The photograph that makes it to the news is often one that describes the event, not the people in the picture. The photographer, however, is left with rejected shots that complete the story.
History, and fiction, can frequently both be constructed through these photographs.
An exhibition of unpublished images, soon to be held in Allahabad, hopes to do just that – reveal a side of India’s first and only female prime minister, Indira Gandhi.
Marking the advent of her birth centenary, the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust is launching a year-long campaign titled “I Am Courage” on November 19, Gandhi’s birthday. Apart from the exhibition of photographs, several cultural programmes have been scheduled to mark the occasion, including performances by folk dancers, stalls by regional craftsmen from across the country, and the launch of a website chronicling the highlights of Gandhi’s life before and during her time in office.
Of the nearly 30,000 photographs archived by the trust, 200 images will be on display at the exhibition, titled Indira: A Life Of Courage. Viewers might be familiar with some of the photographs but many, according to the co-curator, Pramod Kumar KG, are being made public for the first time.
“Indira Gandhi led a very public life, which has been documented extensively by photojournalists,” said Kumar. “Many of the images have come from the family’s own archives, some were sent to Indira Gandhi by journalists as gifts, or by foreign dignitaries she had visited. As a result, the archive that has been developed is a dynamic one and contains snippets of India’s visual history.”
While some images have discoloured over the decades, the collection has been carefully preserved for the most part. There are images from Gandhi’s younger days, spent at home with her father Jawaharlal Nehru, and her time as a student in Shantiniketan.
One of Kumar’s favourite images is one taken by Nehru. In it, Gandhi sits in her room at the Viswa Bharati University, with dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, her roommate at the time.
“A handwritten note on the back of the print credits Panditji as the photographer for this particular image,” said Kumar. “These are the images that tell us a more emotional, more human narrative that was happening around the main events.”
Light moments, such as the one where a father drops his daughter off at college, or one where Gandhi sits with Nehru, reading his biography, or the one where she shakes a leg with folk dancers from Nagaland, add layers to the narrative of a leader who remains controversial to this day.
Indira Gandhi was chosen to lead the Congress Party and sworn in as prime minister for the first time in 1966. She ran the country for three straight terms until 1977, and for a fourth term from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. Her reputation of being authoritarian worsened over the years, as she suspended the Constitution and imposed a state of Emergency.
Kumar said he had to depend on the Congress party chief and Gandhi’s daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, to identify some of the people and places in the photographs.
“Members of the Gandhi family were extremely involved in the setting up of the exhibition,” said Kumar. “A large chunk of the images do not have any information on where they have been photographed, by whom or who all are in the picture. Mrs Gandhi was able to help since she had been shown many of the pictures by Indira Gandhi herself.”
The Gandhis, he said, were keen to display pictures that placed Indira Gandhi amid large crowds. “That moment of contact with the people is important to them,” said Kumar. “There are photographs where she is surrounded by people, filling the frames.” Describing a picture shot in panorama, Kumar said that on first look it seems there are clouds behind her in the frame. “It’s only when we blew up the image, we realised that it was humanity till as far as the eye could see.”
A booklet to be released by Congress on her birthday describes Indira Gandhi as a “messiah of the masses”. According to a report on Firstpost, the Booklet, titled Indira Gandhi-A Life Of Struggle And Success, will attempt to justify Gandhi’s decision to declare Emergency from 1975-1977.
The article says: “Although, the result of 1977 was obvious and engraved in country’s political history, Congress’ publicity material lauds Gandhi for gracefully accepting the verdict and subsequently visiting the village of ‘Belchi in Bihar within a few months of her defeat, fording a river in flood on the back of an elephant to provide succour to the Dalits who had been subjected to the most unspeakable atrocities.’ It further takes on the Janata Dal government headed by Morarji Desai which the propaganda material says ‘hounded and persecuted Gandhi and even jailed her and conspired to invalidate the result of a by-election that brought her back to Parliament’.”