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The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – The Mahatma’s Shadow

The Mahatma’s Shadow

By Kanu Gandhi 0

Kanu Gandhi shot some of the most iconic images that exist of his famous relative. A recent book by the Nazar Foundation aims to give the photographer his posthumous due.

Kanu Gandhi, a grand-nephew of the Mahatma, wanted to take photos of his famous relative. At first the older man turned down the 20-year-old Kanu, saying there were not enough funds, but later (about 1937), he relented and requested his associate Ghanshyam Das Birla to help Kanu. Birla made a gift of Rs 100 to Kanu, enough to buy a Rolleiflex 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—Sevagram, at that time—would not fund his photography.

Amritlal Gandhi of Vandemataram paid him a monthly stipend of Rs 100. Kanu also began selling his photographs to other newspapers. He soon began to produce images on a daily basis. However, the Mahatma sometimes did forbid Kanu from making photographs, as when Kasturba lay dying in his lap at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune.

It may seem strange 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—looking after his correspondence and 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.

Sanjeev Saith (the editor of this book and co-curator, along with me, of the exhibition of selected images from the book at the Delhi Photo Festival 2011, the first time Kanu’s work was exhibited in India) and I are always struck at the way he kept a respectful distance at all times, yet managed to convey a sense of intimacy and proximity to the Mahatma. Because he kept that distance, Kanu intuitively found a more modern language of photography than was prevalent then in India.

What Kanu Gandhi has left for us is a very private account of one of history’s most public persons. Prashant Panjiar

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1939 Kasturba Gandhi washing her husband’s feet in Bardoli. Sardar Patel is seen behind


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1946 in riot-affected Noakhali, East Bengal


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1940 In Birla House, Bombay


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1940 Gandhiji in front of his office hut, carrying a pillow on his head as protection against the heat

 This photo-essay is published in the July-September 2016 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This excerpt is from Kanu’s Gandhi: Nazar Foundation Monograph 03, Nazar Foundation (2015); project curator Prashant Panjiar, editor Sanjeev Saith, designer Gopika Chowfla. This is the first book based on Kanu Gandhi’s photographs. This is only a part of the excerpt published in this issue. You can get your digital on Magzter here, but we love print more and if so do you, subscribe here.



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