On April 7, 1930, as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi went about his day, Swiss photographer Walter Bosshard captured his movements. One photograph shows Gandhi reading The Times of India in the morning, and another shows him having a meeting with his followers over a cup of tea.
Bosshard published an account of his interactions with the Mahatma in the German magazine Münchner Illustrierte Presse in May 1930: “When I reached the top [of the stairs], a smiling Gandhi held out his right hand, holding a bowl in the other hand that was full to the brim.” The bowl contained onion soup, his breakfast, and as Gandhi proceeded to finish it, Bosshard got a shot.
Some of the photographs taken on that day are on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi as part of an exhibition titled Envisioning Asia: Gandhi and Mao in the Photographs of Walter Bosshard. The show also includes Bosshard’s portraits of Mao Zedong, the Communist leader who founded the People’s Republic of China. The exhibition, curated by Indian art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha along with Peter Pfrunder of the Swiss Foundation for Photography to which Bosshard’s archive belongs, is on display till October 30.
Bosshard’s portraits show the extent to which he and his camera were allowed into Gandhi’s personal space. There are images of Gandhi shaving with a Gillette razor, and of him laughing as he reads a satirical newspaper article. Bosshard was even allowed to photograph a sleeping Gandhi, provided he didn’t disturb him. “If you can do it quietly, you can try,” a young man guarding the door told Bosshard. “But don’t wake him, he very much needs his rest.”
“This [form] of photojournalism started in the 1930s, and Bosshard was among the first to promote this kind of political reportage,” said Sinha. “At this time, new illustrated magazines had a need for storytelling with images, and Bosshard knew how to condense images with information. It is why he was sent to cover this very important event of the Dandi March. According to his own book, Indien kämpft! (India is fighting), Bosshard travelled 20,000 km across India by car and train, and spent most of this time on the move. He spent only a few days with Gandhi, and got access to him because he was well informed and was intellectually able to relate to him.”
Bosshard had arrived in Dandi, a coastal village in Gujarat, on April 6, 1930. It was also the day when Gandhi, after walking for 26 days, had broken the salt law as an act of civil disobedience against the British Raj. Bosshard was encouraged by Sarojini Naidu, a close confidante of Gandhi, to go visit him at the camp. His images are unique in that they were taken more than 15 years before Henri Cartier-Bresson or Margaret Bourke-White, the other famous Western photographers who photographed Gandhi, made their way to India. In Bosshard’s portraits, the iconic Gandhi imagery, including the spinning, is already visible. “On one hand, you could read about the powerful political leader, the man who challenged the British Empire, while on the other, Bosshard’s photographs introduced a simple, modest-looking person with everyday needs, who reflected with philosophical dignity on absolute essentials,” said Pfrunder.
The real value of Bosshard’s work is apparent in the “micro-stories”, as Pfrunder calls them, that the photographer noted down and preserved in a box of negatives. These include, for instance, the time that Gandhi spilled his breakfast after reading something funny in the newspaper, or how Bosshard struggled to reload his camera to capture each movement made by Gandhi while spinning thread. “He must have felt intuitively that, at that moment, Gandhi was doing something with incredible symbolic power,” said Pfrunder.
During his time in India, Bosshard also looked at the slowly strengthening civil disobedience movement. He captured the protests in various cities, such as Bombay and Mathura, focusing on the posters, Congress caps and the multitudes shouting slogans.
At the exhibition, Gandhi’s images sit next to frames containing portraits of Mao Zedong, whom Bosshard photographed around eight years later.
Sinha feels that the juxtaposition works despite the two personalities being different. Gandhi took the path of civil disobedience and non-violence, while Mao favoured the method of violent revolution and military force. “There are similarities in the photographic style because these are Bosshard’s personal portrayals of political movements,” she said. “He visited both figures at a very crucial moment in history. They were not in power at the time, but building up a movement. Both figures have a strong sensitivity to symbols and have made iconic images for not just their own persona but also for the movement. Then it’s the way people dress, the way they gather for instructions from their leader as, for instance, the caves of Yan’an, or the spinning of thread with Gandhi. These are symbols of setting up a movement from the very base.”
Envisioning Asia: Gandhi and Mao in the Photographs of Walter Bosshard is on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Saket, New Delhi, till October 30.