At Home with Bapu
From around 1904, to be at home with Bapu meant to live communally, simply, and dedicating oneself to a life of service. Gandhi’s earliest experiments in this regard began in South Africa at the Phoenix Settlement, founded in 1904 outside Durban, and at Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg, established in 1910. On his permanent return to India in January 1915, Gandhi’s homes were explicitly named ashram (from Sanskrit āśrama, lit. hermitage). On 25 May 1915, he established the Satyagraha Ashram at Kochrab in a barrister’s bungalow (Fig. 1), relocating the small community in June 1917 to the banks of the Sabarmati river (Fig. 2). He ceased to live there after 12 March 1930. Today, both these former residences are major memorial sites, of which one may even take a virtual tour. In 1936, Gandhi established the last of his major ashrams on the outskirts of the central Indian town of Wardha and called it Sevagram, “village of service” (Fig. 3). Today, it too is a museum. Additionally, leading as mobile a life as he did, Gandhi treated any place where he set up base, however temporary, as an ashram, be it a millionaire’s mansion or a colonial prison!
In a letter dated 20 August 1926 to his Danish devotee Esther Faering Menon (who first visited Sabarmati Ashram soon after it was established in 1917, and with whom he had extended correspondence, his many letters to her beginning with the words “My dear child”), Gandhi gave a comprehensive sense of how he imagined his experiments in communal living.
The literal meaning of an “ashram” is an abode, but the associations about the ashram are these: It should be simple. It should not be merely a teaching institution. It should contain predominantly those who are pledged to perpetual continence. It should have associations of sannyasa, meaning detachment from the world. It should therefore be a voluntarily poor organization. There should therefore be rigid simplicity about it. Its object must invariably be formation of character with a view to self-realization. The idea of master and servant is wholly repugnant to such an institution. All men and women in an ashram are expected to do bodily labor and all enjoy an equal status. The idea of superiority has no place in it. The head of an ashram is in the place of a parent and he is expected to regard the rest as his own children. I wonder if I have now given you fairly the characteristics of an ashram.
Numerous scholars have written extensively about this quintessential Gandhian institution, including Tridip Suhrud who has recently reminded us that the ashram was at its heart a community of worship: each day began at the crack of dawn with multi-faith prayers, and ended between 7:00 and 7:30 p.m. in a similar fashion. The hours in between were filled with constructive activities and service, the ashram being “a busy hive” in Gandhi’s words in his book My Early Life (see also digital album, 76, 77). As Suhrud also valuably noted, the ashram was “a dialogical space. A community living and experimenting together was made possible by an abiding faith in the dialogue that they shared with each other and with Gandhi, both individually and as a community.”
As and when he was around, Gandhi himself served as school teacher: a charming painting done by young Vriddhi in 2012 even fantasizes about this (digital album, 23). Preoccupied though he might be with matters of the nation, or travelling, or even when he was in prison, Gandhi was clearly a micro-manager of the affairs of his ashrams, and especially of the lives of resident children, writing detailed letters to Narandas Gandhi and Premaben Kantak (who was especially charged with their supervision) in this regard. The intimacy of the ashram setting allowed Gandhi to foster life-long relationships with the many who grew up under his care. On the other hand, the ashram was clearly also a disciplinary place, arguably more so than the generic home. It is worth noting that the earliest multi-day fasts and one-meal-a-day routine that Gandhi undertook in South Africa in 1913–14 were on account of “lapses” on the part of the young residents of Tolstoy Farm. He fasted again for a day on 1 June 1915 to atone for lies uttered by ashram children. Not least, in late November 1925, “Irregularities on the part of many boys have necessitated my undertaking the lightest fast I can, that is, seven days.” Of all the areas in which Gandhi sought to regulate the young residents of his ashrams, including his own sons, getting them to manage their sexual urges was clearly of deep concern, given his own views on the subject of celibacy. He was not always successful in this venture, as is also apparent from some ashram children falling in love and getting married to each other, despite his repeated exhortation to them to treat each other as siblings.
Over the years when they have been invited to paint him, the child artists of Mani Bhavan imagine Gandhi’s ashram as a place thronging with children (digital album, 14, 18, 22, 91, 148, 149). They also imagine it as a place where Gandhi was hard at work, laboring over his spinning wheel, and as a place where he prayed and meditated, frequently in their company (Fig. 6; Fig. 7).
This is in contrast to artworks by professional and gallery artists in whose images of the ashram we rarely if ever see the child present. In Gandhi’s own lifetime, artists of the stature of Mukul Dey (1895–1989) and Nandalal Bose (1882–1966) visited him in his ashram. In 1944, he invited the Santiniketan-trained Devi Prasad (1921–2011) to teach art to the children of Sevagram Ashram, a task the artist pursued and made his own for the next 18 years. Starkly frugal though Gandhi’s various homes, unadorned by artworks or decoration, they nevertheless appear to have caught the eye and made the brush of the artist move. This was especially the case with the ashram by the Sabarmati, among the earliest works featuring it produced by the Hungarian Elisabeth Sass Brunner (1889–1950) (Fig. 8).
An artist producing for the mass market paints Sabarmati in a manner that would have surely appealed to Gandhi, as a hub of activity and industry, but there are no children in sight (Fig. 9). In beautiful works by artists such as Haku Shah (1934–2019)—a Gandhian in his personal life, and producer of numerous luminous images of the Mahatma—and Mumbai-based Atul Dodiya (b. 1959) who has produced the largest body of work on Gandhi, the ashram is empty of human presence, including and especially Gandhi’s but also of the children under his care (Fig. 10; Fig. 11).
This is also the case in a digital print titled Flyover created in 2011 by Kerala-born and New Delhi-based Gigi Scaria (b. 1973). The serene beauty of the simple thatched structure that Gandhi called home for about 13 years from 1917 shines luminously against the grey backdrop of an India that is literally flying over and past it (Fig. 12). But it is also a dead space instead of the busy hub that it was in Gandhi’s own time. A few years earlier in 2008, in a lovely video-installation work simply titled Sabarmati, Scaria used the power of film to reproduce the beauty of a still photograph, as the camera quietly observes and absorbs the aura of the house (Hriday Kunj, “heart’s abode”) where Gandhi resided with Kasturba from June 1917 until March 1930. Thriving with pulsating life and moral energy in its own time, not to mention children, today it has all the stillness of a dead monument. Is Sabarmati Ashram today a metaphor for the Mahatma himself, bypassed by a nation, including its children, hustling towards a different end?
Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 29: 270, 293–94; 31: 318–19.
M.K. Gandhi, My Early Life (1869–1914), Arranged and Edited by Mahadev Desai. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1932.