Vintage Indian photography at its best – IV

To mark the month of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore put on display a collection of rare photos of the Father of the Nation. The sepia-toned gems are the works of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal photographer and grand nephew Kanu Gandhi.

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Gandhi on the phone at the Sevagram Ashram (1938). Photo courtesy: NGMA.

Kanu Gandhi (1917-1986) spent a major part of his childhood at the Sabarmati Ashram. His parents Narandas Gandhi and Jamuna Gandhi worked in the Ashram. Narandas was Gandhiji’s nephew.

Later, as per his father’s wishes, Kanu took up residence at the Sevagram Ashram where he served the Mahatma. His daily grind included handling Gandhiji’s correspondence, clerical and accounting work. His devotion to the Father of the Nation earned him the sobriquet “Bapu’s Hanuman”. In 1944, Kanu Gandhi married fellow Ashram worker Abhaben Chatterjee with the blessings of Mahatma  and Kasturba Gandhi.

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Photo courtesy: NGMA

A keen interest in photography followed and Kanu was encouraged by Shivaji Bhave (brother of Bhoodan Movement leader Vinobha Bhave) to pursue his passion by clicking the happenings at the Ashram. Although Gandhiji was initially not in favour of the idea he later relented and asked noted industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla to fund Kanu’s new passion. The businessman gifted him Rs. 100, a princely sum those days, which was enough for Kanu to buy himself a Rolliflex camera and a film roll.

The strict disciplinarian that Gandhi was, he imposed certain rules on the young photographer:

– He shouldn’t use flash;
– He should not ask him to pose;
– The ashram will not help him with any funds.

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Kanu Gandhi. Photo courtesy: NGMA

As Kanu was among the privileged few who were allowed close access to the Mahatma, his photographs began to gain in popularity. Amritlal Gandhi of Vandemataram magazine began offering him a stipend of Rs. 100 every month. The photographs soon started making their way to various dailies. A lot many of them did not see the light of the day because Gandhi refused permission including one where Kasturba lay dying on his lap.

 

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Gandhi sleeping in a train. Photo courtesy: NGMA

 

When Gandhiji was assassinated in Delhi in 1948, Kanu was not at his side. He was in Naokhali in East Bengal working on one of the leader’s assignments. Gandhi breathed his last on Abha’s arms.

After Gandhi’s death, Kanu lost interest in photography. Instead, he and Abha preferred travelling and spreading Gandhi’s philosophy and ideals most importantly the idea of using Khadi or homespun cotton.

Kanu Gandhi died of a heart attack in 1986 when on a pilgrimage to Madhya Pradesh.

The collection on display includes:

1) Distant shot of Jawaharlal Nehru and others at Sevagram Ashram in 1946.
2) A 1937 picture of Gandhi’s hut.
3) Kasturba massaging Gandhi’s feet (1939).
4) Gandhi in his hut.
5) Mahatama’s rickety van being pushed by Pathans and Congress workers (1938).
6) Gandhi on a phone in the ashram (1938)
7)  A 1938 picture of Jawaharlal Nehru at Sevagram Ashram.
8) A photo with Netaji in Birla House (1938).
9) Kasturba washing his feet  (1939).
10) A picture of Gandhi with Rabindranath Tagore (1939).
11) A 1939 picture of him fasting with this sisters massaging his feet.
12) Picture of a 1941 visit to Jabalpur.
13) A picture of him and Kasturba Gandhi at Aga Khan Palace in Poona, 1944.
14) A picture of his blood stained cloth after being assassinated, 1948.
15) Gandhi on a visit to riot-affected Noakhali, East Bengal, 1946.
16) Gandhi reading a letter at 4am at Khadi Prathistham, Calcutta, 1946
17) Jawaharlal Nehru pondering at Khadi Prathistham.
18) There are quite a few photos of Gandhi on the train journey from November 1945 to January 1946 to collect donations for the Harijan Fund.
19) Picture of Gandhi sleeping in the train.
20) A striking picture of crowds waiting to meet Gandhi.
21) Gandhi standing on a weighing scale.

The entire collection can be viewed in the coffee table book “Kanu’s Gandhi”, available online on Amazon.com. The Nazar Foundation has played a significant part in unravelling the treasure trove of photos.  Had it not been for the foundation, the photos would have faded into obscurity. According to Prashant Panjiar of the Nazar Foundation and co-curator of the exhibition along with Sanjev Saith, Kanu never had copyright over any of his photos. There is a possibility that the picture of Gandhi on Indian currency notes could have been a photo taken by Kanu.

The exhibition is on till the 30th of October.

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