No flash. no posing. And no financial support from the Sevagram Ashram. These were the three conditions that Mahatma Gandhi set for his grandnephew Kanu Gandhi in 1944 when the latter developed an interest in photography. Kanu had been supervising the correspondence and accounts of the Mahatma at the Sevagram Ashram, near Wardha, Maharashtra and wanted to document Gandhi’s life. The end result was that Kanu was able to freeze for posterity some rare glimpses of Gandhi in his unguarded moments, in his personal as well as public lives. These include images with his family members and also other historic figures of his time, like Jawaharlal Nehru, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
Kanu Gandhi (1917-1986) was the son of Narandas Gandhi, a nephew of Mahatma Gandhi. His wife was Abhaben Chatterjee. It was in Abha’s arms that the Mahatma breathed his last, at Birla House (now Gandhi Smriti), New Delhi, on January 30, 1948. Vinobha Bhave’s brother Shivaji encouraged Kanu to take up photography seriously. Industrialist GD Birla gifted him Rs. 100, enough to buy a Rolliflex camera and his first roll of film.
Kanu was able to sell his images to most of the leading newspapers of the time. Since he was the only photographer in such close proximity to the Mahatma, he was soon producing images on a daily basis. But after Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, Kanu rarely picked up the camera. Instead, he and Abha devoted the rest of their lives to conveying the Gandhian message. They travelled all over India, promoting khadi and handicrafts and teaching khadi.
A part of Kanu’s archival collection, called `Kanu’s Gandhi’, is now on display at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (earlier known as the Prince of Wales Museum) in south Mumbai. There is a brilliant shot of Gandhi walking outdoors in a group, using a pillow to shelter himself from the sun. Another shows him in an animated conversation with Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan, a year before the Nobel laureate’s death. In yet another wonderful photograph, we see him sitting happily next to a train window, while on a journey to Bengal, Assam and South India.
Manu’s Gandhi has been curated by photographers Prashant Panjiar and Sanjeev Saith. A 150-page book of the same name has been published by Nazar Foundation, an NGO run by Panjiar and photographer Dinesh Khanna. It features 92 rare pictures of the Mahatma.
Kanu’s Gandhi, January 12, 2017-February 26, 2016, Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, 2nd floor, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya