In your city: Mumbai
An intimate portrayal of Gandhi
Visit the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery in Mumbai to view an exhibition from a long-forgotten archive on Mahatma Gandhi. Taken by his grandnephew Kanu Gandhi, the 43 images on display are from the last decade of Gandhi’s life, before he was assassinated by Hindu Mahasabha member Nathuram Godse.
The archive from which these photographs have been taken remained forgotten till 1998, when Prashant Panjiar, then a senior editor at Outlook magazine, published a photo-feature after getting in touch with Kanu’s descendants in Rajkot.
In 2015, the Nazar Foundation, a non-profit that promotes the photographic arts, published a monograph (Nazar Photography Monographs 03—Kanu’s Gandhi) which brought together 92 photographs from the archive, complete with well-researched captions and image restoration where needed. The trust is co-founded by Panjiar and Dinesh Khanna.
While the archive lends itself to further deification of Gandhi, a political figure who played a significant role in the independence of India, but whose caste and gender politics have also been subjected to critique, the photographs are important historical documents.
As a child, Kanu Gandhi lived in the famed Sabarmati ashram. In 1936, he joined Gandhi’s personal staff and began to supervise his correspondence and accounts.
After Gandhi launched the salt satyagraha and swore he wouldn’t return to Sabarmati till India achieved independence, he set up another base in Wardha. His new residence was called Sevagram, and it is here that most of these images were taken. It was around this time that Kanu decided to take up photography; Gandhi initially tried to dissuade him.
However, it was industrialist G.D. Birla who gifted Kanu Rs100, with which he bought his first camera. According to Panjiar’s essay in the monograph, Gandhi imposed three conditions on Kanu taking photographs—he would never use a flash; he would never ask him to pose; and the ashram would not fund his photography.
The rest, as they say, is history.