By Moin Qazi*
Eighty kilometres to the east of Nagpur in central India lies Bapu Kuti, a historic site in Sewagram, the ‘village of service’, which is nestled in the serene rustic surroundings of the Wardha district. This dwelling was the residential abode of Mahatma Gandhi from 1936 to 1948 and was the epicentre of the Indian freedom movement. During the 12 years Gandhi lived here, Wardha became the de facto nationalist capital of India. A motley array of foreign delegations—politicians, pacifists, religious leaders and do-gooders of all complexions—regularly found their way to Sewagram. In July 1942 the Quit India resolution was passed at Sewagram and in 1946, Gandhi left Sewagram, never to return.
By 1931 Gandhi was already famous. He had travelled to Europe, where he had drawn eager crowds and journalists, and where he had met a roster of the famous and powerful that included the British king, Benito Mussolini, Charlie Chaplin and Romain Rolland. Gandhi wrote to Jamnalal Bajaj that he wanted to live alone in a small hut in a small village. However, his presence alone was enough to draw scores of votaries as well as visitors from across India and around the world—Nehru came several times. Soon there was a road and one hut became several. The British built a telephone so that they could communicate with the Mahatma. However, Gandhi’s attempt to disconnect from the world failed just as his attempt to change India from outside and quicken the course of its trajectory towards independence had.
One does not have to be a Gandhi devotee to be able to appreciate the austere beauty of the ashram’s premises. Gandhi shared these thoughts about who should consider residing in the ashram: “He alone deserves to be called an inmate of the Ashram who has ceased to have any worldly relation — a relation involving monetary interests — with his parents or other relatives, who has no other needs save those of food and clothing and who is ever watchful in the observance of the eleven cardinal vows. Therefore he who needs to make savings, should never be regarded as an Ashram inmate.”
Bapu Kuti is nothing short of a museum. A quaint bath, an elderly, dignified telephone box and neat little alcoves shyly peeping from the walls, all serve to create an inexplicable nostalgia for a past that we were not even a part of. The kitchen contains the flour grinder Gandhi put to use occasionally. His cot and massage table have also been retained. The sacredness of the place is preserved by the several sombre trees that have themselves withstood the passage of history and ravages of time. The practice of daily prayers in the open continues. The campus glows with humility evoking memories of its master.
Sewagram was built on low ground, in an area that became a malaria-infested swamp during the monsoon and was infested with poisonous snakes and scorpions. Sewagram had no paved road and no post office. When Louis Fischer—the American author whose 1950 biography, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, served as the basis for Richard
Attenborough’s 1982 blockbuster film—visited Sewagram for a sweltering week in 1942, the only way he could summon the energy to type out his daily notes was to sit naked in a tub on a crate, with a towel folded under him, his typewriter perched on another crate nearby. “At intervals of a few minutes, when I began to perspire, I dipped a bronze bowl into the tub and poured the water over my neck, back and legs. By that method, I was able to type a whole hour without feeling exhausted,” he wrote.
When Gandhi came to Wardha in 1933, he wanted to retreat to a place that had none of the amenities that India’s poor lacked. While Gandhi worked for independence from Shegaon—which he renamed Sewagram—he left his follower Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade) with instructions for the construction of buildings in the village. Housing at Sewagram was to be built strictly from local, affordable and renewable materials. Nothing should come from beyond a five-kilometre radius.
The structures were to be simple enough for a small group of ordinary people to build and maintain on their own home. Indeed, the modest scale of the lodgings comes as a surprise to many visitors. The cottages are well crafted, with thick mud brick walls, clay roof tiles, and palm leaf thatching. The most important of these historic structures are Adi Niwas, Ba Kuti and Bapu Kuti. Adi Niwas was the first house built at Sewagram and was the place where the first ashram members lived together. Bapu Kuti and Ba Kuti are the cottages of Mahatma Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba Gandhi, respectively.
Originally determined to live in an isolated hut, Gandhi decided that his own house should be open on all sides, in order to let the natural elements and his visitors freely circulate. The building’s design, though loosely inspired by traditional village houses, was an idealised design from Gandhi’s imaginary village “in my mind”, as he wrote in his famous exchange of letters with Nehru in 1945.
