THE SILENCE of the Sabarmati river is broken by the chatter of a group of municipal school children. Their teacher hushes them up as they take off their shoes to tour what was once the home of Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba for 13 years. The walking stick, the charkha and the low wooden writing desk, even the crease on the white cotton seat in the corner of the room Gandhi used as his office in Hriday Kunj, seem frozen in time since 1930 when he left to lead the Dandi march.
The red stone steps opposite Hriday Kunj, when the ashram was founded in 1917, now lead to the promenade of the Sabarmati. Around the time the riverfront, that would define modern Ahmedabad, came to the doorstep of the spartan Gandhi home in 2013, the ashram was going through an overhaul. After the first infrastructural additions, with the late Charles Correa’s Gandhi memorial museum in 1963, Ahmedabad-based architect B V Doshi was asked to design the archives building inaugurated last year by President Pranab Mukherjee.
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These changes happened after the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT) brought in Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud as director, creating a new post five years ago. Then came the big leap into the digital world, with the digitisation of archives and manuscripts, and its library going online. Next month, the ashram is due to launch a fellowship as it opens its new chapter as a research centre.
Earlier, you could spot students preparing for exams, or even taking an afternoon nap on the benches inside the ashram. Today, there are youth with laptops or phones plugged in to the free Wi-Fi, working or listening to music, stretched out on the stone floor.
Sahil Ravat, a resident of Nava Vadaj, says he regularly comes here to escape the noisy neighbourhood. “I am a playback singer and I am making a log of events where I will be performing in the coming Navratri. Back home, I don’t find the peace I need,” says Ravat.
Located on one of Ahmedabad’s busiest addresses, Ashram Road, which gets its name from this Gandhian abode, remains tranquil with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation not letting vehicles ply on either banks of the river front.
The ashram, which was earlier run by just six persons, now has a staff of 54. “The activities of the ashram have changed, but there is no change in the way things function,” says Suhrud, who has also waived the compulsory khadi clothing on the premises.
The newer buildings blend with the original design but are air-conditioned and the ashram has added two swank toilet blocks. Magan Nivas, home to Gandhi’s nephew Maganlal Gandhi, has also been renovated with a sprawling paved courtyard overlooking the river, where the Gundecha brothers performed Sunday for the Gandhi Jayanti celebrations — another departure for the ashram known to mark the day with an all-religion prayer meet.
The changes, however, have faced opposition. A section of followers within has protested the opening of a shop selling khadi products, including cosmetics, in the premises.
Amrut Modi, 83, secretary, SAPMT, who has been here since 1955, says “the ashram earlier was a place of pilgrimage visited by people who thought like Gandhiji, today it is a place of tourism”.
“There is no grandeur here, there is nothing to see here, except the spirituality which you have to experience. The ashram has to abide by the 11 vows which are the principles of Gandhi’s life — simplicity and austerity being among them,” he says.
But Suhrud says the ashram conducted a survey two years ago, when people said they would “like to buy khadi cloth from this bhoomi (land)”. “The changes were in response to these inputs,” he says.