Monday, November 9, 2009

At Sabarmati Ashram: Looking for Gandhiji

(Gandhiji's room at Sabarmati Ashram)

(a view of Hruday Kunj at Sabarmati Ashram)

(anubhav nath with kishorlal bhai at Hruday Kunj)

(johnyml signing the visitors' book at Hruday Kunj)

There was a strange sense of excitement that I and Anubhav Nath shared throughout the month of October. We had been looking forward to our trip to Dandi. Whenever we met at Delhi’s Bengali Market over cups of cold coffee or at some exhibition opening we exchanged this feeling of exhilaration exactly the way a betrothed couple exchanged covert glances on a day date.

On 3rd November 2009, we took a morning flight and reached Ahmedabad at 9 am. The morning was warm enough against our expectations on winter. We asked the pre-paid taxi to take us to Sabarmati Ashram. The cabbie was a bubbling young guy, who was willing to give us tips about things around.

Ahmedabad- once this city was called ‘Manchester of the East’. Perhaps the textile industry is not so strong as it was during the late 19th and early 20th century, Ahmedabad has a special place in contemporary history of Indian industries. The roads are wide and more or less clean. At every junction there is a public statue of one or the other national leaders. One could feel that there is a functional government in place as the city looks clean and nearly out of chaos.

We take a left turn from the main road and the car goes down into an underpass. The whole stretch of this bridge and underpass are covered with mosaic murals. The murals tell the story of Mahatma Gandhi as a young Porbandar boy to the Father of Modern India. Impressive work.

Later we are told that these murals are done by Rajesh Sagara, son of Piraji Sagara, a noted modern artist from Ahmedabad. Rajesh Sagara is a faculty member of CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology) and when the Municipal Corporation of Ahmedabad wanted the bridges and underpasses to be converted into public monuments, Rajesh took the lead to implement the idea of making a visual history of the city through Gandhiji’s life. In another part of the city, another bridge and underpass carry a series of murals depicting the pictures from the life of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, another proud son of Gujarat.

I remember my trips in Delhi’s metro. Despite the able leadership of E.Sreedharan, somehow, the visual decorations on the plush metro stations are just below standard. These murals are done by the Delhi College of Art students on commission. In London Tube, each station has a mural depicting the story of that particular place, with visual representations of industry and culture related to that place. Both the Metro administration and Delhi Urban Art Commission are huge flops in the case of creating a visual history in public places. They can learn a lot from Ahmedabad.

Gandhiji is the theme of Ahmedabad and the city knows what Gandhiji is all about. But are they particularly interested in Gandhiji in these days?

With the growing number of vehicles and fashionable chic and clothes all around, we get a feeling that Gandhiji’s style of life is the last thing which would inspire the new generation.

Anubhav has dressed for the occasion. He, in his khadi kurta and pyjama looks like an anachronism walking on two legs, the same way the khadi bhandars embroidering the city streets like small little samples of museums.

Gandhiji has not yet become an industry in India. Gandhiji is still a reverent memory. We want Gandhiji to be frozen in time. We want Gandhiji as a ritual. We have forgotten Gandhiji as a corporate thinker, a law maker, a pragmatist driven by humanitarian values. Follow Gandhiji, we can make a big and ‘good’ corporate world where each human being has his/her dignified role to play.

Remember John Ruskin who said Unto the Last. That was Gandhiji’s philosophy of common good. Gandhiji’s corporatism started from this thought, through co-operation with people and non-co-operation with the oppressive governments.

At the threshold of Sabarmati Ashram, we discuss the need for doing common good. And we look for an accommodation. Taking cues from Thomas Weber’s book we have this feeling that we get accommodation within Sabarmati Ashram. At least for a day we would live like a Satyagrahi.

At the bookstall that doubles up as a reception desk we ask for accommodation in Nandini Guest House. ‘It is a museum. It no longer accommodates guests,’ says a khadi clad man behind the counter. We understand what we have asked for. Nandini Guest house is one of the humble architectural units in Sabarmati Ashram, where Gandhiji’s guests like Dr.Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru and so on lived when they came calling.

Understanding our folly, we get out of the campus and a few meters away we find a hotel. It is better that I don’t go into the details of that hotel. Keeping our luggage there, we get back to Sabarmati Ashram.

After his return to India in 1915, Gandhiji founded his Satyagraha Ashram in Kochrab near Ahmedabad. He traveled all over India to understand the soul of India. In the following years he gave leadership to the Champaran Movement (1917) and the Kheda Peasant Movement (1918). It was time to set up a larger establishment for furthering his works. Contributed by the mill owners in Ahmedabad, Gandhiji converted the 30 odd acres of land near the Sabarmati River bordering the old city of Ahmedabad, into his Ashram.

Kishorlal Bhai, who works as a charkha demonstrator remembers, “The old city ended up at the bridge over the river. This was a like jungle. Gandhiji cleaned up the place and started working on buildings in 1917.” The river down there, where once Gandhiji and his ashramites used to do their daily ablutions, is now a muddy canal with the city’s waste dumped to it.

The government has a plan to clean up the Sabarmati River and create river front cities on either side of the river, following the examples of Korea and some western countries.

