The Man in the Loincloth

I had so looked forward to a quiet hour in CSMVS’s Jehangir Nicholson Gallery with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s black-and-white photographs, captured on a100-rupee Rolliflex camera by his grand-nephew Kanu Gandhi; but it was not to be. A dozen students from a northern hill school were already there before me, being harangued by two high-decibel teachers who wanted them to draw a picture of Gandhi --“Draw chashma. Chashma’s very important” -- and write a poem on him – “You know ahimsa? Dandi march? Khadi?” – write anything like that. I winced at those cacophonic voices beating relentlessly against my eardrums. Luckily, born-and-bred Mumbaikars have an in-built device that cocoons them from ugly ambient noises. I switched mine on and turned to Gandhi.

Here is Gandhi in August 1940, spinning on a dhanush takli (bow spindle) in his hut in Sevagram, Wardha. “My emphasis on the dhanush takli is based on the fact that it is more easily made, is cheaper than and does not require frequent repairs like the wheel,” he wrote in 1941. But before that, the wheel had to be found. Home spinning had been finished off by British-made cloth. In Broach, Gandhi happened to meet a gritty, enterprising dalit widow, Gangabehn Majmundar who found him wheels in dusty Vijapur lofts. Now weavers had to be found to teach spinning. They too were found. These efforts, required to produce the first khadi yarn and cloth, are recorded matter-of-factly by Gandhi towards the end of My Autobiography Or the Story of my Experiments with Truth. They make humbling reading.

Here is Gandhi on a weighing scale in a corner of Birla House, Mumbai. He stands erect, like an obedient schoolboy, his bare back towards us, thin arms by his side, spindly legs protruding from his half-dhoti. He must have been around 71 then. We wonder how much he weighed. Only the man leaning over the display dial knows; and Gandhi who peers inquiringly at it.

In this photograph, one of Gandhi’s thin arms is stretched out of a railway carriage window to receive donations for his Harijan Fund from ordinary citizens crowding round his carriage. I try to figure out where Kanu Gandhi could have positioned himself to take this picture; or the one that shows a dozen faces in the foreground, falling away to thousands of others down below, stretching to the horizon like a sea of pebbles, all waiting to see Gandhi.

Here we are back in Sevagram. Gandhi stands at the wicket gate of his office. Did I say office? Well, the hut that serves as his office. Evidently, he is on his way out. He isn’t aware of Kanu’s presence. Kanu must have taken great care always to remain invisible. The old man hadn’t particularly liked the idea of being photographed as he went about his work. No flash, no posing, no funds from the ashram he had warned the young man. The restraints produced unusual pictures. Here Gandhi’s gaunt body blends in with the stakes that make the fence and the wicket gate. How much more effortlessly can a man be part of his environment? Strangely, he carries a pillow on his head as protection against the blistering Wardha sun. That is something that would have made anyone else look ridiculous. Not Gandhi. It only makes him look human, vulnerable.   

Although Gandhi’s office is a hut, it has a telephone. Here’s a frontal picture of Gandhi speaking over it. His face is grave. What is he hearing? Another riot?

One photograph in this record of the last ten years of Gandhi’s life stands out for being both intriguing and moving. It is 1940. Gandhi is visiting Santiniketan. The official welcome is over. Tagore still wears his garland. Gandhi’s garland lies beside him. The two great minds of the age, pioneers of new ways of living, often adversaries in thought but always respectful of each other, sit at a distance from one another, lost in contemplation. A lush tree slants overhead. But what’s this at the bottom? It looks like a reflection of the tree. Is that a water body beside them then? You take a closer look. No. It’s not a reflection. It is a serendipitous double exposure that creates the mystifying impression of the two nature-loving men sharing a quiet moment, surrounded by trees behind, above and, miraculously, below them.

And finally a photograph that is mute, blank and eloquent. There is no Gandhi here. Just his shoulder cloth, stained with smudges of his blood.

Published On : 27-03-2017