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Sometime in 1938, Kanu Gandhi, encouraged by Vinoba Bhave’s brother, Shivaji, expressed an interest in photography and spoke to his grand-uncle, MK Gandhi, of his desire to capture images of life at Sevagram Ashram in Wardha. This was where the Mahatma had been staying since 1934, following his resolution to return to Sabarmati Ashram only after India achieved independence. Along with him were his family and associates, including young Kanu — known affectionately as “Bapu’s Hanuman” — who was part of Gandhi’s personal staff.
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Kanu’s request was turned down at first because of a lack of funds, but Gandhi later spoke to industrialist GD Birla, who gave the young man Rs 100, enough to buy a Rolleiflex camera and a roll of film. With these tools, Kanu went on to create an archive of images that is unrivalled in the sensitivity and intimacy with which they portrayed the Mahatma in the last 10 years of his life. Many of these photographs will be on view next week at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery in Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) as part of an exhibition called “Kanu’s Gandhi”, curated by photographers Prashant Panjiar and Sanjeev Saith. The show is a collaboration between the CSMVS and Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF), and the Nazar Foundation, and the photographs, which are on display in Mumbai for the first time, will give viewers a rare glimpse into life at Sevagram Ashram, as well as moments from Gandhi’s travels around India and at public events.
“I first heard of this collection in 1997 when I was working with Outlook magazine,”says Panjiar, “At that time, I tried to track down the owners, so that we could use them in a special issue that we were doing on Gandhi.” Gopal Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, told Panjiar to get in touch with Gita Mehta, daughter of Kanu and Abha Gandhi. “When I saw the photographs — there were almost 2,000 of them — I realised that some of them were already very well-known, such as the one where Gandhi is looking through a microscope, or one of Gandhi and Nehru, leaning towards each other and talking. We just didn’t know that these images had been taken by Kanu.”
Gandhi’s conditions before he allowed Kanu to photograph him were that he would never use flash, would never ask the Mahatma to pose and that the ashram wouldn’t fund the photography. The images that resulted are compelling. “He was never trained in photography. The photographs, however, were not composed in a straight and clean way, as was the style back then; their composition was very modern. He was clearly in awe of Gandhi, from the way he maintains a distance. He gives us intimate photos such as the one where Kasturba is washing Gandhi’s feet. There are also photographs like the one of Gandhi and Tagore, where viewers feel like they are looking at important historical moments,” says Panjiar.
The exhibition is at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS, from January 12 to February 26