Hrudaya Kunj, where Gandhiji and Kasturba lived, is the central house in the campus. Now it has Gandhiji’s charka and writing table as memorials. This has two living rooms, a guest room, bathrooms, a kitchen and a huge veranda. Kishorlal Bhai sits there and makes yarn in his charkha. He is a government employee.

The lady who is also an English speaking guide tells us many stories about Gandhiji’s life there and informs us about the places that we must visit during the journey. She even tells us about a goat, whose milk Gandhiji had drunk during the Dandi March, and the successive generations of it could be found in one of those villages.

Sabarmati Ashram has Vinoba Kutir and Mira Kutir, where Vinoba Bhave and Madelaine Slade had lived. There is a prayer field (Prarthana Bhoomi), Nandini Guest House and Magan Nivas. Once a barren land, Gandhiji had converted this land into a sylvan dwelling place.

On 12th March 1930, when Gandhiji left Sabarmati Ashram with his 78 satyagrahis, he had taken a vow that he would never return to the ashram without gaining complete independence for India. He gained independence for India but he could never come back to his abode as his life was taken away by bullets on 30th January 1948 in Delhi.

Sabarmati Ashram has got a modern complex now, which houses the book stall, archives, reference library, exhibition halls of paintings and photographs, micro chip film library etc. Mr.Modi, who is the head of administration, speaks to us about Dandi March. He has not seen Gandhiji. But once he came to Sabarmati, he was taken in. Modi has spent several decades now in Sabarmati Ashram.

Anubhav asks a lady who works in the bookstall for some directions. ‘I hardly leave this place and I don’t know much about Ahmedabad,’ she tells us with a smile.

After a late lunch, we visit Gujarat Vidya Peeth established by Gandhiji for imparting vocational training to students. Gandhiji’s lieutenants were recruited from amongst the students of Gujarat Vidya Peeth during the Dandi March.

There are around 3000 students studying here today- from school to Ph.D. Both boys and girls wear Khadi uniforms. They all carry portable charkhas. Every day from 11 am to 11.45 am, each and every person inside the campus makes yarn in his/her charkha.

“It is not a vocational training anymore as the times have changed,” says Mr.Khimani, the vice chancellor of Gujarat Vidya Peeth. “It is a way of meditation. A way of life. Students do not continue with khadi once they are out of this school. But they learn the values of Gandhiji,” he tells us.

Khadi has become almost impractical now. Gandhiji had his own reasons to promote Khadi- self reliance, boycotting British products, supporting Indian mill owners, imparting vocational training to the villagers, identifying with the poorest of the poor in the country and so on.

For Gandhiji, charkha and khadi were metaphors as well as practical weapons. Today, in a changed context, it becomes almost impossible to make yarn in Charkha. But Gandhiji is not just about khadi and charkha.

Mr.Khimani shows us his three months of yarn. It would hardly make two meters of cloth.

Anubhav wonders how many human working hours and energy might have spent on making the kurta that he is wearing today.

The students look at us with some kind of curiosity. After Tihar experience, we feel that they are also in some sort of disciplining system.

Later, we visit Navjeevan Press, the publication division that Gandhiji established for publishing propaganda literature (later Gandhian philosophy) for uniting India through discussing the country’s illnesses and strengths.

Navjeevan Press does not work for profit. It is subsidized by the government and the Trust. Gandhiji’s works are published and many translated versions are published from here. Gandhiji’s autobiography ‘Story of My Experiment with Truth’ is published in around 16 regional languages and many have gone into several editions.

Gandhiji’s literature was scattered and the copyrights issues were bogging the publications down till a few years back. Then the Trust got into action and bought back all the copyrights from private parties, and a balanced editorial committee was formed for regular publication of Gandhi literature.

Back in hotel room, we think about Gandhiji of his times and Gandhiji of today. One thing is for sure, one cannot escape the magnetism of this man. The moment you stand before a photograph of Gandhiji, it draws you into it. You remember all those pains that he took on his body and spirit for alleviating the people of their pains. As Albert Einstein once said, it would be difficult to believe that a man of flesh and blood like this walked on this earth.

Gandhiji needs a new interpretation. For us, Gandhiji looks like the ultimate example of the corporate thinking, selfless political action, futuristic social planning and an equal society. Gandhiji should be interpreted and understood by using contemporary tools of knowledge and thinking. Gandhiji has a lot to tell us even today. Gandhiji has to be translated into practical terms of today’s world. We need a museumized Gandhiji, at the same time need a Gandhiji in action.

I am not a recent convert who preaches fiercely than the one who is naturally born into. So is Anubhav. We have been initiated to Gandhian reading several years back as students and enthusiasts of human philosophy. But this project gives us a particular context and framework to see Gandhiji again with a renewed interest.


Benjy said...

Very inspiring. At a time when an entire generation knows Gandhiji through the antics of Munna Bhai, there is an urgent need for the Nation to rediscover Gandhi ji. Your write up will inspire many more of us think seriously about Gandhi ji and his relevance in the present troubled times.

JohnyML said...

Hi Benji,
thanks for those nice words.
hope our efforts would create some results at least in the field of visual arts...
best regards

SS said...

enThanks so much for noticing and mentioning about my mural work on Gandhiji's life at Shahibag underpass, Ahmedabad. I am touched.
Rajesh Sagara

Naveen said...

Happy to come across your post about this place and Man.