Photojournalists, press photographers, amateurs, followers and family members visually documented Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s life in great detail. Many of these photographs are housed in specialized archives, the National Gandhi Museum being a leading repository. Based on several photographs displayed at an exhibition organized by the National Gandhi Museum and the India International Centre and curated primarily by Aparna Basu, Gandhi’s Vision: Freedom and Beyond is a compelling introduction to Gandhi’s role in the country’s freedom movement. The use of photographs—albeit of varying quality—to illustrate particular phases, incidents and events brings alive much that might soon be forgotten, or is not too well known. The book would have a particular salience for the generations and persons far more used to visual stimulation.
Aparna Basu was (she passed on shortly after the book came out) a dedicated historian with a reassuringly meticulous penchant for dates and details and her last book bears the mark of scholarship tailored for a more general readership. Juxtaposed with her well-organized chronological account of the various phases of the freedom movement are carefully chosen photographs from the National Gandhi Museum’s vast collection. The stage is set with an introduction to Swadeshi, secret societies and the Home Rule League. Around this time, Gandhi was honing his notion of satyagraha in South Africa and there is a 1913 photograph of him clad in a dhoti and kurta and holding a staff; he had organized the struggle against the ruling by the Cape Town Supreme Court that only marriages performed according to Christian rites were legal. At this time, he was equally at home in a three-piece suit as is evident in a very typical studio portrait of the couple taken in the same year.
Basu writes, `Gandhi went to South Africa in 1893 as an unknown barrister. He returned to India in 1915 as a well-known public figure and political organizer’ (p. 51). As is evident from the large corpus of images available, the emergent leader soon became aware of the power of the photograph. The book has reproduced some rare ones of Gandhi with Kasturba soon after their arrival back home. Soon, he was testing the waters, and the power of the strike was evident after the Ahmedabad mill workers’ strike of 1917. Earlier, his success in influencing the authorities to address the grievances of the indigo planters in Champaran in Bihar had made him a hero in the region, as `these were local struggles where Gandhi took up a specific issue, made a careful study of the problem and successfully resolved it by non-violent means’ (p. 62).
There was soon recognition of his methods: In 1920, at a special session of Congress held in Calcutta, a resolution stated that `there is no course left open for the people of India but to approve . . . the policy of progressive non-violent non-cooperation’ (p. 91). Gandhi was now ready to launch nation-wide protests and Gandhi’s Vision: Freedom and Beyond has some very good `action’ photographs of the beginning of Noncooperation Movement. There is, unfortunately, no information on who the photographers were—usually the case with photography unless they are well-known professionals such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Margaret Bourke-White or Sunil Janah. It would be fair to surmise that this anonymity continued till well into the twentieth century. Basu writes that the movement that began in 1920 had a `spectacular beginning’ and thousands of students left school and college. Many national institutions were founded at this time such as Jamia Milia Islamia in Aligarh (it later shifted to New Delhi) and the Gujarat Vidyapeeth in Ahmedabad. The boycott of foreign cloth was the most successful part of the movement and the value of imports was almost halved. Bonfires of foreign cloth were lit at street corners and toddy shops were picketed. It was at this point that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi gave up wearing a dhoti and kurta and adopted the langoti or loincloth and chaddar (cloth to cover the upper body). A while later, in February 1922, following the attack on the Chauri Chaura police station by processionists, a distressed Gandhi withdrew the movement.
Basu expanded on historian Bipan Chandra’s analysis of Gandhian strategy—Struggle-Truce-Struggle (S-T-S)—by pointing out that the movement phase was invariably followed by constructive work among the masses. This learning and reflection interregnum continued until the next movement began. At the Lahore Session of 1929, the Indian National Congress adopted the goal of Purna Swaraj and observed that it was nothing short of `a crime against God and man’ (sic) to submit to `Satanic British rule’. Gandhi was charged with coming up with a strategy of how civil disobedience to the authorities could be used to work towards this overall goal. However, as he did not believe in taking the opponent by surprise, some not very successful exchanges with Viceroy Irwin followed. The next year, Gandhi launched the Salt Satyagraha––marching from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi on the sea coast of Gujarat and picking salt, in violation of the heinous salt law. A number of photographs memorialized this historic move—including that of women satyagrahis who had been initially excluded from the march. While women successfully argued for their participation and came out in large numbers, Basu pointed out that it was, by now, a part of Gandhian strategy to spread the message among the rich and the poor, caste Hindus and the Untouchables, Muslims, Parsis and others.
Shoring up of resources and widespread discussions on the success of this truly mass satyagraha followed. It was more than a decade later that the Quit India Movement was launched—with Gandhi appealing to the British Government to withdraw `and leave India to her fate’. There are a number of iconic photographs to mark those action-filled days: Gandhi drafting the resolution in consultation with Jawaharlal Nehru, discussing a point with Abdul Kalam Azad, as well as carefully composed top shots of an unending line of women processionists walking in white khadi saris and of the police trying to disperse a protesting crowd. A couple of years later, when Gandhi was in Mumbai, he lived in Juhu. There is a rare photograph of him leaving his hut with followers on their way for a walk. Always a disciplined walker, 1946 and the communal holocaust in Noakhali saw him trekking long distances barefoot, pleading for calm and harmony. This too is recorded visually in great detail. The following year, he was preaching communal harmony in riot-torn Calcutta. Prior to Noakhali, Gandhi had been in riot-hit Bihar and there are a number of photographs of him with the towering figure of kurta-pyjama clad Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. That Gandhi’s last years were greatly occupied with speaking on the need for trust between people and communities is evident from the many photographs of him in places in the east of the country. Clearly, his colleagues as well as photographers and their employers were well aware of the power of the visual medium in bringing alive Gandhi’s commitment to unity in an unhappy land.
Gandhi’s Vision: Freedom and Beyond is not only an invaluable contribution to Gandhiana, but also a useful introduction to early photojournalism. Photographs of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Gandhi’s Vision—some posed, carefully composed and iconic, others serendipitous, a grab caught in a flash—are effective mnemonic devices that bring to mind the man and the historic events around him. These are woven together through Aparna Basu’s skillful narrative that links image and text seamlessly in this very readable book. Those interested in knowing more about this remarkable man and the struggles and negotiations that preceded the country’s freedom have at hand a compendium of information and insightful analysis with extremely relevant visual inputs, put together by a leading historian of modern India.
Malavika Karlekar is Editor, Indian Journal of Gender Studies and since 2001, she has been researching on and writing about archival photographs.