Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Becoming the Salt of Our Land: At Dandi
(Morning at Navsari)
(Somu Desai at the steps of Saifee Villa, Dandi)
(JohnyML, Anubhav Nath and Somu Desai with Panchkaka nee Vadi members)
(JohnyML at Dandi Seashore)
(Anubhav Nath at Dandi Seashore)
(Gandhi Memorial Sculpture in front of Saifee Villa at Dandi)
(Salt Satygraha Memorial at Dandi)
(Acharya Dhirubhai Patel of Vinay Mandir, Dandi)
(Gandhiji's headquarters at Karadi. It was from here Gandhiji was arrested)
(Akshay Bhai Naik, JohnyML and Anubhav Nath with local kids at Salt Satyagrah Memorial at Dharasana)
(Anubhav Nath collecting salt at Dharasana)
(JohnyML and Anubhav Nath at a Salt Heap in Dharasana)
(Anubhav Nath driving a Tractor at Dharasan Salt Plant)
(Sunset at Dharasana)
5th November 2009. Navsari. Today is a big day for us. Dandi is a few kilometers away. For Gandhiji, and now for us too, this is a transit space. Before reaching the remote Dandi, Gandhiji had visited two more villages next to this diamond trade centre, namely Vijalpur and Matwad.
There is something called destiny, whether you like it or not. From the hotel room window, I and Somu Desai look down at the street. On our front, behind a few blocks of buildings, we get a birds-eye-view vision of a huge building, which is a Parsee School.
Navsari is one of the first few places the Parsees in early 16th century made their homes. I remember my encounter with a ghost in the Parsee dominated Oliver Street in Mumbai, the FALCAT camp that I conceptualized in Parsee settlement in Udwada. It seems that destiny is taking me and my friends to the places which fall naturally into our research interests.
As I said in one of the earlier postings, Navsari is a traditional trade centre of diamonds. The adjoining Surat is a textile centre. A few kilometers from Navsari, there is another village called Bardoli, which according to Akshay Bhai Naik is a ghost town. Most of the people from this village have migrated to western countries. They all have contributed to their home lands by building concrete mansions all over. They are all vacant now. Once in a year they come back, spend a few weeks here and go back to the lands of their choice.
In India there are several places like Bardoli now. Udwada is one prime example. So is the interim village between the north and south of Partapur in Rajasthan, where the Bohra Muslim community ‘lives’. All the streets in this village too are lined by thickly built building, but all permanently abandoned by its owners who have migrated to foreign countries. In Kerala, on either sides of the highway that takes you from Kochi to Kottayam, you see several huge mansions, which are totally vacant and waiting for their owners to come back. There is a difference between the NRIs in some parts of Kerala and the NRIs from other parts of India. While the NRIs from other parts prefer to keep their houses empty, in Kerala, if these buildings are located near tourist spots, they rent it out as temporary/seasonal guest houses and make money out of it. Goa, Jaipur and the townships around the metros in India too are developing this tendency of building mansions and leaving them for annual visits in the name of investments.
Later we would realize that Dandi too has become a NRI backyard for dumping their money as concrete and enamel monstrosities.
Akshay Bhai Naik has already arranged our visit to some important ‘Gandhi spots’ in Dandi and its neighborhood. We are told that we would be accompanied by a Gandhian activist in our onward journey.
Panchkaka nee Vadi is one place where Gandhiji rested and gave a speech just before reaching Dandi on 5th April 1930. This small piece of land with two old buildings now houses a few Gandhian residents and a khadi co-operative society.
Late Dilkush Bhai is the founder of Panchkaka nee Vadi. Educated in West, Dilkush Bhai became interested in Gandhian principles and started working towards the propagation of Khadi and Gandhian philosophy. He spent his life in this campus and met politicians and other visiting people and spoke to them relentlessly on Gandhian principles. Now one part of the humble building from where the co-operative society functions is converted into a Dilkush Bhai Museum. Through fading photographs and panels written in Gujarati, this museum tells the story of Dilkush Bhai Diwanji and his involvement with Gandhism and freedom struggle. From the pictures we understand all the notable personalities who gained us our independence had visited this humble dwelling.
We meet Gosai Bhai Patel, Vallabhai Manilal Shah and Komuben Ambelal at Panchkak nee Vadi. When we reach there, they have already taken their position under a huge mango tree.
Gosai Bhai Patel is an ex-MLA from the region. A staunch Gandhian throughout his life, Gosai Bhai, watched Gandhiji from a distance in 1930. He was just 11 years old then. But the memories are still vivid. While growing up, though attracted in Gandhian non-violence principle, Gosai Bhai involved in a few violent attacks against British rule. He recounts how he and his friends successfully attacked a police station and released the captives. Once, he and his friends tried to blow up a railway bridge. But thanks to ‘lack of technological know-how’ the explosion made a sound but no bridge was fallen. Later Gosai Bhai became a strong follower of Gandhism. He writes booklets on Gandhism and is still active in social work, despite his failing health.
