandi crossed this bridge, traversing a gorge between the ashram and Gujarat Vidyapith, an institute of higher learning founded by Gandhi to boycott the British system of education. Unlike the tamarind tree that lives only in memory, Dandi Bridge has been rescued after decades of decay and neglect. I remember its formerly dilapidated state. I remember its rusty and tattered yellow sign in hand-painted Gujarati script. I remember news reports decrying its ruined sections. Now that the historic structure is restored, access is restricted. But as luck would have it, on the day I went prepared to climb the locked gates to shoot pictures inside, the bridge was open temporarily.

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For the satyagrahis, crossing Dandi Bridge was less fraught an action than crossing Ellis Bridge, the first bridge of Ahmedabad. Since Ellis Bridge was constructed and named by the British, there were concerns that its use in the Salt March might defeat the purpose of boycott and the message of Swadeshi. Incidentally and ironically, Ellis Bridge became the venue for long deliberations on whether the protesters should walk on it. Imagine the confusion experienced by the large crowds gathered to observe the rejection of all things British. Eventually, the satyagrahis decided to sidestep Ellis Bridge. In yet another contrast between the old and the new, the old bridge has been discontinued from active use. It is flanked on both sides by new bridges for commuters. Padlocked gates prevent access to the historic bridge.

Determined to scale the gate of old Ellis Bridge without drawing attention, I reached the site before daybreak. It was too dark to shoot. I switched on the car radio to kill time, but the wait only increased my anxiety. Parking away from the bridge, I ambled closer to the gate, intending to climb up and jump to the other side. Luckily, there were not many people at that hour, but a vehicle did pass by occasionally, reminding me of the risks of being seen entering a restricted area. As I mustered courage and reached halfway up, it dawned on me that the gate was a bit higher than I had anticipated in my enthusiasm. Or rather, I was older. The last time I jumped from a gate was twenty-five years ago, in college. Memory plays tricks on you to make youthful actions appear deceptively easy much later. I took a literal leap of faith from the top of the gate and luckily broke neither bone nor camera in landing on the tarmac. Now that I was inside, the bridge’s bowstring arches provided cover and allowed me to shoot with ease. Fresh grass sprouted on the edges of the broken motorway, infusing the industrial structure with warmth and life. In spite of the light traffic on either side, the bridge seemed surprisingly isolated and pastoral in character.

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At Chandola Lake, Gandhi delivered the first of his many powerful speeches of the march. On the dusty road from the ashram to Chandola, dirt began to envelope the marchers. So thorough was the layer of grime on the satyagrahis’ faces that the crowds following the procession did not recognise Gandhi and walked right past their beloved leader. The eighty satyagrahis washed in the mostly dry and muddy lake and then rested on its bank. The area around Chandola Lake was a small village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad ninety years ago. Small-scale industry and unsanctioned construction flourish there today. Early in the morning, a pungent odour emanated from what I imagine were chemicals discarded by industrial units. The lake is filled to the brim with severely polluted water that cannot support life.

My project to retrace and document the sites of the Dandi March began two years ago at Rangjyot, the printing facility at Navjivan Press where I print my photographs. One day, I was in the middle of prepress operations, when in walked Vivek Desai — friend, photographer, and managing director of Navjivan Trust. He sat next to me and shared his plan to invite photographers for an assignment about Gujarat. I was intrigued. Each photographer, he continued, would document within a year’s time a unique aspect that interested them in Gujarat. It sounded like a fantastic concept. If executed well, I said, it could make a great publication. A faint smile lifted the corners of his mouth, and he asked me if I might consider accepting his invitation. Without missing a beat, I agreed. That night, as my mind raced in many directions, a kernel of focus that had lain dormant for over half a decade, emerged with a new sense of urgency: I would shoot the historic sites of the Salt March of 1930, from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to the coastal village of Dandi, as they exist in the present.

As I immersed myself in researching the history of the march, the pre-photographic task became clear: I would have to match the sites described in various accounts published many decades ago to the transformed environment before my eyes. To this end, I prepared a dossier of local facts from my reading and carried it on the shoots. It became a handy map of history that helped my camera see what was significant. My second task was recording the testimonial accounts of any surviving witnesses of the march. Vivekbhai knew of an elderly gentleman, Lakshmansinh Chavda, who had walked with the satyagrahis from the Sabarmati Ashram up to the Income Tax Circle in Ahmedabad. Lakshmansinh was visiting his son Dilip in mid-2018. From here materialized a web of prior connections. Dilip worked at Kalamkush, a handmade paper factory near the ashram, where I had shot a photo series in the past. I re-acquainted myself with Dilip and visited his home located across the ashram complex. Lakshmansinh reclined on a bed far away from the room’s only window. Morning light streamed in from the window, but it did not reach him. Dilip and I helped Lakshmansinh sit next to the open door of the backyard. After taking a few stills, I video-recorded his reminiscences of Gandhi.

