The strange alchemy between the Italian photographer Tina Modotti, a woman before her time, a revolutionary and an artist par excellence and Pandurang Khankhoje, the Indian political exile and dedicated scientist is very difficult to define. Modotti had arrived in Mexico in the company of Edward Weston, the famous American photographer in 1923, and straight away plunged into the ebullient and vibrant artistic world of Mexico City. The Mexican tradition of muralist paintings and frescoes was revived by the vigourous work of painters like Diego Rivera. Modotti, an artist and photographer in her own right, posed for Diego Rivera in one of his major works for the murals of the School of Agriculture of Chapingo. She was painted as "Germination" (1925) and the "Oppressed Earth", depicting Modotti in all her sensual beauty; looking away, in a sense opposing her, were the political forces of the day. Not since the Renaissance had any country seen such an explosion of art; the past history of a nation and the faces of the new order, the decadence of society and the struggles of the poor, depicted with all the force and expression where only truth can prevail.
The Mexican catalyst
Diego Rivera, the greatest Mexican painter and muralist, was the catalyst that brought these two interesting personalities together. Rivera had developed a fondness and respect for Khankhoje’s work and indeed small, but significant, agricultural details can be seen in some of his major works. After his return from Russia, the artist had developed an interest in the Russian Revolution and this was another common meeting ground with Khankhoje. Rivera supported the Free Schools of Agriculture started by the Indian and was one of its major patrons. It was only natural that Khankhoje, serving as a Professor of Genetics in the same school, would meet and interact with Rivera, as the artist had already painted him in his mural in the Ministry of Education.
Khankhoje, the central figure of the painting, is distributing bread to the lowliest and the poor, in what may have been an "allegory of the biblical Last Supper, or the multiplication of loaves", wrote the Mexican historian Eva Uchmany. The artist, the photographer and the scientist were greatly moved by the poverty and the great inequality that existed in Mexican society in the 1920s, between the haves and the have-nots, and were deeply committed to alleviate this problem. Rivera, by his magnificent art, and Modotti, by her activism and photography, whereas Khankhoje, more practical perhaps, dedicated his research to the improvement of crops and by opening Free Schools of Agriculture for the farmers in Mexico 1928.
Pandurang Khankhoje at the head of the table, mural by Diego Rivera, Ministry of Education, Mexico City.
Pandurang Khankhoje had vowed to develop agriculture and help feed the poorest in the world. A dedicated nationalist, revolutionary and a founder member of the Ghadar Movement, Khankhoje had attempted to bring Independence to India during the First World War, by bringing a revolutionary army via Indian Baluchistan. The attempt though failed, after facing the might of the British Army in Iran and Baluchistan, but the revolutionary fervour did not die and he channeled his energies into developing the science of food, hoping to bring plenty to the neglected farmers of the world. Mexico, a great supporter of the democratic tradition, gave him asylum and work. In Chapingo, he launched into serious studies on the cultivation of disease resistant varieties of wheat, and the origin and evolution of maize, the staple food of Mexico. In no time at all he was dubbed in the local press as the Wizard of Chapingo and the Hindu savant, the man who created wonders with nature.
Pandurang Khankhoje in his corn laboratory.
Photography was to be the medium that brought Khankhoje and Modotti together in a firm friendship based on art and sensitivity towards the poor and dispossessed. Inspired by the tireless dedication and selfless work of the Indian, Modotti photographed some of his experiments and illustrated the dry scientific texts with wonderful photographs. An ear of pomegranate com, or maize without a kernel, poetry and light in an ear of corn that carried the dreams of Khankhoje, dreams of plenty as the com was replete with grains; plenty for a country that had suffered the ravages of famine and exploitative colonialism. The artistic depiction of high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat developed by Khankhoje caught the imagination of Modotti in a stark photograph in black and white, bread for the world, an ideal shared by all.
Pandurang Khankhoje, new variety of corn. Signed by Tina Modotti
The ideals of communism and a socialist society were in those days, after the great October Revolution, the dogma of many intellectuals. Modotti, Rivera and Khankhoje, idealists to the core, subscribed to this seductive philosophy and many a heated discussion would surely have taken place while Diego Rivera painted and Khankhoje helped mixing the paints. Modotti and Khankhoje shared a passion for photography. He had developed an interest in the early days of photography, and when in Iran took many a photograph; arid expanses of sand and ruins, interesting tribesmen, the ruins of Persepolis, carpet weaving, as well as photographs of the Revolutionary Persian Democratic Army during training, (1914-15) All this took shape right after the debacle of the revolutionary action during the First World War. Today there is an explosion of books and biographies writing about Tina Modotti, but strangely not much is found about the serious and dedicated scientist revolutionary, who whenever he could, recorded his scientific works and his adventurous exploration of Iran in the turbulent times of the Great War.
Mexico, after the revolution, was undergoing change and the resurgence of art and the ferment of scientific development brought together an Italian expatriate, a great Mexican painter and an exiled Indian revolutionary for a brief incandescent moment in Chapingo, Mexico. Pandurang Khankhoje had taken Mexico and its people to his heart and for more than 30 years worked for them and identified with the Mexican farmer. Indeed he saw himself as a Mexican Indian, a man of the people and never forgot them. The immortal images created by the painter Diego Rivera will undoubtedly live forever. Equally the photographic depiction, in black and white and in sepia, of Modotti of Khankhoje’s contribution to the world of agriculture, too will be a part of the Mexican folklore. It was a golden era, brief and evanescent as magical times usually are.
Savitri Sawhney is Pandurang Khankhoje's daughter.
Farmers at the Free School of Agriculture.
Inauguration of Emiliano Zapata Free School of Agriculture.
Woman playing the guitar at the inauguration of the Free School
Ear of corn, original experiment.
Diego Rivera photographed at the maize laboratory.
Pandurang Khankhoje in experimental fields.
Origin and evolution of maize.