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Berlin, Germany, 2007/02/06 - Mahatma Gandhi was difficult to photograph but he became one of the most photographed personalities of our time. The two best collections, the one of Gandhi's biographer V. Jhaveri and his great nephew Kanu Gandhi, are now available on the web.
Gandhi never liked to be photographed. The famous American photographer Margaret Bourke-White wrote in her autobiography: “Having thought of Mahatma Gandhi as a symbol of simplicity; I was a bit surprised to find that I had to go through several secretaries to get permission to photograph him.” Bourke White arrived two hours earlier than arranged. But instead of being taken to meet Gandhi, she was told that she would first have to learn to spin. Hours later, when it was deemed she could spin well enough, she was allowed to begin taking photographs. But she was told that Gandhi insisted on natural light - the camera flash would interrupt his reading. Bourke-White: “I found the inside of the hut to be even darker than I had anticipated... but when my eyes became accustomed... there sat Mahatma, crossed legged, a spidery figure with a bald head and spectacles. Could this be the man who was leading his people to freedom... who had kindled the imagination of the world?” Bourke-White pleaded with Gandhi and he finally agreed to allow her three flashbulbs.
The first flash failed in the heat and humidity. On the second, she forgot to pull the plate. Finally the third bulb worked. She had her picture. Despite the impossible conditions Bourke-White created some of the most haunting images of Gandhi.
Reluctantly Gandhi allowed amateur and professional photographers to photograph him – and became one of the most photographed personalities of our time! Over 5000 known photographs of Mahatma Gandhi were taken by about 350 photographers. It can be anticipated that another 2000-3000 photographs were taken by people who passed his way. However, the two major collections are the ones by Gandhi’s great nephew and personal assistant Kanu Gandhi and Gandhi’s eminent biographer Vithalbhai Jhaveri.
After Gandhi’s death in 1948, his youngest son Devdas began to collect photographs and films in order to document his father’s life and work as detailed as possible. When Devdas became the chief editor of Hindusthan Times he handed over his collection to Vithalbhai Jhaveri who also had begun to collect visuals on Gandhi from sources all over the world in the mid-1940’s. Vithalbhai Jhaveri (1916-1985), former member of the Indian National Movement, did much to promote Gandhian philosophy and preserve the memory of the unique nonviolent struggle for Indian independence. His deep research lead to the accumulation of the most comprehensive photographic collection of the life of Gandhi (4000) and India’s independence movement (5000), over 9000 photographs in total. Some of them were used in D.G. Tendulkar’s 8 volume biography Mahatma as well as for Jhaveri’s various exhibitions and his 5 hour documentary film Mahatma, but the majority of images have never been exposed to the public. After Jhaveri’s death in 1985 his collection received a preservation treatment and was turned into a scientific archive.
A similar befell had Kanu Gandhi’s collection which is with over 1300 photographs the second largest photo collection on Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s great nephew lived with his family on Gandhi’s ashrams in Ahmedabad and in central India, near Wardha. In 1936 Kanu Gandhi (1917-1986) was given his first camera and a roll of film and thus began his document of the last 11 years of Gandhi’s life. Gandhi agreed to be photographed by him on three conditions: Kanu was not to use a flash, the ashram would not finance it and Gandhi would never pose. He was thus able to capture Mahatma Gandhi in all his moods and moments. This is a collection of rare intimacy presenting Gandhi in the company of his family and other ashram members, and shows the private Gandhi in contrast to the public Mahatma.
Apart from several smaller collections these two major collections form part of GandhiServe Foundation’s photo archive, which is the best of its kind in terms of quality and quantity. The archive is gradually getting digitised and a large section of the pictures can be viewed in GandhiServe’s Online Image Archive.
Now a selection of the best 1000 images of Mahatma Gandhi has been made available in the GandhiServe Photo Store where prints from 4” x 6” to 20” x 30” can be ordered in b/w or duotone as well as photo products.
GandhiServe (gandhiserve.org) keeps acquiring photographs and photo collections on Gandhi and India’s indepedence movement.