Vallabhai Shah is a freedom fighter. But he does not carry an official record on that. He is a die-hard Gandhian. At the age of 85, a bit hard at hearing, Vallabh Bhai gets up at four in the morning and after prayer he spends one hour at charkha making yarn. This has been on for ages. According to him India’s problems stem from the abandoning of Gandhian principles. While demonstrating yarn making for us, he severely criticizes the current Narendra Modi government in Gujarat. ‘Call Gandhi Back’, that is the motto of Vallabh Bhai. He too writes booklets on Gandhian ways of life in Gujarati language and lives in Panchkaka nee Vadi.
Another occupant at Panchkaka nee Vadi is Komuben Ambelal. Born in Baruch, Komuben became an active follower of Gandhiji when she was in her college. She courted arrest several times and led the women in her region to non-violent resistance programs. She too works on charkha every day and spends time in doing social work.
Karuna Ben is our guide for the day. Born to a Khadi activist, she was called to Panchkaka nee Vadi after her education and ever since she works for the co-operative Khadi society near Navsari and lives in Panchkaka nee Vadi. She must be in her early forties but she has the aura of an elder sister and she keeps talking about things.
We head for Dandi Beach, where Gandhiji did his famous law breaking on 5th April 1930.
Anubhav Nath breaks into Vaishnav Janato. Karuna Ben looks at him with curiosity and love. Raju Bhai, our driver smiles through the rear view mirror. He has become accustomed to our antics. Somu Desai trains his camera at the sights of his liking.
There are two pictures/narratives in history that are juxtaposed to create a single narrative about the law breaking act of Gandhiji in Dandi. On 5th April 1930, he reached Dandi beach with his 78 followers. Thousands of people had already come from different places. On the same day, Gandhiji did not make salt from the sea water. He took a dip in the sea and spoke to the people. Then he walked a few meters towards east where Saifee Villa was located. Saifee Villa belonged to the leader of Dawood Bohra community, Syedna Taher Saifuddin Shaheb. Gandhiji stayed there for the night and his followers stayed in the tents and makeshift huts along the beach.
It was in front of Saifee Villa Gandhiji made salt on 6th April 1930. The famous photograph of Gandhiji bending over and picking up salt is actually clicked just outside the courtyard of this villa. However, Gandhiji’s dip at Dandi beach and his picking up salt near by on the next day are fused into one narrative in most of the historical writing.
Why Gandhiiji did not make salt at the beach? Reason is simple; practically it is impossible as the beaches have moving waters.
Salt pellets are deposited only when the saturated saline water from the sea is stored in some places and left there for evaporation for a considerable amount of time.
Dandi village had several creeks at that time. During high tide the saline water from the Arabian Sea rushed into these creeks and remained there for months. Once the evaporation is over these creeks were filled with salt crystals. In front of Saifee Villa there was a salt creek. Gandhiji picked up salt from there.
The same spot from where Gandhiji picked up salt as a symbolic gesture of breaking law now has an engraved marble memorial and on the right side of it, there is a life size sculpture of Gandhiji picking up salt. The sculpture does not look aesthetically done at all.
After Mahatma Gandhi’s death in 1948, Saifuddin Shaheb requested the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru to receive his villa as a donation to the nation. He wanted the villa to be converted into a Dandi memorial museum. Today this building houses a museum full of photographs and footnotes from the life of Mahatma Gandhi.
We take a dip in the sea. We enact the juxtaposed pictures from history by bending over the waves and picking up wet sand.
Inside Saifee Villa, along with the wind laden with the fragrance of sea we inhale history. Anubhav is silent for a while. His pyjama is all wet and he keeps trying to roll it up to make his movement smoother, but in vain.
Vinay Mandir is a famous educational institution with girls as day scholars and boys as resident scholars. Run by Dandi Namak Satyagrah Smarak Trust, with Rajmohan Gandhi as the Chairman and Acharya Dhirubhai Patel as Secretary, this school imparts education to all the village kids from Dandi and surrounding villages.
We have our lunch from the school mess. The food is simple and tasty. Karuna Ben has already brought her lunch box, which she shares with all of us. In such occasions we are comfortable in self helpings. But Karuna Ben does not allow us to move. She serves us, pours water in glasses and keeps chatting.
