Book excerpt: Gandhi through the camera lens of his nephew

  • Prashant Panjiar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 12, 2015 16:52 IST
Mahatma Gandhi spinning on Dhanush Takli spinning instrument in his hut at Satyagraha Ashram, Sevagram, c August 1940.

Kanu’s Gandhi

Nazar Foundation

Rs 3000

This photo book… is the first-ever book published of Kanu Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grand nephew and personal photo-chronicler of the last 10 years of his life. Though many of his images are well known to us (you are sure to find some of them familiar) he was never properly credited for them... With this third title of our Nazar Photography Monographs, Kanu’s Gandhi, we hope to give a long forgotten, but important photographer his due.

Biographical details of Kanu Gandhi are at best sketchy…

Kanu Gandhi was born to Narandas Gandhi, a nephew of Mahatma Gandhi and Jamuna Gandhi in 1917. Two years later the family moved to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, where Narandas worked as a manager. Kanu’s early years were spent here. He became a follower of Gandhi and was arrested for his participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement when he was only 15.

After the Salt Satyragraha in 1930, Gandhi decided not to return to Sabarmati till India attained independence... In 1934, at the invitation of his follower and industrialist, Jamnalal Bajaj, Gandhi came to Wardha, in Central India, and decided to take up residence in Segaon, a small village on its outskirts. He renamed his residence Sevagram and soon it was a bustling ashram. Though Kanu wanted to be a doctor, in 1936, he was persuaded by his father to join Gandhi’s personal staff at Sevagram supervising clerical, correspondence and accounting functions, becoming known as “Bapu’s Hanuman”. In 1944, on Kasturba’s wishes and Gandhi’s blessings, Kanu married Abhaben Chatterjee, who had been living at Sevagram with the Gandhis since she was 12…

The front and back covers for Kanu’s Gandhi.

It was around this time that Kanu developed an interest in photography… Vinobha Bhave’s brother, Shivaji, while on a visit to Sevagram, was the first one to encourage Kanu to take up photography to capture events at the Ashram. At first Gandhi turned down Kanu, saying there were not enough funds, but later relented and requested his associate, the industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla, to help Kanu. GD Birla made a gift of Rs 100 to Kanu, enough to buy a Rolliflex camera and a roll of film. Gandhi imposed three conditions on Kanu for taking photographs of him: that he would never use a flash; that he would never ask him to pose, and that the Ashram would not fund his photography.

Amritlal Gandhi of Vandemataram, who had purchased a photograph of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel from Kanu, paid him a monthly stipend of Rs 100. Kanu also began selling his photographs to other newspapers. Being the only one allowed to take Gandhi’s photograph at any time, he soon began to produce images on a daily basis. However Gandhi did at times forbid Kanu from making photographs. One such moment was when Kasturba lay dying in his lap at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune.

At the time of Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, Kanu was in Naokhali in East Bengal where he had been ordered by the Mahatma to stay back and continue his work. Abha was in Delhi with Gandhi and in fact he breathed his last in her arms. Gandhi’s death had a profound effect on Kanu and Abha’s lives.

For Kanu, photography was no longer as important as the need to convey the Gandhian message… In between Kanu Gandhi continued with his photography, though sporadically. In 1956 Kanu and Abha moved to Rajkot where they ran the Kasturbadham and Rashrtiryashala institutes. Kanu Gandhi died of a heart attack ion 20 Febraury 1986 while on a pilgrimage in Madhya Pradesh. Kanu’s original photographs remained in obscurity until the German researcher, Peter Ruhe, who was tracing material on Gandhi, began compiling them and then marketing them. In 1995, the first ever exhibition of Kanu’s photographs was mounted at the Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery…

For Love and Honour review: Tale of conflicting passions

I became aware of Kanu Gandhi’s work in 1997, while working as Picture Editor for Outlook Magazine. But every attempt that I made to reach the correct source for the images hit a wall. Finally it was Gopal Gandhi, the grandson of Gandhi, who pointed me in the right direction to Gita Mehta, the adopted daughter of Kanu & Abha Gandhi and legal heir to his estate… Thus started a relationship with Gita Mehta’s family that led to Kanu Gandhi’s work being shown as an exhibition for the very first time in India, at the Delhi Photo Festival 2011 and is now culminating in this monograph.

It may seem strange to many that such an important collection has remained hidden and unacknowledged for so many years. Certainly Kanu Gandhi himself did not regard his photographic work as being the most important thing in his life... And he seemed to have been unconcerned about monetary profit from his photographs, never once protesting the frequent use of his images by the government and private persons without crediting him for the same, which is why there are many images of Gandhi that we know so well but are not aware of the photographer...

What Kanu Gandhi has left for us is a very private account of one of history’s most public persons.

Prashant Panjiar is the co-founder of Nazar Foundation and the Delhi Photo Festival.

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