THE CHAIRMAN & THE MAHATMA
Gandhi and Mao are not names often spoken together. So dissimilar do these giants of Asia seem, as men and leaders, that even thinking of them as contemporaries demands an imaginative leap. Luckily, Walter Bosshard met them both, and his pictures live to tell the tale. Peter Pfrunder, cocurator of ‘Envisioning Asia’, the first-ever Indian showing of Bosshard’s photojournalism, cheekily suggests in his brochure essay that “Bosshard himself could be seen as the link between Gandhi and Mao”. Certainly, the 51 photographs and one silent film on show at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) make clear that both men “welcomed this foreign photojournalist with open arms”, at shaping moments of their careers. Bosshard met Gandhi in 1930 at Dandi, after the Salt March. In a piece of historical serendipity, he
also met Mao after a march: in 1938, when he journeyed six days from the provisional capital of Hankou to Yan’an, the closely-guarded ‘Red Capital’ where Mao had withdrawn after the Long March.
Unlike his legendary subjects, Bosshard never marched the length and breadth of a country to mobilise his people. But if we set aside for a moment his position as a white man in an imperialist world, Bosshard’s own travels are quite impressive. A Swiss primary school teacher from 1908 to 1912, he studied art history in Zurich and Florence and did military service in Italy during World War I. Bosshard’s life after 1919 would be the envy of any experience-hunting millennial: he worked on a plantation in Sumatra, as a gem dealer in East Asia, and as a merchant in India and Thailand. In 1927-28, he was a photographer on a German expedition to Central Asia. By 1930, he had so established himself that the Munich Illustrated Press sent him to India on a ‘study trip’. Between February and October, Bosshard travelled over 20,000 km, gathering enough material for his 1931 book, Indien Kämpft (India Fights)!.
The highlight of Bosshard’s India trip, though, was reaching Dandi in time to shoot the coming of Gandhi. With 78 volunteers, Gandhi had walked for 24 days along the coast, crowds joining him to protest the British monopoly on salt. The power of these pictures is still undeniable: hundreds wading into the water to pick up salt; a child walking jauntily off with a cloth bundle of dripping, salty mud. The presence of women is striking. In one great image, Bosshard captures rural women marchers midstride, one end of their white saris wound over their heads, the other end hoisted up to reveal their calves. Here is the female Indian form cast for once as a labouring body in political action, unselfconscious and thus, unfetishisable. There are also women leaders: a stoic Mithuben Petit at an anti-alcohol protest in Navsari; Sarojini Naidu, the poet and Congress leader, who had urged Bosshard to visit Gandhi at Dandi, saying “he will have time”.
It appears Gandhi did. In Bosshard’s images, the 60-year-old fighting the world’s most powerful empire appears utterly relaxed: grinning at a satirical The Times of India editorial, spinning, eating onion soup, cackling with uninhibited laughter, shaving. “At this stage of his career in 1930, he is the only world leader who treated the camera like a confidant of his inner circle, to be trusted, silently,” co-curator Sinha said in an email interview. “There is a heartwarming naturalness and spontaneity in these pictures. By the time Margaret Bourke-White or Kanu Gandhi were to shoot Gandhi at the charkha or in public meetings, he was much older, much more studied before the camera.” In the KNMA brochure essay, Sinha argues that these images also highlight Gandhi’s “most pronounced areas of reflection and engagement”: his astute grasp of the media, his obsession with diet and the body, spinning the khadi as integral to his idea of swarajya (self-rule). Whether it was the photographer or the Mahatma who determined its elements, Bosshard’s pictures established a Gandhi iconography that still holds sway.
The Yan’an images are a stark contrast to the Indian ones. Whether it’s a young, serious Mao Zedong standing scrupulously straight before the camera, the cold mountainous expanses through which the Eighth Route Army marches, or
Bosshard’s pictures established a Gandhi iconography that still holds sway
simply the short hair, trousers and jackets both men and women wear, Bosshard’s 1938 visuals reveal how China and India’s paths diverged. “China broke from an older civilisation in a way India did not,” says Shilpa Sharma, a PhD scholar in Delhi University’s department of Chinese Studies. “Also, Gandhi was responding to a bureaucratic state, where there was law and order. China’s many bloody wars meant ahimsa (non-violence) could not have emerged there. Mao standing strong physically in pictures was part of a show of strength needed to win,” she adds.
Despite differences, “these were mass leaders who led their illiterate, poor societies out of feudal and colonial oppression,” says Hemant Adlakha, who teaches Chinese Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “There is comparable poverty, a shared idealism, the instruction of followers,” says Sinha. “[Both had] a vision for change for their countries.”
Nearly 90 years later, both India and China have diverged greatly from these men’s visions.
April 7, 1930: Arrival of volunteers at the river
1930: Congress headquarters, Mumbai
1938: Soldiers of the Eighth Route Army