Rare photos of Mahatma Gandhi and Mao Zedong capture the rise of the legendary leaders

Swiss photojournalist Walter Bosshard was supposedly the first photographer to gain close access to the Mahatma. His shots capture the Father of our Nation and the Founding Father of China at a time when their movements were just beginning. See these rare photos at ‘Envisioning Asia’ at Satya Art Gallery, Ahmedabad, till February 10.

Gallerist Vivek Desai and Curator Gayatri Sinha

According to photographer Anuj Ambalal the “extremely emotive” portrait of Kasturba Gandhi gives a powerful sense of why Bosshard’s pictures were ahead of its time. During a call conversation he mentioned that “even if we remove the Gandhian factor from all the pictures, the portraits in the exhibition are still extremely detailed and well composed.” Mahatma Gandhi is known to have allowed photographers to be witness intimately to his life. In the exhibition Envisioning Asia, he can be seen in remarkably candid moments captured by Swiss photojournalist Walter Bosshard who, according to Sinha, was the first photographer to gain “such close access” to the Mahatma. One can see the Father of the Nation relishing a bowl of onion soup, shaving, reading a newspaper and even sleeping. The pictures are framed correctly and according to veteran photographer Vivek Desai “are mostly organic, with minor corrections here and there”. Looking at the perfect pictures makes it hard to believe that they were captured with an almost 80-year-old camera technology. The exhibition also juxtaposes the everyday life of Mahatma Gandhi, as his civil disobedience movement started to take shape, with the parallel militaristic movement that was happening in today’s Republic of China, led by Mao Zedong.

Mao Zedong and Yan’an City Gate, entrance to China’s Red Capital

Bosshard was sent to take photographs in India and China in the 1930s by the German magazine Münchner Illustrierte Presse. The collection of these photographs by Bosshard, who passed away in 1975, has been housed at the Swiss Foundation for Photography in Winterthur. But now, with the help of art curator and critic Gayatri Sinha, and the Director of the foundation Peter Pfrunder, 53 photographs from the collection have been carefully curated and brought to India for the first time. The original negatives of Bosshard’s pictures have been digitised and printed for this exhibition. Opened on January 4, Envisioning Asia is now showing at Satya Art Gallery in Ahmedabad till February 10.

Gayatri Sinha, who is a Tate Research Fellowship laureate and the founder of Critical Collective in Delhi, has written for major publications like The Hindu, The Telegraph and Indian Express and curated numerous exhibitions. On seeing an exhibition of Bosshard’s works in Switzerland, Sinha decided to bring them to India to celebrate Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. She says that these pictures were shot much before famous photographers like Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson gained access to Gandhi.

Dandi March by Walter Bosshard

About the intriguing curatorial choice to contrast Gandhi and Mao, Sinha says, “There is a major contrast between how Mao approaches the camera and how Gandhiji approaches the camera.”While a photograph of the Dandi March, depicting people walking barefoot, captures the non-violent spirit of Gandhi’s protest; in the images of Mao, a more militarised approach is visible, with people holding artillery. The exhibition seems to juxtapose the two ideologies, with photographs of Gandhi’s everyday life contrasted with shots of the Red army being trained, and people gathered with the Chinese leaders in the caves of Yan’an. Many of these glimpses have been published in Bosshard’s own book Indien kämpft! (India is Fighting).

Dandi, Indien, 7. April 1930
Dandi, 7 April 1930

Before coming to Ahmedabad, Envisioning Asia visited Delhi in October 2018, where it was displayed at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Maneesha Doshi, a painter and daughter of Pritzker Prize laureate architect BV Doshi, saw the show during a visit to the city and requested photographer Anuj Ambalal to bring it to Ahmedabad. Ambalal, who was simply awe-inspired by Bosshard’s modern style of compositions, got in touch with Vivek Desai, the gallerist and managing trustee of Navajivan Trust, a publishing house established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1929 which runs Satya Art Gallery. This is what brings Envisioning Asia to Ahmedabad. The 53 pictures of the two divergent personalities will be exhibited next in Mumbai, before returning permanently to Switzerland.

Gandhiji reading a satirical article in the Times of India

Travel through time with Bosshard on every day (except Mondays) between 12 pm to 9 pm until February 10, 2019, at Satya Art Gallery, Ahmedabad. Besides the beautiful photographs, a silent film on Mao, shot by Bosshard during his stay in China from 1933 to 1939, is also well worth seeing.

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