Kanu Gandhi was born to Narandas Gandhi, a nephew of Mahatma Gandhi, and Jamuna Gandhi in 1917. Two years later the family moved to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, where Narandas worked as a manager. Kanu’s early years were spent here. He became a follower of Gandhi and was arrested for his participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement when he was only 15.
After the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, Gandhi decided not to return to Sabarmati till India achieved independence. After his release from prison Gandhi spent some time travelling around India. In 1934, at the invitation of his follower and industrialist, Jamnalal Bajaj, Gandhi came to Wardha, in Central India, and decided to take up residence in Segaon, a small village on its outskirts. He renamed his residence Sevagram and soon it was a bustling ashram. Though Kanu wanted to be a doctor, in 1936 he was persuaded by his father to join Gandhi’s personal staff at Sevagram supervising clerical, correspondence and accounting functions, becoming known as ‘Bapu’s Hanuman’. In 1944, on Kasturba’s wishes and Gandhi’s blessings, Kanu married Abhaben Chatterjee, who had been living at Sevagram with the Gandhis since she was 12. Abha came to be known as ‘one of Gandhi’s walking sticks’ along with Manu Gandhi, as Gandhi leaned on them while walking.
Kanu developed an interest in photography, perhaps due to his interaction with photographers and journalists who visited Gandhi and by looking at the photos they gifted him. Vinobha Bhave’s brother, Shivaji, while on a visit to Sevagram, was the first one to encourage Kanu to take up photography to capture events at the Ashram. At first Gandhi turned down Kanu, saying there were not enough funds, but later relented and requested his associate, the industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla, to help Kanu. GD Birla made a gift of Rs. 100 to Kanu, enough to buy a Rolliflex camera and a roll of film.
Gandhi imposed three conditions on Kanu for taking photographs of him: that he would never use a flash; that he would never ask him to pose; and that the Ashram would not fund his photography.
At the time of Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, Kanu was in Noakhali in East Bengal where he had been ordered by the Mahatma to stay back and continue his work. Abha was in Delhi with Gandhi and in fact he breathed his last in her arms. Gandhi’s death had a profound effect on Kanu and Abha’s lives. For Kanu, photography was no longer as important as the need to convey the Gandhian message. They continued to travel around India promoting and teaching Khadi, spinning and handicrafts. In between Kanu Gandhi continued with his photography, though sporadically. In 1956 Kanu and Abha moved to Rajkot where they ran the Kasturbadham and Rashtriyashala institutes. Kanu Gandhi died of a heart attack on 20 February 1986 while on a pilgrimage in Madhya Pradesh.
What Kanu Gandhi has left behind is a very private account of one of history’s most public figures.