Covered by a canopy of trees in the leafy area of Laburnum Road in Gamdevi, Mani Bhavan can be easy to miss if not for the charkha at its entrance and the steady stream of tourists. The two-storey building belonged to Revashankar Jhaveri, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who ensured that the place hosted him each time he was in Mumbai, then Bombay.
A significant part of the freedom struggle, Mani Bhavan was the headquarters of the Indian National Congress from 1917 to 1934 and the place from where the first phase of Gandhi’s call for non-violence was launched. The satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act, which gave the British the power to imprison political leaders without a trial, and the decision to launch the civil disobedience movement too began from here.
In 1932, Gandhi was arrested by the British from his tent on the terrace of the Bhavan and taken to Yerawada prison in Pune. Old-timers at the Bhavan say this was the place which saw Gandhi’s journey from an individual taking on the might of the British to becoming a national figure, commanding the support of the masses.
It was after Gandhi’s death in 1948 that the Bhavan was turned into a museum and remains a Grade I heritage structure. Today, as one enters, multi-coloured pamphlets in at least 10 languages from all over the world can be seen on a glass panel, which also has books written by Gandhi, including his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth. On one side is a bust of Gandhi smiling and on another wall is the ‘stone of hope’. It was a return gift sent by US President Barack Obama after his visit to Mani Bhavan in 2010 and is a piece of stone used in the making of a memorial in Washington DC.
“It also serves as a reminder that Martin Luther King, who saw Gandhi as an inspiration, had come to Mani Bhavan in 1959. He preferred to stay here with modest arrangements instead of a hotel,” a guide is heard explaining to tourists.
Inside, a wall has details of postage stamps of different countries, which have commemorated Gandhi through them. On the other side is a library with around 40,000 books and more than 300 members, apart from those who frequent the library to refer to the books on Gandhi. On the first floor are photographs of various important events of his life and, on the second, is an artistic display of the same. On the other corner is the room in which Gandhi lived whenever he was in Bombay. The room has a few charkhas. This is the place where Gandhi learnt to card cotton to make slivers for spinning cotton yarn. It is said that in 1917 when Gandhi was living here, a carder would pass by the Bhavan everyday. Gandhi sent for him one day and a spinning class began till he mastered it. Other relics include letters written by Gandhi from the Bhavan to Rabindranath Tagore and facsimiles of his handwriting through notes.
“I tell students who come to Mani Bhavan to close their eyes and imagine that Gandhi walked through these corridors, that so many events of India’s freedom struggle were planned here. He would walk to chowpatty and other open spaces like Gowalia Tank not far from here and hold public meetings. He garnered a lot of support from the people of the then Bombay,” says Usha Thakkar, president of the Mani Bhavan Sangrahalaya.
Thakkar, who retired as a professor of political science at SNDT College, recalls how Usha Mehta, a freedom fighter and a Gandhian, who led the effort to preserve Gandhi’s heritage through this memorial, spoke of keeping Mani Bhavan as a ‘living museum’. “It is a historical building but she wanted it to remain a place which could be seen as a centre of inspiration. It continues to remain a space which has Gandhi’s presence through his ideas of freedom, non-violence, satyagraha and peace,” Thakkar says.
Currently, the Bhavan is also the venue for lectures, special screenings as well as plays and competitions for students.
Thakkar disagrees that the majority of tourists visiting the Bhavan are foreigners. “The place has had visitors, including Kofi Annan, Obama and other dignitaries from all over the world but Gandhi is everybody’s. No matter what the political ideology, he remains relevant. We receive students keen on knowing about Gandhi, people from all over the country who walk in to feel the essence of what he stood for,” she says.