As a self-taught photographer, Kanu Gandhi is best known for his personal and intimate documentation of the life of his grand-uncle, Mahatma Gandhi. He began photographing in 1936 when he became a member of the national leader’s staff at the Sevagram Ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra and documented several momentous as well as quotidian events during Mahatma Gandhi's last decade.
Gandhi lived at the Sabarmati Ashram as a child and became closely involved with the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi, eventually getting arrested at the age of 15 for his participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement. As he became a formal member of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal staff, he was encouraged by Shivaji Bhave – the brother of social reformer Vinoba Bhave – to take up photography and document events and life at the Sevagram Ashram. In 1936, he took up the task of documentation with a Rolliflex camera under strict conditions from Mahatma Gandhi that there would be no use of flash, no posing for photographs and no financial support from the Ashram for his work.
Due to his proximity to the leader, Gandhi’s photographs capture very intimate moments from Mahatma Gandhi’s day-to-day life, spanning the decade from 1936 to 1948, when his grand-uncle was assassinated. This was a little known archive as he never received credit for the nearly 2000 images he shot, many of which were often widely circulated. It was only in 1995 that the images and his contribution to the documentation of Mahatma Gandhi’s life were publicly highlighted and exhibited for the first time at the Leicestershire Museum & Art Gallery, UK. Following this, Prashant Panjiar, a photographer and editor of Outlook magazine, published a photo story featuring a selection of images sourced from the Gandhi family home in Gujarat. In 2015, Nazar Foundation released a monograph featuring forty two photographs by him and, in collaboration with the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, organised a travelling exhibition titled Kanu’s Gandhi, curated by Panjiar and Sanjeev Saith. The images are now housed at the Gandhi Research Foundation in Jalgaon.
Following Mahatma Gandhi’s death, which had a profound impact on him, Gandhi briefly continued pursuing photography before relocating to Rajkot with his wife. He passed away in Madhya Pradesh in 1986.
There has been some controversy regarding the ownership of Gandhi’s images. In 2012, several of his images resurfaced in a private sale of about 4600 photographs of Mahatma Gandhi by the UK-based auction house, Sotheby’s. The seller was a German collector, Petre Ruhe, and the images formed a part of a larger archive he’d assembled called The Gandhi Collection. Ruhe claims to have obtained the images directly from Gandhi’s wife, Abha Gandhi, in the 1980s. At the time of writing, it remains unclear whether Rühe’s collection was rightfully bought from the original holders of Gandhi’s images.
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