"Never use flash, never ask me to pose and the ashram will not fund your photography."
These were the three conditions Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi imposed on his grandnephew Kanu, before agreeing to be photographed by him.
Nicknamed "Bapu's Hanuman", Kanu Gandhi had just turned 19 when he came to live with his granduncle at his Sevagram ashram in Wardha in 1936. He would remain a member of Gandhi’s personal staff until the latter's death in 1948, supervising clerical, correspondence and accounting functions.
When he developed an interest in photography, Kanu Gandhi's proximity to his granduncle afforded him the privilege of shooting the Mahatma with his Rolleiflex camera at any time of day or night and to chronicle the last 10 years of Gandhi's life in exquisite black and white.
While Kanu Gandhi happened to be at the right place at the right time, his pictures reveal the respectful distance he always kept from the Mahatma. The subject is almost never looking directly into the camera in these photographs. But his collection does include one photograph where Kanu Gandhi was rewarded with a direct, big smile.
To sustain his passion, Kanu Gandhi would sometimes sell pictures to newspapers. As a result, viewers are familiar with some of the portraits, but not who had taken them. Most of his published work remained largely uncredited. But a large part of it was never published, and thus remained unseen by the world at large.
It was only in 1995, nine years after Kanu Gandhi’s death, that a largescale exhibition of his photographs was organised by Saleem Arif. The event was mounted at the Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery, UK, in 1995. Now, 20 years later, approximately 100 pictures have been restored and put together in a book titled Kanu’s Gandhi, produced by the Nazar Foundation, a non-profit founded by photographers Prashant Panjiar and Dinesh Khanna.
Panjiar, the project curator, developed an interest in Kanu Gandhi’s pictures in 1997, when he was putting together an Independence Day special for Outlook magazine, where he was photo editor. “I was never clear about who owned these images and kept trying to find out who held the copyright to these pictures," said Panjiar. "It was not until I met Gopal Gandhi, that I knew I had to go to the family.”
Having been pointed in the right direction by Gandhi’s grandson, Panjiar met Gita Mehta, Kanu’s adopted daughter, who was living in Rajkot. In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of Gandhi's assassination, Outlook published a photo essay using Kanu Gandhi's pictures. Thus began a relationship that would result in Kanu Gandhi’s work being exhibited in India for the first time at the Delhi Photo Festival in 2011, and being reproduced in this monograph.
Panjiar and Kanu Gandhi’s family sifted through all the material and the albums that had survived years of neglect, combined with pilferage that had resulted in a lot of the prints or negatives going missing. Out of over 1,000 images, Panjiar painstakingly chose about 100.
Sanjeev Saith, editor of Kanu’s Gandhi, followed largely three themes when putting the book together – the historical narrative, Kanu Gandhi’s evolution as a photographer and the presence of Kasturba Gandhi in the Mahatma’s life.
"The history was all there. I had to merely punctuate,” said Saith. "I saw that the pictures were taken between 1937-1948, so the first narrative is the history of what was happening in the freedom struggle and his life at the ashram. This is a historical narrative and I couldn't really put any picture anywhere so I kept the chronology essentially correct. The main subject always remains Bapu. He has this huge aura about him which just takes over in all pictures."
Panjiar and Saith realised that the photographs were nowhere near perfect but also recognised the beauty in their imperfection. “We can recognise a photographer who has picked up the skill rather than having been taught," Saith said. "When you’re taught, you get stuck in the rules of photography – rule of third, focus, exposure. If he had been taught these things, his work would have never been what it is. He broke all rules. His framing was unconventional for its time, there are pictures which are blurry, out of focus or overexposed, but they are beautiful. We are lucky he numbered and saved them instead of throwing them away.”
Panjiar said that while going through the old albums, he learnt to recognise Kanu Gandhi’s style. “The analysis of the way pictures were framed and made, revealed that Kanu had a certain eye.”
The third theme that Saith was deeply affected by was the austere presence of Gandhi's wife, Kasturba, in the pictures and tried to include her on every third or fourth page of the book. She is always there, silently, yet strongly, supporting him. There are moments where Gandhi is engrossed in reading something while his thali food grows colder. In the background is Kasturba, waiting for him to eat a little. A few pages later she appears as she washes his feet. "She is all over the place, always hanging around," said Saith. "It actually all culminated in two of the pictures ‒ one of her lying in bed and another that of her dead body lying on the ground as Gandhi stares at his wife of 60 years. My heart went out to her."
Though he was near the Mahatma during several key moments, Kanu Gandhi could not capture the last moments of Kasturba and Bapu. Kanu was forbidden by Bapu from capturing Kasturba’s last moments as she lay dying on his lap. And when Nathuram Godse struck in Delhi on January 30, 1948, Kanu Gandhi was in Naokhali in Bengal, where his granduncle had ordered him to stay.