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Worth their salt

Worth their salt
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First Published: Sat, Nov 12 2011. 01 15 AM IST

Beaten path: A farmer’s house in Sajod village, where Gandhi stayed a night. Photographs by Vinobha Nathan
Beaten path: A farmer’s house in Sajod village, where Gandhi stayed a night. Photographs by Vinobha Nathan
Updated: Tue, Nov 15 2011. 03 00 PM IST
This July, photographers Ajit Bhadoriya, Edson Dias, Chaitanya Guttikar, P. Madhavan and Vinobha Nathan decided to trace the footsteps of Mohandas K. Gandhi on his historic Dandi march that was a part of the salt satyagraha. Equipped with pinhole, medium- and large-format cameras, they traced the 387km from Sabarmati to Dandi, in Gujarat, over 24 days. We spoke to them about the march, their learning, and the images that came from it. Edited excerpts from the interview:
When and why did you decide to start the 2011 Dandi march?
Beaten path: A farmer’s house in Sajod village, where Gandhi stayed a night. Photographs by Vinobha Nathan
The idea of retracing the Dandi march happened at a brainstorming session at the ALTlab Photography residency, a programme run by the Goa Center for Alternative Photography (Goa-CAP). We came up with the Salt Prints project to understand the relevance of Gandhian philosophy. Additionally, we discovered that though the Dandi march was well documented by Indian and international writers, there are few visuals available on this epic event. The mandate of the project was to visualize the space and consecutively understand the philosophy of Gandhi. We feel that the distinctive part of the project was the four artists, who came from different schools of thought, with their philosophy and visualization being quite dissimilar. The only common understanding among these artists was the use of an analogue camera.
What did the preparations include? What did you pack?
The maps and other details about the Dandi march are easily available on the Internet. We followed the same route. Our day and night halts were the same as the ones Gandhi made. So there wasn’t much planning involved. We arrived in each village unannounced. This gave us a real idea of what the villages were like. The equipment and film to be used during the walk were, however, planned almost two months in advance. This was because it’s difficult to obtain black and white film in India. We had to import our film rolls from the UK. The major packing was also centred around the cameras and accessories. On an average, everyone carried a weight of approximately 10kg during the walk.
How long was the journey? How did you plan it?
The team documented its journey at every milestone with a photograph with local people
Gandhi walked 387km in 24 days. He stayed in one village during the daytime and in another one during the night, including an average walk of 18km a day. Every Monday, he took a break from walking and observed silence (maun vrat) and fasted on that day. We followed the same pattern, except the silence and fasting bit. This walk happened 81 years after the original march. The world has changed since—villages have expanded into towns and towns have turned into cities; agricultural lands are now industrial estates; rivers are either polluted or have dried; roads are full of speeding vehicles which are unfriendly for walkers. We walked around 387km in 24 days to meet the same halts and destinations as we had to take long detours from the original route.
What was the most challenging part of the walk?
Walking on asphalt roads. The Central government has spent Rs 1,346 crore to develop the Dandi heritage route and infrastructure in and around the villages where Gandhi had stayed. They have, however, forgotten to lay the walking path alongside the asphalt roads. It is, therefore, tough to walk along the vehicles on both sides.
How did the photography unfold during the trip?
The walking contributed in three essential forms of creating an image: The first of these categories is the immediate interpretations of the landscapes encountered; the second is the use of landscape, and the experience of it as a means of representing the essence of the journey; and the third is the documentation of our movement within the context of landscape.
Was there a moment that you’d describe as defining or a story you would tell when asked about the trip?
During the span of 24 days, we must have met hundreds of people and witnessed numerous events. Every happening was memorable. We would, however, like to share the story of an old couple whom we met at the Swaraj Bhavan in Jambusar, Bharuch. Phulabhai Vaghela is a 78-year-old caretaker of Swaraj Bhavan, a place where the Mahatma had once stayed during the Dandi march. Vaghela, along with his wife, has been maintaining this space since 1994 and has not been paid a single rupee as salary by the government. Numerous letters, reminders, petitions and personal requests to leaders have fallen on deaf ears.
Did it help you understand Gandhi differently?
As we mentioned earlier, the four artists held different views of Gandhi and his philosophy. One common understanding about Gandhi that all these artists developed during the course of this walk was about him being a great strategist. The Indian independence movement, which was considered to be an elitist movement prior to the 1930s, had now turned into a mass movement. Gandhi had not only mobilized the masses for the movement, but had also educated them on why they should fight against the British.
What does this new-age Gandhi march signify to you?
Gandhi took salt as a metaphor and we took Gandhi himself as a metaphor, trying to look through history from our eyes after 80 years. We realize that the ideals and ideas of Gandhi are still relevant, and it offers the solution to modern-day problems.
What next?
We have started editing the pictures taken during the march, and shall curate the exhibition during February 2012. The book shall be released in May 2012.
pavitra.j@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Nov 12 2011. 01 15 AM IST