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Literary Review

Documenting history

Gandhi is valuable for the rare pictures it contains from the Mahatma's early political career, says S. THEODORE BASKARAN.

PHOTOGRAPHIC records of Gandhiji are not many and they lie scattered all over the world. Different agencies have been trying to retrieve and document them, now that the work has been made easy with scanners and electronic transfer of images. And we have in our hands a sparkling new book, easily the best book of photographs of Gandhiji.

This impressive collection of images, spanning a period of 53 years from 1895 to 1948, meticulously documents the events in Gandhiji's life and struggle. In the process, the book records, through images, the history of the freedom struggle as no other book has done before. It has a well-researched Introduction and the legends for each photo are also a part of that research. Peter Rühe, the author has been working on this subject for the last 20 years.

First the design. Sophie Spencer-Wood, recipient of many awards, who has designed the book — herself a photographer of merit — has done a stunning job. It is a delight to handle this book. The photographs have been laid out in such a way that they draw the reader's attention in to the pictures. The wide space provided as border for each picture puts the focus on the photograph. In fact, some of the pictures take only half the space in a page. The quality of the pictures, understandably, varies widely. You have Cartier-Bresson's shots on the one end of the spectrum and on the other, Kanu Gandhi's early essays with a box camera, but important as documents.

In most of the books and exhibitions on Gandhiji, even a casual observer notices the absence of photographs from the early years of his political life. For instance, there are very few pictures from the 15 years he spent at Ahmedabad, in Sabarmati ashram, which was the nerve centre of political activity. In this book the author tries to fill that gap; we have some very rare pictures from his South Africa days.

Only from his Sevagram days, do we get some photographic records of his life. Many of the images we have of the Mahatma have come down to us through Kanu Gandhi, a grandson of one of Gandhiji's cousins. During a visit to Sewagram, Shivaji Bhave, brother of Vinobha Bhave, suggested to Kanu, that he take to photography and capture important events in the ashram. With Rs. 100 from G.D. Birla, for a camera, Kanu Gandhi's career in photography began. He documents some of the momentous events at the ashram. He had no training in photography and learnt the rules as he went along. So you notice wide variation in the quality of his work. Some are not sharp and some underexposed. However, some, like the one showing Gandhiji bending over and examining a leprosy patient lying on the floor, are examples of perfect composition. The constant factor in Kanu's work is the value of the subject matter handled. A number of scenes in Attenborough's film "Gandhi" were recreations based on Kanu Gandhi's pictures. The author of this book Peter Rühe, visited Rajkot in 1985 after Kanu's death and helped his wife Abha Gandhi organise the negatives. So we have many works of Kanu here.

It is a pity that many pictures are not credited to any particular photographer but only to the agency. Another problem with the book is that it is difficult to read the legends that go along with the photographs; they are in small font and printed in light grey. The readers would tend to skip the legends, which are important adjuncts to the images.

Photostats of some historical letters of Gandhiji, like his missive to Tolstoy and later to Hitler, have been reproduced. Equally rare are the photographs from his 1938 trip to the North Western province, along with Gaffar Khan.

There are only very few photographs from South India. Just three. Gandhiji toured Madras presidency extensively twice and it was in Madurai, in 1921, that he chose to discard the kurta. And be bare-torsoed, like a South Indian peasant. Even in these few pictures, the details are missing in the legend; Rajaji, who features in a picture with Gandhiji, does not get mentioned in the legend. Nor is there any image from his two visits to Sri Lanka. Some of the private archives in the South need to be rummaged.

Most of the photographs you see of Gandhiji are candid shots. Gandhiji's dislike of the camera was legendary, though there were occasions when he made exceptions. One was the Dandi march. It is on record that Gandhiji invited photographers to register the historic moment of taking a pinch of salt from the ground. Later, when he was lodged in Yeravda prison, the photographer of Life magazine, Margaret Bourke-White came and photographed. Some of her works are included in this book.

The other person who was successful in persuading Gandhiji to pose was the fabled French lens-man Henri Cartier-Bresson. In fact, he was with Gandhiji at the Birla House on the fateful day of the assassination and had taken some pictures of him. Bresson stayed on to document on film the funeral. His historic pictures form the last section of this book.

There are some pictures in which Gandhiji does not feature, but very much part of his life, such as the one showing Jinnah in hand-pulled rickshaw on his way to meet the Viceroy in 1945 and another featuring some dalits from Mysore. There are also a few photographs of the Calcutta riots of 1946, which the New Statesman referred to as the "The Great Calcutta Killing." These images highlight the relevance of Gandhiji for our times; they are so painfully similar to the pictures from Gujarat we have been seeing in the papers recently.

Gandhi, Peter Rühe, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, 2001, p.312, hardback, price not stated.

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