While putting the towel on Gandhi’s shoulders, he noticed that Gandhi’s arms reached his knees. Lakshmansinh bowed and told him that such long arms were signs that he was a great soul. Gandhi simply smiled at the remark

A former security guard at the Sarabhai residence in Ahmedabad, Lakshmansinh walked with the satyagrahis when the march flagged off. He battled advanced amnesia now, but two memories stood out sharply in our conversation. He remembered handing a towel to Gandhi after the latter bathed in the Sabarmati river. While putting the towel on Gandhi’s shoulders, he noticed that Gandhi’s arms reached his knees. Lakshmansinh bowed and told him that such long arms were signs that he was a great soul. Gandhi simply smiled at the remark. His other encounter with Gandhi took place when he was a domestic employee in the house of Sheth Mangaldas, a preeminent industrialist of Ahmedabad. His employer had been in a car accident, and while he was laid up, the trio of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, and Gandhi paid him a visit. The younger Nehru climbed the steep staircase spryly. When came Gandhi’s turn, Patel jokingly asked Lakshmansinh to assist the old man up, punning on “up the stairs” in Gujarati to also imply the stairs to heaven. Gandhi replied with a joke of his own: with independence still far away, why was Patel in a hurry to see him up?

It seemed to me that Lakshmansinh could only tap into memories that were associated with Gandhi. Recalling the two interactions changed him, perhaps into someone he was in his youth. Over the years, Dilip had noted down anecdotes that his father narrated about Gandhi, and these now seemed a part of the family lore. He now used these notes to prompt his father. But the delicate connection to the past snapped at times, leaving Lakshmansinh staring past us. The blank look in his eyes brought great pathos to his face. Lakshmansinh’s portraits were the first photographs I took in retracing the march. A few months after our encounter, Dilip called me with the news of his father’s demise. One of the last living witnesses of the Salt March was gone. The loss saddened me greatly.

During this project, I spent more time not shooting a historic site than shooting it. At Sabarmati Ashram, I would switch off my camera and sit in solitude under the shade of the ashram’s ancient trees, waiting for the right frame to compose itself. I looked forward to these poignant waits. They stimulated my imagination. My mind often re-enacted the historical events that once took place on these very grounds and within Hriday Kunj, Gandhi’s home from 1918 to 1930, when he vowed before the Salt March not to return home till Swaraj was won. A series of bygone activities came alive for me: Gandhi eating frugal meals prepared in the pantry; Gandhi working in the small office bathed in sunshine; Gandhi sleeping by the veranda; Gandhi emerging from the front gate on the morning of the march; the satyagrahis gathering for the last prayers at the ashram. Kakasaheb Kalelkar presented Gandhi with his iconic bamboo staff in the ground beyond Hriday Kunj, towards the back gate. This was the staff the Mahatma carried throughout the march. It is ingrained in our collective visual memory. At the gate, Kasturba applied tilak to Gandhi’s forehead for an auspicious beginning to the march. My mind conjured these stirring images that might have been routinely ceremonial at the time. Perhaps my shoots were excuses for these waits.

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From Sabarmati Ashram, I retraced the march to Gujarat Vidyapith. The institute was established in 1920 to offer education to students who boycotted British colleges as a part of the non-cooperation movement incited by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. It was the first national educational institution of its kind. Its success prompted the opening of such schools in various parts of the country.

Gujarat Vidyapith was officially the first stop where the satyagrahis met with a reserve cohort prepared to step up in the event of their arrest. The university, which was then on the urban periphery, is now a green oasis in the heart of Ahmedabad. The marchers were welcomed eagerly in what is now the oldest building there. The historical sites once charged with the fervor of the satyagrahis appear strangely placid today.

The marchers spent the first night of their journey at a dharamshala—a rest house for travelers—in the village of Aslali. With unparalleled enthusiasm, the residents of Aslali cheered the arrival of the satyagrahis. Of all the centres on the route to Dandi, Aslali proved to be the one most bedecked with flowers. Now, it is a densely populated town overrun with brick and mortar houses. I knew from my research that the dharamshala was demolished to make way for a panchayat building.

It took many cold calls on passersby to locate the building successfully. It was the peak of the monsoon season; rain clouds had begun gathering quickly. Once the staff arrived, I met Manilal Prajapati, a peon in the panchayat. When he was a child, his school was housed in the dharamshala. He showed me around the building and identified the spot where Gandhi slept during the stop.

In a Shiv temple behind the panchayat building, Gandhi gave his Aslali speech. A Swaminarayan temple now stands imperiously between the two, cutting off their circumstantial connection. The Shiv temple from the early twentieth century is modest in size, confined to a very small but tranquil yard. Devotees come and go about their rituals quietly. There is not the frenzy of activity usually associated with large temples.

The light drizzle that had contributed to my admiration for the ambience switched to a heavy downpour suddenly. I shielded my equipment and hurried away, jumping over puddles that formed at an alarming rate. By the time I reached the car, I was drenched but satisfied with what I had documented so far.

The 420-page photo-book, 23 Grams of Salt: Retracing Gandhi’s March to Dandi, is published by Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the march this year.

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