At 76, Kishore Jhunjhunwala has spent most of his life collecting everything he can on Mahatma Gandhi. As a result, he has what is possibly the largest private collection of Gandhi collectibles in India. “Someone told me I am mad. But this is junoon,” says Jhunjhunwala, in an interview with indianexpress.com.
The Mumbai-based collector may be talking about his extensive collection of Gandhi memorabilia, packed to the rafters in one room of his home, or he may just be referring to the most unusual collectible in his possession—the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi.
The exact number of collectibles in Jhunjhunwala’s possession is not known. According to his own estimates, he has more than 10,000 items that can be classified into more than 100 categories of collectibles and memorabilia. During the time of this interview, Jhunjhunwala was busy recording every single item in his collection for a month-long exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai organised by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
At the exhibition that opened on October 1, 2019, titled “Santati – Mahatma Gandhi: Then. Now. Next.”, Jhunjhunwala was invited to present his unique collection of Gandhi memorabilia as one of the exhibitors.
“I was always a collector of things,” says Jhunjhunwala. He grew up collecting stamps, notes and coins, a hobby that stood him in good stead when he developed a deep interest in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Fifty years ago, Jhunjhunwala purchased a set of commemorative stamps, notes and coins on October 2, 1969, first issued by the Government of India on the 100th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and decided to concentrate his collection exclusively on the leader. For Jhunjhunwala then, October 2 this year will hold double the significance.
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His collection of Gandhi memorabilia has steadily grown over the decades and Jhunjhunwala no longer has to purchase collectibles. As his collection grew, people around the world people began reaching out to him regarding collectibles and memorabilia featuring Gandhi that they had in their possession. “It is things they have in their homes and they don’t know what to do about it. Since these collectibles feature Gandhi, they are also reluctant to carelessly throw it out. So they give it to me,” says Jhunjhunwala.
People around the world who have photos, artefacts and collectibles on Gandhi somehow find him, Jhunjhunwala says with a laugh. “If you search for things, they have a way of finding you. I have experienced many such incidents pertaining to Gandhi,” says Jhunjhunwala. The most recent incident occurred only days ago when he received a book containing a photo that was taken of Gandhi at the Greyville Cricket Club in Durban, South Africa in 1913.
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Building, one object at a time
Asked about his fascination with Gandhi, Jhunjhunwala is silent for a moment, contemplating his answer; perhaps because he has thought of Gandhi every day in the past five decades. “It was because of his path of Ahimsa—non violence,” says Jhunjhunwala. “He was a champion of liberty.”
But Gandhi’s quotes are why he likes the leader best, confesses Jhunjhunwala. Many freedom fighters fought for India’s independence from British occupation, choosing the path of violence, says Jhunjhunwala, but several of these names seem to have disappeared in the annals of history. “They didn’t think that war (against the British) could be won without violence. This is my thinking.” He believes that it was Gandhi’s values that set him apart from his contemporaries and is also one reason why Gandhi is recognized and commemorated world over, 71 years after his death.
Jhunjhunwala has built his collection one collectible at a time, scouring India and South Africa, the two countries where Gandhi spent the majority of his life, and does not know of other collectors in the country who have engaged in similar collection and documentation. “Nobody has the patience and passion to cultivate a collection like this,” he says. “It is not easy to invest in this every day for 50 years.”
Collectors around the world face challenges where collectibles may just be fakes and Jhunjhunwala says that he tries to ensure that the collectibles go through checks before he acquires it. “This comes from experience to discern its authenticity. I collect old (currency) notes so I know what is real.” Twice, he says, some people attempted to pass off fakes to him as Gandhi’s letters. “But I cross-checked with books on Gandhi to see if he was actually in that place and it turned out he wasn’t even there,” explains Jhunjhunwala.
Among his most-prized collectibles are 60 well-preserved letters written by Gandhi in English, Hindi and Gujarati, during the leader’s lifetime—some handwritten and one typed on a typewriter—from cities like Durban, Johannesburg, Sabarmati, Calcutta, New Delhi etc. “Many envelopes simply had ‘Mahatma Gandhi, India’ or ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Delhi’, written, with no address mentioned on them, but they would somehow reach Gandhi because everybody knew who he was,” says Jhunjhunwala, describing specific envelopes in his collection.