Bapu Kuti is a sparse and austere mud-walled cottage. The building remains as a symbol of Gandhi’s dedication to a mode of living that treads lightly on the land and is accessible in its material simplicity to even the poorest. Three of Gandhi’s original possessions are highlighted in the building today: His iconic round-shaped spectacles, his pocket-watch, and his two cross-strapped slippers. These three have taken on a symbolic value in the commemoration of the great leader. The first enabled him to see the world around him with clarity, while the second helped him keep and respect time—that of others’ as much as his own—and the third symbolised his light but unmistakable footprint on the Indian landscape.
A number of Gandhi’s other sparse possessions are exhibited at Bapu Kuti: A walking stick, a portable spinning wheel, a paperweight, an ink pot, a pencil stand, a bowl, prayer beads, a small statue of three monkeys, and a few others. The cottage is partitioned into separate rooms, which left space some space for Gandhi to write, meet with visitors, and for guests to sleep. It also contains a latrine connected to a septic tank, with a note informing visitors that Gandhi cleaned it himself. Bamboo shelving hangs from the ceiling for storage. For aesthetic effect, Mirabehn herself drew simple ornamental designs on the walls of palm trees, an Om symbol and a spinning wheel.
Gandhi never gave up on his alternative vision for India as a nation of enlightened but simple and self-sufficient villages. In this way, Gandhi hoped that the equality of all citizens would be realised and everyone would contribute a portion of his or her labour to produce the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—out of local, renewable materials. He stuck to this vision stubbornly, long after it became clear that the Congress party and the Indian elite were not interested. Nevertheless, in village after village around Wardha, Gandhi applied his efforts to transforming India’s villages from cesspits of ignorance and rigid social hierarchy into beacons of order, cleanliness and brotherly affection.
Gandhi started his efforts in social improvement with the most basic issue: Teaching villagers to take responsibility for their waste. Central to this was how Gandhi expected villagers to deal with the most basic aspect of cleanliness, the removal of their own excrement. The task of removing human waste was traditionally delegated to Dalits or simply avoided. Gandhi expected that when his disciples entered a village they would begin their work by looking for stray human waste, to move it to a remote spot and bury it. Shocked by this work, Gandhi argued, the villagers would get the message—but they did not.
The food was also prepared according to Rule Number Four of Gandhi’s [Sabarmati] Ashram Rules. For Gandhi the first step to controlling sexual appetite—essential, Gandhi believed, for curbing one’s selfish impulses—was to eliminate the pleasure of eating: “Food must therefore be taken like medicine under proper restraint.” Fischer noted in his diary that he didn’t like the mush that was served and, after the third day, he declined to eat any more of it.
The peace of village life was bittersweet. Sewagram’s calm was, in fact, due to the absence of any real, living activity. Today, the ashram is preserved in time in the manner of an old sepia photograph, but the idealised life it documents is now dead. Sewagram is no longer a vibrant place inhabited by the indefatigable Gandhi and his devoted votaries. It is a shell of what it was, a time capsule fondly and painstakingly preserved but devoid of its living inhabitants and shorn of its original aura.
Gandhi infused India with a revolutionary blend of politics and spirituality. He called his action-based philosophy satyagraha or the truth force. For Jawaharlal Nehru, the defining image of Gandhi was “as I saw him marching, staff in hand, to Dandi on the Salt March in 1930. Here was the pilgrim on his quest of Truth, quiet, peaceful, determined and fearless, who would continue that quest and pilgrimage, regardless of consequences.
Gandhi’s impact was indelible. He guided India to independence and forced his countrymen to question their deepest prejudices about caste, religion and violence. Gandhi’s ideas continue to resonate across the world and he has inspired generations of great leaders. As Einstein summed up in his tribute: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
Yet the true reality is that Gandhi’s legacy is in shreds. It had already started waning immediately after his death. The Governor-General of independent India, C. Rajagopalachari, gave a disenchanted verdict. It still rings true: “The glamour of modern technology, money and power is so seductive that no one–I mean no one–can resist it. The handful of Gandhians who still believe in his philosophy of a simple life in a simple society are mostly cranks.”