Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Photography: Kanu Gandhi ~ the Mahatma as his muse

Gandhiji at a newly-installed phone kiosk at Sewagram Ashram in 1939

(This article was written in 2005)

HISTORY, whether political or artistic, often hinges upon coincidences. Perhaps the December 1992 meeting in Rajkot between Hyderabad-born, London-based artist Saleem Arif Quadri and Abha Gandhi, one of the Mahatma's "living walking sticks", was one such.

Without it, the world would have remained in the dark about the work of her husband Kanu Gandhi. The Mahatma's grandnephew and disciple, Kanu Gandhi, photographically documented the latter's life from 1938 to 1946.

What came out of the encounter? "Abha ben showed me a few photographic albums, enough to convince me that she held a private archive of treasures which deserved a wider audience," recalls Quadri in a recent fax conversation about his first glimpse of about 450 original negatives and 700 prints, including some on which time had already taken its toll. "She expressed delight at my idea of promoting an exhibition of Kanu bhai's works. From that moment, we became inspired by a common cause."

A photographer himself, Quadri stresses, "I happened to be the only Indian-born person involved in the project. As I was born in India soon after Independence, the subject moved me. I was stunned by the artistic and technical quality of the work. My eye, mind and heart interconnected with this sense of history, our history. I felt Kanu Gandhi was a sensitive, poetic, perceptive and natural person. His photographs were simply one man's vision of the main characters who dominated the Free India Movement and ultimately changed the course of history."

With Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan, 1940

For, in these frames, first mounted as an exhibition titled "Kanu Gandhi's Mahatma" at the Leicester County Council Museums from July 29 to October 1, 1995, the intimate is rendered infinite. Of the seven UK-based venues the show has touched to date, the most recent was in October-December 2002, when the public-funded Apna Arts organisation displayed it at Nottingham's Galleries of Justice. "This exhibition is still available free of charge on loan. That's apart from administrative costs like transport and insurance," states Quadri.

Funded by grants to the tune of £30,000 by the British taxpayer, including the Arts Council of England, initiated and curated by Quadri, what moments do we share through the 100 selected visuals, restored laboriously from fragile negatives, then printed over 18 months by London-based master printer Danny Chow?

Among other scenes, we watch Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in deep conversation at Bhangi Niwas, New Delhi, in 1946. Or Gandhi studying leprosy germs through a microscope at Sevagram Ashram in 1939. Or the father of the nation at a newly-installed Sevagram telephone kiosk that year. Or the Mahatma with Rabindranath Tagore during a visit to Shantiniketan in 1940. Or the iconic freedom fighter raising funds with outstretched hands during a train journey. Or a rare scene of Kasturba Gandhi tenderly washing her husband's feet. Or the initiator of non-violence at Sevagram, tending to Archarya Parchure Shastri, a Sanskrit scholar who was afflicted with leprosy.

How did Kanu Gandhi (1917-1986) have access to these insider scenes? The grandson of the Mahatma's brother, this son of Narandas and Jamuna Gandhi, was just two when they settled at the Sabarmati Ashram. At 15, he was jailed for participating in the non-cooperation movement. Though he dreamt of life as a doctor, it was not to be. Instead Kanubhai joined Gandhiji's personal staff at Vardha, supervising typing, accounts and even correspondence till 1948.

It was Shivaji Bhave, the brother of Bhoodan leader Acharya Vinoba Bhave, who inspired the self-taught Kanubhai to take his initial photographs of the Mahatma, with a Rolleiflex camera and film rolls sponsored by Ghanshyam Birla. Occasional images were provided to newspapers for a fee. Kanubhai's images shot into the limelight when Amritlal Gandhi (of "Vandemataram" fame) paid him Rs. 100 for a photograph of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. From then on, Amritlal sent Kanubhai Rs. 100 monthly for his photography, whether or not he sent him images in return.

With Kanu and Abha Gandhi/ Photographer unknown

"Mahatma Gandhi granted him permission and access to be photographed on condition that he did not have to pose, the photographs would be taken by natural light, and further they would not be financed by him or the Indian independence movement," writes Quadri in his introduction to the Apna Arts show.

A further string of coincidences ensured that "Kanu Gandhi's Mahatma" saw the light of print. In 1993, when Quadri met Deirdre Figueiredo, Cultural Development Officer at Leicestershire Museums, she was as enthused of the idea as he was. They both travelled back to Rajkot in December 1994 for a week of intense consultations with Abha Gandhi, selecting images, interviewing her, sharing details of Kanu bhai's life.

Gopal Gandhi, the Mahatma's grandson, who happened to be posted in London then as director of the Nehru Centre, was in constant touch with Abha ben over this privately facilitated exhibition. He even visited the Leicester show.

As a follow-up, Abha ben granted Quadri written permission in January 1995 to duplicate Kanu bhai's originals in order to give the images a wider global reach. For it was their dream that the exhibition should tour India, free of cost, sharing the everyday life of an extraordinary person.

L. M. Singhvi, Indian High Commissioner in London, wrote in the Leicester exhibition catalogue in April 1996, "Through a fugitive light and in one elusive second, Kanu captured many of Gandhiji's personal and public moments. Had he lived in a different time or on another continent, he would have been regarded as an action photographer par excellence, but then he would not have had Gandhi for his subject!"

"It can truly be said that what Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal did to immortalise Gandhi through their memoirs and biographical writings, Kanu Gandhi did through his camera. He can appropriately be described as not just a photographer, but a photo-biographer of Gandhi," stresses Singhvi.

Kanu bhai once even made a three-hour movie of Gandhiji. Unfortunately, this was damaged in Bombay, according to a note that Abha ben sent Quadri.

Looking through a microscope at Sewagram Ashram, 1939

Away at Noakhali when the Mahatma was assassinated in Delhi on January 30, 1948, Kanu bhai seldom took photographs from that day onwards, feeling deeply lost without his original inspiration. Instead, he and Abha ben travelled across India, spreading the Gandhian doctrine. In 1986, Kanu bhai died of a heart attack on February 20, while on a pilgrimage in Madhya Pradesh.

Abha ben, who had seldom shared Kanubhai's photographic treasures with those beyond the family before the fortuitous meeting with Quadri, unfortunately did not live to see "Kanu Gandhi's Mahatma" open at Leicester. She died earlier in July 1995.

In an interview with Quadri in December 1994, she described the bond between the Mahatma, Kanu bhai and herself thus: "We were like three bodies but one soul."

Perhaps these historic memories, so brilliantly communicated through Kanu bhai's camera, are a legacy for all Indians. But when will we get to share these visuals on home soil? When we do, it would be Abha ben's dream come true.

(The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2005)

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