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 Satyagraha in 1930, Gandhi decided not to return to Sabarmati till India achieved independence. After his release from prison Gandhi spent some time travelling around India. 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. Abha came to be known as “one of Gandhi’s walking sticks” along with Manu Gandhi, as Gandhi used them as supports while walking.
It was around this time that Kanu developed an interest in photography, perhaps due to his interaction with photographers and journalists who visited Gandhi and by looking at the photos they gifted him. 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 Noakhali 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. They continued to travel around India promoting and teaching Khadi, spinning and handicrafts. In between Kanu Gandhi continued with his photography, though sporadically. In 1956 Kanu and Abha moved to Rajkot where they ran the Kasturbadham and Rashtriyashala institutes. Kanu Gandhi died of a heart attack on 20 February 1986 while on a pilgrimage in Madhya Pradesh.
Kanu’s original photographs remained in obscurity until 1995 when the first ever exhibition of Kanu’s photographs was mounted at the Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery through the efforts of the London based artist Saleem Arif.
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 daughter of Kanu & Abha Gandhi and legal heir to his estate. We soon made contact and Outlook published a photo-essay of Kanu Gandhi’s work in January 1998. 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 has now culminated in a monograph and a travelling exhibition.
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. He was first and foremost a follower of Gandhi. Making photographs of Gandhi was one of the many things he did in between looking after his correspondence, his personal needs, accompanying the daily prayers, carrying his luggage and being his personal assistant on his numerous tours. And he seems 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.
A number of anecdotes about Gandhi written by Kanu and Abha Gandhi have been published in the form of a booklet titled “Bapu Ke Saath”. Even here Kanu mentions his photography in only two places, both as passing references.
The great pundit of Sanskrit, Parchure Shastri, was living in Sevagram Ashram. Suffering from leprosy, he was frustrated with life and wanted to starve to death... “You will not do that. I will not let you do it,” Bapu said to Shastriji...
One day Shastriji said to Bapu, “I suffered from terrible body-ache last night and could not sleep well.” Bapu listened to him carefully... he set up a bed for Shastriji nearby and arranged for mustard oil... and started massaging his body... This became a routine. Shastriji was really relieved from pain. To show this pious scene to everybody I clicked some photographs, which are very popular.
Bapu had started a fast for twenty-one days in the Aga Khan Palace while he was imprisoned there in 1943. At that time I was given special permission to stay with him. I took a camera with me. I had to undergo a formal security check. The constable used to say, “You can take this camera along, but do not click photographs without the superintendent’s permission.” This confidence shown by constables was the reflection of the faith they had in “the messenger of truth” - Gandhiji. They knew that Bapu would never break the law and rules of the prison.
What makes Kanu Gandhi’s photographs of the Mahatma special? While it is true that he had incredible access, is it just that that distinguishes his work? Or is there something more in them?
Having closely studied over a 1000 images of his, Sanjeev Saith, (the Editor of this book and the exhibition at the Delhi Photo Festival 2011), and I are always struck at the way Kanu, perhaps because he was in awe of the Mahatma, always kept a respectful distance yet managed to convey a sense of intimacy and proximity. And because he kept a certain distance, Kanu intuitively found a more modern language of photography than was prevalent in those times in India, framing many of his images with an interesting and unconventional use of the foreground, breaking many of the accepted rules of composition. It is perhaps fortunate for us that Kanu was unschooled in photography because many images that would have been rejected by his contemporaries on account of being blurred, slightly out of focus or double exposed find pride of place, lovingly pasted by his own hands in the few pages of his albums that survive.
What Kanu Gandhi has left for us is a very private account of one of history’s most public persons.
Prashant Panjiar / Project Curator Kanu’s Gandhi & Managing Trustee, Nazar Foundation