After lunch, Acharya Dhirubhai Patel meets at the prayer hall. At the age of 79, Dhirubhai Patel exudes the energy of a fifty year old man. Born in 1930, exactly the year his village witnessed the pivotal incident in the Independence Struggle of India, Dhirubhai got his formal education from Gujarat Vidyapeeth, Ahmedabad. After education, he came back to Dandi, and worked towards establishing Vinay Mandir. His efforts were not in vain, as one can see how this school has become a thing of pride for every villager.
“The whole of Gujarat coast line has got high saline saturation. Why did Gandhi select Dandi as his destination? Before going into that why did he choose salt as a medium to break the British law?” Dhirubhai Patel asks us with a benevolent smile on his face.
Perhaps, we have some answers after so much of reading on Salt Satygraha. But the answers Dhirubhai Patel gives us reveal interesting nuances.
First of all the choice of Dandi- Thanks to the presence of too many creeks and the regular saline deposit on earth, it was impossible for anything to grow in Dandi. Considered to be one of the most backward areas in India, Dandi had only two pucca building around, of which one is the Saifee Villa, where Gandhiji stayed.
A totally barren land in Dandi had forced the people to migrate to other places. Only a few handful of people stayed back in the village and they lived in makeshift huts. Many had migrated to South Africa. During Gandhiji’s stay in SA, he became acquainted with several of them and heard a lot about this place. On his return to India in 1915, many from this region had followed him back to India. For Gandhiji, in this way, Dandi was a right place for his experiment.
When Gandhiji came calling, Dandi was just a barren land. In 1951, a check dam was built to prevent the sea water entering in the mainland. That made all difference. All that greenery you see here today is post 1950s phenomenon. However, despite the changes, people still migrate to other countries. Dandi is currently going through a real estate boom. With the Heritage Road, the story is going to change completely.
Why salt? It was not just the reason that salt was used by everyone and the tax on it was 2000 times more than the actual production cost. Dhirubhai tells us a different story: Primarily, the British Government levied tax heavily mainly because they wanted to continue a tradition. A strange tradition.
When the East India Company was established, many ships used to come to Indian shores to collect spices and other materials. But an empty ship sailing across turbulent seas would have ended in shipwreck. Hence to balance the weight of the ship, the English people used to fill the hull of the ship with salt from England. They unloaded it in Indian shores. They did not want to waste the salt they brought. They wanted to sell it. But in India salt was the cheapest consumer item. To make the English salt cheap and capture the market, the British administration raised the price of the Indian salt and automatically the English salt became cheap.
Even after the ships changed technology, the salt pricing continued as if it were an unchangeable tradition. Gandhiji wanted to challenge this.
Jawaharlal Nehru and many other compatriots had expressed their doubts regarding the choice of salt as a symbol of breaking the British law. Their doubt was founded on the fact that salt making was possible only in the coastal region and in other land locked areas it would become a problem to ‘make’ salt. The skeptics thought that mass mobilization would have become impossible if salt had been the symbol.
According to Dhirubhai, this emphasis on salt was Gandhiji’s political strategy. He knew that if a centralized symbolism was not available, and other symbols were chosen for different regions, the non-violent nature of his movement would have been flouted by the masses with no proper leadership that understood Gandhiji’s principles to the core. Secondly, he wanted to control the movement completely for a greater purpose. He had trained his satyagrahis. And he knew that the Indian masses were not prepared to take up non-violent modes the way Satyagrahis did. It was imperative to control the situation either by practical means or by emotional symbolism. Gandhiji chose both and controlled the movement from Gujarat shores. It was interesting to see the people in Delhi and elsewhere making salt on the same day, with salt water made out of the salt bought from the market and boiling it in cauldrons in streets and households.
We become silent before the immensity of history and the nuances of it. Anubhav breaks the silence with a question.
“You studied in Gujarat Vidyapeeth, where making khadi yarn in charkha still is a part of the syllabus and practice. Do you train your students in Vidya Mandir also on this? And what is future of khadi as a symbol?”
“Khadi keval vastr nahin, khadi ek vichar hai (Khadi is not just cloth, it is a philosophy,” Dhirubhai smiles. “Gandhiji was not emphasizing on non-cooperation with the British Raj, using Khadi as a medium and boycotting the mill clothes from Britain. He was looking at the economic aspect too. Depending on khadi cloth would have helped at least eight families to share the profit in successive layers of production and consumption. Even today it is possible. Khadi is not turn into an industry even today. It is still in co-operative and small scale industry sector. If it could be made into an industry, if every citizen in India buys Khadi along with other clothes, it would have major economic results in the poor sections in our country. Khadi and its proliferation should be seen as a philosophical move,” he concludes.
We don’t know how to thanks to this man of experience and vision. Humbled by the meeting, we say goodbye to Dhirubhai. His smile is still etched in our minds.
