A Photographer named Kanu Gandhi

By Sharmada Sivaram
Photos by Nimit Nigam
Kanu Gandhi. A name more easily known as that of Mahatma Gandhi’s great nephew but less often as a photographer. He chronicled the last ten years of the Mahatma, documented it with the help of a camera. He was the only one allowed to take his granduncle’s photograph at any time and so, his photos give us a view of the private Gandhi in contrast to the public figure of the Mahatma.

Some of these photographs have been exhibited for the first time in India at the Delhi Photo Festival. The only other time was at the Leicester Museum, England – that too, as far back as 1995.

Today, I had the chance to meet and talk to Kanu Gandhi’s granddaughters Sushma Shah and Bhumi Mehta, who came all the way from Rajkot (Gujarat), to see their grandfather’s photography on display.

The first question I asked was about any memories that they may have of Kanu Gandhi. Sushma, the older granddaughter, was quick to start with, “He was a very hard working man. I was about two and a half years old when he passed away but I still have one very fond memory of him. Every morning, he would cycle down from the Kasturba Ashram (near Rajkot), to come and give me a maalish (massage) when I was a baby. He could have made use of passes or concessions being a freedom fighter but he never did so.”

“So, what do you have to say about how this work has never come into much light and about how it has been neglected?” The answer I got was, “Honestly, we were never aware of the importance or the value of these photographs. We’re a part of the Gandhi family and these photos have been a part of the family. We never really realised how precious these might be.”

I also asked whether Kanu Gandhi had pursued photography further, after the Mahatma’s death. Sushma said that his photography had mainly centered on the Mahatma and various other freedom fighters like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan but had lessened considerably after the Mahatma’s death.

Further, I asked them what they thought needs to be done to preserve his legacy? Sushma said, “One of my grandfather’s dreams was to build an agriculture university – unfortunately, before enough funds could be raised, he passed away. A lot of work needs to be done regarding the Kasturba Ashram. The Ashram was where Kasturba Gandhi had remained imprisoned once upon a time. Back in the day, there used to be a hostel for the harijans and it was also a center for education. There were a lot of activities. Now, however, all that remains is the building.”

Bhumi, who has studied animation and is a faculty with MAAC in Rajkot, wants to bring in animation. She said, “I want to use animation somehow, in the process of preserving his legacy, as this is a modern tool. Animation is something that might catch more eyes now as it is more easy to relate to in today’s world.”

Bhavesh Shah, Sushma’s husband, a journalist and an amateur photographer, was also present. He said, “The work presented here is a very small part of a huge collection of over 2000 photographs. Unfortunately, some of them are in a bad shape and some of them might be taken by someone other than Kanu Gandhi. We don’t even know where some parts of the collection may have been kept!”

When I asked for his thoughts on what could be done to preserve and promote Kanu Gandhi’s work, he said, “We need the world to know that there was a photographer named Kanu Gandhi. Exhibitions and festivals such as this one are obviously a good step. There are also a number of writings by Kanu Gandhi on the Mahatma’s views from the 1930s on various issues. For instance, one of them is on food security which is something that is very relevant and applicable today too. Publishing these would be a really good way to go about it. A lot of work is needed with regard to the Kasturba Ashram which is in shambles. All you have is a building – we need to revive it.”

Bhavesh asked Prashant if people felt anything when they saw these photos and he answered saying that Swapan (Parekh) had mentioned how a little child running around the exhibit singing the national anthem jana gana mana gave him the shivers.

Kanu Gandhi’s exhibit is a must visit!

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