Next is Gandhi’s palm print in ink with his signature and a handwritten quote dated August 12, 1946; Calcutta, saying, ‘This is not important what you do But, what is important That is how you do.‘
It is one of Jhunjhunwala’s favourite quotes by the leader and like most collectibles in Jhunjhunwala’s possession, the handprint too is a gift, given to him by a friend in Kolkata.
“When I first started, I used to buy collectibles. But as people began to know about my (passion), they began gifting things to me,” says Jhunjhunwala. That is also how the most unusual collectible in Jhunjhunwala’s collection?—Gandhi’s ashes, came to be.
In 2016, Mumbai resident Rajiv Pandharinath Gadekar, 60, learned about Jhunjhunwala’s collection. Since 1948, Gadekar’s family had possessed a small wooden urn containing Gandhi’s ashes that had been given to their father Pandharinath Vasudeo Gadekar by Ramdas Gandhi, one of Gandhi’s sons. According to Gadekar, who works in the export sales industry, his father had worked with Ramdas Gandhi in the Tata Oil Mills Co. Ltd. in Nagpur in 1948. A friendship developed between the two families “who kept in touch” and Gadekar remembers visiting the Gandhi family home as a child. Gadekar says that at some point after Gandhi’s death, his son Ramdas gave some of Gandhi’s ashes to Gadekar’s father.
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“We never questioned how he got it…Recently we thought about what to do with it,” Gadekar tells indianexpress.com. “It was a quiet affair and never discussed at home. Not much is known about how my father got it because we were small children at that time.”
Not many know that Gadekar’s family had a small amount of Gandhi’s ashes in their possession and he had never displayed it in a place where it was visible to people. “I am not superstitious, but I wasn’t sure how appropriate it was,” says Gadekar of the presence of Gandhi’s ashes in their home. While searching for someone to whom he could give the ashes, Gadekar found Jhunjhunwala through his wife’s cousin. On the wooden urn is a small label handwritten in ink by Gadekar’s father, the only indication of what the urn contained. “I thought it would be appropriate to give it to (Jhunjhunwala) because he is a genuine collector. Any (other) person will try to make money out of it.”
Gadekar never doubted his father’s story that the urn contained Gandhi’s ashes. “My father was born in 1918 and was a staunch nationalist and an honest man,” he says. “To find its authenticity, you would have to do a DNA test. I was never interested in knowing more about it.”
Not an investment
A decade before he began his collection of commemorative Gandhi memorabilia, Jhunjhunwala recalls finding a quote by Gandhi that said “hate the sin and not the sinner” in his school text book as a 15 year-old student. “I found the quote in 1959 and I liked it and I began searching for more quotes by Gandhi,” says Jhunjhunwala on what started him on this journey that has spanned almost a lifetime. The collectibles are a motley collection of everyday objects like buttons, bookmarks, utensils, decorative objects etc. featuring Gandhi made of different materials. Gandhi’s influence and popularity led to the creation of several such memorabilia and collectibles between 1915 and 1947 in India, explains Jhunjhunwala.
To build the collection that Jhunjhunwala has over the decades is no small feat and the process has dominated a significant part of his life. He credits “jugaad” for his ability to find a balance between his responsibilities towards running the family business and his passion of collecting Gandhi collectibles. Jhunjhunwala spent personal expenses on building his collection and dislikes the use of the word “investment” when it comes to referencing his collection. “This is not an investment because the world commercialises my passion; something I love.”
Jhunjhunwala says there is nobody in his family who is passionate about Gandhi the way he is and he would like to store his collection in a museum, a plan that requires funds that he does not have. “If someone gives me funds, I’ll do it. I have collected this over 50 years and I would like to store it where people can see it.” But if he doesn’t manage to procure the funds he needs, he has a Plan B. “I would like to sell this to museums in India and abroad. Abroad they’ll value it more, I think,” he says.
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Jhunjhunwala rues the lack of interest by the Indian government in his unique collection. Over the years, his mails to the culture ministry have gone unanswered and this year, the exhibit at the National Gallery of Modern Art was the first time the government has expressed an active interest. “The value of my collection is not terms of money that many people think of. I think of Gandhi all day long and Gandhi is all around me,” says Jhunjhunwala. On the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary, Jhunjhunwala’s private collection of Gandhi memorabilia is only growing.