Karadi is a few kilometers away from Dandi. It was here Gandhiji set up his temporary office to manage the ongoing salt satyagraha. At Karadi, Gandhiji made a small hut and lived there for twelve days.
The British authorities did not want to arrest Gandhiji immediately after the Salt law breaking. They were taking time. Sensing the mood of the country, they knew for sure that an immediate arrest Gandhiji would end up in mass violation of law and order. Hence, the British wanted to give the impression that they were still watching but okay with the situation.
Gandhiji lived in a small hut. The basement of it is still present there. Every year, during the winter season the authorities re-make the hut in order to evoke Gandhiji’s memories.
On 22nd April 1930, at mid-night, the Frontier Mail Express stopped near Karadi, though there was no railway station. It was a planned move. Gandhiji was arrested in the mid night and without disturbing the villagers’ night, the authorities took Gandhiji into the awaiting train. The train again stopped at Borivili station in Bombay and from there he was taken to Pune by a taxi. No public statement was made on the arrest of Gandhiji. By day break, he was sent to the Aga Khan Palace and from there to Yerwada Jail.
Now at the spot from where Gandhiji was put into the train, there is a railway station adequately named as ‘Gandhi Smriti Railway Station.’
I and Anubhav sit at the basement of Gandhiji’s hut. On our left there is a huge architectural monstrosity designed by some government architect, which now houses a gallery of photographs. It is closed for renovation and we are denied entry.
From Karadi we leave for Dharasan, near Dungri station. This place with full of salt fields was selected by Gandhiji for continuing with his law breaking movement. But he could not go there as he was arrested.
However, Gandhiji had made arrangements for continuing with the struggle. Abbas Tyebji, the veteran Satyagrahi, was anointed by Gandhiji as the leader of this movement in the eventuality of an arrest. By the time Sarojini Naidu had joined the team at Dandi. Once Gandhiji was arrested Abbas Tyebji and Sarojini Naidu proceeded to Dharasana and mobilized the people.
Though there were a few incidents of breaking salt law at Dharasana, the authorities did not allow it to continue. They arrested both Sarojini Naidu and Abbas Tyebji. These arrested heralded the closure of salt satyagraha officially. But it was the beginning of a huge movement, which as Gandhiji had envisioned, yielded the independence of India.
Sarojini Naidu and Abbas Tyebji lived in a hut at Dharasana. Now there is a small memorial structure.
Kids from the neighborhood collect keys of the memorial and open the door for us. A structure that reminds anybody of a memorial tomb of Mughal tradition is now collapsing from inside. The boys apply a lot of force to open and close the door.
We drive towards the Dharasana salt plants. Anubhav collects a bottle of salt pellets from a heap. Then we walk across the vast fields where some laborers prepare the ground for collecting sea water.
Anubhav and Somu go near the workers and discuss the ways of making salt. From a distance I could see Anubhav graduating from his Mercedes to a tractor. He drives it and Somu clicks several of those Kodak Moments.
By January end and February beginning, the salt plants will be full of salt, the way snow covers higher altitudes during winter.
Sun goes down behind the salt fields. We become silhouettes of moving bodies. We walk back to our car.
For us this visit is all about looking for avenues of aesthetic mediation and interpretation of events, places and history.
Gandhiji has always been a part of aesthetic debate in India. Dandi March is one of the wide reaching symbols/metaphors that Gandhiji had created.
Here our aim is to bring that metaphor a bit closer to the living contexts of our contemporary artists. We want the artists to leave their studios for a few days to travel along the same routes Gandhiji had taken for Dandi March.
Dandi was an experience for us, which I have tried my best to translate into verbal terms here. But when artists visit the same areas, they would see it differently.
This would result into a new visual discourse on Gandhiji. We don’t want to connect our project with any propaganda. We don’t want to take any abstract position or notion by calling our project as ‘Satyagraha’ or something like that. To our surprise, while on the road, we realized that the project would fall in the 80th anniversary of Salt Satyagraha. It is quite a coincidence. No deliberations meant at all.
Contemporary art has a tendency to overtake history with a lighting pace. But we want the contemporary art to take this lighting trip through the actualities of our history, perhaps of the stories of it too.
We don’t want to justify or condemn Gandhiji. Our intention is not to say that Gandhiji is the only example to be followed. Our intention is to see Gandhiji again, feel the ways he walked and experience the people whom he met.
There would be a new discourse, we are sure, outside the written history or established aesthetic discourse on Gandhiji, with this visit.
We want to strike the same route again, this time with the artists, sometime in January/February 2010.
We want to taste the salt of our land. We want to become the salt of our land.
(Pictures by Somu Desai)