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Kanu Gandhi: The unsung photographer who chronicled the Mahatma

Kanu Gandhi, grand-nephew of Mahatma Gandhi, was an unsung photographer. But he documented the private life of the leader extensively in his last decade

art and culture Updated: Jan 05, 2017 17:25 IST
Soma Das
Soma Das
Hindustan Times
Kanu Gandhi,Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation,Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Sevagram Ashram, 1940: Mahatma Gandhi spinning on Dhanush Takli. (Photo courtesy: Kanu Gandhi/©The Estate of Kanu Gandhi)

Kanu Gandhi, grand-nephew of Mahatma Gandhi, was an unsung photographer. But he documented the private life of the leader extensively in his last decade

An archival photograph dated 1940 shows Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn on the Dhanush takli (the hand spindle he popularised). Another image from the same year shows the leader sitting with poet Rabindranath Tagore in the greenery of Santiniketan, West Bengal; both seem lost in their thoughts. The photographs offer a peek into the introspective side of a leader who was photographed in his public life to a great extent. They feature in the upcoming exhibition, Kanu’s Gandhi, to be held next week at Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, Fort.

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Shantiniketan, 1940: Mahatma Gandhi with Rabindranath Tagore. ( Photo courtesy: Kanu Gandhi/©The Estate of Kanu Gandhi )

In the shadows

The photographer who shot the images was the Mahatma’s grand-nephew. Since Kanu Gandhi (1917 to 1986) was not a photojournalist, many of his images were never attributed to him and he was denied the credit due to him. “As a staff member at the Sevagram ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra, people would approach him for photos and he may have given some of them away to newspapers without insisting on credit,” says photographer Prashant Panjiar (curator of the exhibition).

In 1997, on the occasion of 50 years of Independence, Panjiar (who worked for Outlook magazine then) visited the Gandhi family residence in Rajkot, Gujarat, for a story. He came across the negatives of Kanu Gandhi’s photographs in a cupboard. Realising the significance of the images, he decided to archive the photos and document Kanu’s contribution.

Bardoli, 1939: Kasturba washing Mahatma Gandhi’s feet. Sardar Patel is seen behind. ( Photo courtesy: Kanu Gandhi/©The Estate of Kanu Gandhi )

In 2011, Panjiar co-founded the Nazar Foundation, a Delhi-based non-profit promoting photography. And in November 2015, the foundation released a coffee table book, titled Nazar Photography Monographs 03 — Kanu’s Gandhi. It was followed by an exhibition of 42 images from the collection. The exhibition has previously travelled to Kolkata, Bengaluru and Gujarat.

Chronicling the Mahatma

Kanu’s foray into photography happened by chance. When he was 19, he moved to Sevagram ashram (Mahatma’s residence, from 1936). While he dreamt of becoming a doctor, his father convinced him to join the Mahatma’s staff at Sevagram. Here, he supervised the clerical work, correspondence and accounting. He became integral to the ashram and came to be fondly known as Bapu’s Hanuman.

As he interacted with the photographers and journalists who visited Gandhi, Kanu developed an interest in photography. But the primary hurdle proved to be the Mahatma himself, who turned down his request for a camera, which was expensive in those days. The Mahatma later requested industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla to help Kanu; the industrialist gifted Kanu a sum of Rs 100, with which he bought a Rolleiflex camera and a roll of film.

North West Frontier Provinces, 1938: Dr. Sushila Nayar, Mahatma Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Amtus Salam and others walking in the countryside. ( Photo courtesy: Kanu Gandhi/©The Estate of Kanu Gandhi )

Kanu’s advantage was the unrestricted access he had to the Mahatma, and he clicked images of him daily, for a decade (1936 to 1948). But there were some injunctions: he could not use flash, and the Mahatma would never pose for him. He often sold his photographs to newspapers as well, and the images were disseminated widely.

“During the latter phase of his life, there was a sense of loneliness and disillusionment that Gandhi is reported to have experienced. Kanu’s images capture those emotions,” says Panjiar.

Sevagram Ashram, 1938: Mahatma Gandhi telephoning from the office hut. ( Photo courtesy: Kanu Gandhi/©The Estate of Kanu Gandhi )

In many ways, the Mahatma was Kanu’s muse. After his assassination, Kanu devoted his life to travelling across India and spreading the Gandhian philosophy. Photography, sadly, became secondary to his larger mission.

Kanu’s Gandhi will be on display from January 12 to February 26
At Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, second floor, east wing, CSMVS, Fort
Call 22029713

First Published: Jan 05, 2017 00:00 IST