I visited Porbandar for the first time in the summer of 2008. After an 8-hour road trip from Ahmedabad, I reached the sleepy town around 10pm. With cameras in hand, I trawled through its roads, not knowing that Mahatma Gandhi, its hero—and its only claim to fame—was as inconspicuous in the night as in the day.
I was already working on a project on Gandhi when art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha, who had seen a video film on Gandhians in New Delhi that I had done earlier, asked me to participate in the Saffronart show. On 1 May, I reached Gujarat, and over the next six days, travelled through the state, documenting every Gandhi landmark I came across. The Porbandar photos on display were taken by a Canon 5D camera on a very bright and cloudless May afternoon, and digitally printed on archival paper in editions of five.
A half-constructed ship at the Porbandar port
In Porbandar, Gandhi’s house, Kirti Mandir, is situated at one end of the town’s arterial road, near a square where a clean and well-maintained marble statue of his stands. Early in the morning, I saw a man stop his scooter, climb the statue and put a fresh garland around its neck. This, I later discovered, was a daily ritual—the only way the people of Porbandar are trying to keep Gandhi alive in his birthplace.
Kirti Mandir was rumoured to have collapsed during the 2001 earthquake, but it wasn’t significantly damaged. I went in and climbed the narrow, steep staircase with the help of a rope hanging from the ceiling. I walked around the small rooms, imagining the person who grew up in them—a boy without academic brilliance or any spark of genius, who went on to become a hero of the 20th century. In the afternoon, a few locals and some visitors from outside Porbandar walked through its three floors—looking at its walls, also perhaps imagining a hero.
Porbandar’s buildings, its architecture and broad roads seem to belong neither to the present nor to its historical past—it’s a town lost somewhere in between. The last time we heard of this port town was two months ago, when it was found that it had been the first Indian stop for the terrorists from Karachi (Pakistan) who attacked Mumbai.
A dilapidated lighthouse
I walked along the long wall constructed between the sea and the road which runs along the entire length of the Porbandar port, the town’s most famous landmark. I took a right turn into a gate and found myself looking at thousands of fishing boats.
Poor boatbuilders and petty businessmen, contaminated seawaters, polluted air, half-constructed boats, wrecked and abandoned boats, flags of India, heat, wood and dust—everything intermingled to create a picture of decadence and activity. Most ships and boats in the port are used by fishermen and locals for their small businesses. At least that’s what the locals tell you. The port has done little to improve the prospects of the town—it has been a long time since it was developed. Most boats on the shore are made of wood, but are unpainted.
Around the port area thrives a large community of boatbuilders, most of whom are Muslims. Some boats and houses along the sea have inscriptions in Arabic. There’s a deep divide between the Muslim and Hindu populations in this area.
The main arterial road of Porbander
The locals react to the mention of Gandhi with pride and amusement. They smile if you ask for directions to Gandhi’s house. Other than that, they don’t really talk about Gandhi or anything related to Gandhi. Unlike Sabarmati, Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad, which attracts tourists from all over the world, his home in Porbandar is a quiet, inconspicuous structure maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Gandhi is just a social memory in the land of his birth; there is no room for his own ideas about change in Porbandar’s present.
Gigi Scaria is a New Delhi-based artist.
As told to Sanjukta Sharma
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