We are all familiar with the image of a smiling Mahatma Gandhi on our bank notes. Yet, this picture of him laughing with an unseen person while sitting on his bed at Birla House in Bombay in August 1942 offers the viewer a rare intimacy. It is part of a series of photographs of Gandhi in the last decade of his life, taken by his grand-nephew Kanu, which portray the leader from a personal rather than an iconic perspective.
Kanu Gandhi was born to Mahatma Gandhi's nephew Narandas and his wife Jamuna in 1917. Two years after his birth, the family moved to Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram, where Kanu spent his childhood. Though he wanted to be a doctor, he was persuaded by his father to join Mahatma Gandhi's personal staff at Sevagram, his ashram in Wardha, in 1936.
Over time, Kanu developed an interest in photography, possibly because of his meetings with journalists who visited Gandhi and presented him with photographs. When he requested Mahatma Gandhi for permission to photograph him and the ashram, he was turned down at first, being told that there were not enough funds. Later though, Gandhi asked his friend and associate, the industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla, to give Kanu ₹100 to buy a Rolliflex camera and his first roll of film.
Gandhi famously allowed Kanu to photograph him only under three conditions — that he wouldn't use a flash, ask him to pose or ask the ashram for funds. Eventually, Kanu managed to continue his hobby with the help of a monthly stipend from one of Gandhi's supporters and by selling photographs to newspapers.
Between 1936 and 1948, Kanu followed and photographed Gandhi's journeys across India. The resulting images taken by Kanu show Gandhi in a candid light, quite unlike the official photographs of him leading marches, attending meetings and talking to other political leaders. In contrast, Kanu focused on the quiet, everyday moments in his grand-uncle's busy life, giving us glimpses of the person behind the leader.
After Gandhi's death, Kanu continued travelling around India to promote khadi and handicrafts. He continued with photography, but his pictures of Gandhi gradually faded into obscurity.
The photographs were recently restored and exhibited in Delhi and Mumbai by the Photoink gallery and the Estate of Kanu Gandhi. Here is a selection of pictures from the collection.