By Tushar Bhatt
Are we, Gujaratis, a forgetful people or ungrateful people? The question is more than a million dollars worth because you have no answer many a time. One such occasion was the birth centenary of an extra-ordinary ordinary Gujarati, Jagan Mehta. It fell on January 29, 2009, a day before the Martyrs’ Day, which coincided with the day of assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
Only one low-key function washeld under the auspices of Gujarat Lalit Kala Akadami.An exhibition of Jagan Mehta’s photographs of Gandhiji and others was opened in Ahmedabad as the sole tribute to the camera wizard. Gandhian leader Narayan Desai and some others were to speak but skipped speaking as a mark of respect for the late President R Venkataraman, whose passing away was be-ing mourned by the nation and no official celebration could be held.Everybody grumbled privately, but being good, obedient Guja-ratis, refrained from unburdening their souls.
Gujaratis as a people are largely unaware of the tall feats by the photographic excellence of Jaganbhai. The apathy also brought back a flood of memories of a meeting with him in 1986. The hour-long encounter with the camera wizard remains firmly etched in the mind. The memory trailer has been ever green because thereafter Jaganbhai became a phone friend.
The body showed the ravages of time, the face a map of wrin-kles, veins standing out like a canal network on the back of his palms, the left hand supported by a cast owing to a shoulder bone injury in a fall, and a corset around the spine.
But, then the 86-year-old Jagan Mehta, a photographer who is world famous for his sensitive Gandhi pictures taken during the Mahatma's peace march in the riot-torn Bihar in March,1947, was old in flesh only. The spirit, as revealed by his firm voice and bub-bling enthusiasm about his lifelong passion, photography, was young - and willing.
He said, with obvious pride: “I can still wield a camera, maybe not with a great speed. But I can still capture good photographs." Before he had a fall, hurting his shoulder, he had taken a couple of lovely shots of the noted Gujarati writer, Josef Macwan.
Of the innumerable photographs Jagan Mehta had clicked over the past decades, pictures captured during the six momentous days, stood out. The 40-odd pictures of the peace march of Gan-dhiji earned him a world-wide recognition, not because these were news pictures, but because these were superbly evocative studies of the agonies and sorrow of someone whom millions of his coun-trymen had ,during his lifetime only, hailed as the Great Soul, Ma-hatma.
These pictures have been shown all over the globe, including for a year-and-a-half in the United States of America alone.
These and other treasure-trove of photographic records of yes-teryear are now in steel cupboards at Mehta's house in Chandranagar society, in Paldi area of Ahmedabad, not far from the bed on which the old photographer slept and breathed his last. In the Spartan house, there is no indication of the documentary wealth it is holding.”I never was good at making money all my life", Jagan Mehta used to explain, without a trace of regret.
In truth, his life has been a story of grit, determination and strug-gle throughout. And, yet, for all the trials and tribulations, the man, now known as Jagan but originally christened as Jagannth, was a jovial person. He smiled easily, laughed heartily, launched into a discussion readily and pottered around the room, rummaging the cupboards and bags to locate a photograph about which he was talking. Dressed in a khadi shirt and pyjama,he was more than ready to help a younger man in photography. Even as he remem-bered the olden days,in 1986,he noticed the camera of a friend, Gautam Mehta. Surfacing in the present from the past he asked Gautam: "Is it a Pentax ?"
Born in 1909,in the house of Vasudev Vaidya, Jaganbhai was in-terested in painting from his school days, doing art work in both pencil and colour. His father was a well-known Ayurveda physician in Gujarat in those days and his grand-father, Ganpatram, too was a vaidya of repute,having studied Ayurveda under the renowned specialist of yesteryear,Zandu Bhatt. Recalled Jaganbhai:” Al-though my father was a noted vaidya himself, he never made much money for two reasons. He was a very sensitive soul, never able to bring himself up to charging the poor for treatment. He would say,' If I charge fee from a poor, the money creates a burning sensation in my hands.' Secondly, he had been a follower of Mahatma Gan-dhi ever since the Mahatma came to Ahmedabad, first to the Ko-chrab Ashram and then to the Sabarmati Ashram.Vasudevbhai was among the pioneers, along with Indulal Yagnik,Hariprasad Desai and others to have attended the Congress session in Godhra in days when the session did not attract many."
Vasudevbhai had settled in Sanand, some 18 km away from Ahmedabad,and was never hankering after either wealth or fame. The son, who had an innate liking for art, had begun to do draw-ings and paintings quite early in his student days. Ravishankar Ra-val, who was hailed as Gujarat's kala guru ,was a close friend of Jaganbhai's father.So,when after failing in his matriculation exami-nation in 1929,Jagan told his father that he wanted to pursue paint-ing as a career and would like to go to Bombay to join the J J School of Arts, the first thing the vaidya did was to consult Ravis-hankar Raval.Recalled Jaganbhai:"My father could not afford the money for sending me to Bombay,although we had no problem in meeting day to day expenses. A living example of Gandhian sim-plicity,father never had that kind of money."
Raval at that time was bringing out Kumar magazine in Ahmed-abad,along with an associate, Bachubhai Rawat. He saw young Jagan's art output, and asked him to work with him for Kumar."Ravibhai guided me in painting and also got me interested in photography, impressing upon me that photography was going to play an important role. I would go out of town also with Ravibhai and take photographs. I was barely 20 years of age then."
Jaganbhai was very proud that he had learnt the ABC of painting as well as photography from Ravishankar Raval."I took to photog-raphy very keenly, and got so much into it that painting got left be-hind. Soon I was good at working in the dark room too, washing, developing and printing pictures."
Ravibhai had set the young man on the road to photographer's life by presenting him with a Maximark camera. It was in 1933 that Jaganbhai took his first photograph of Gandhiji. Bapu had come to the Sharda Mandir for a meeting. Remembered the photographer: "I took the camera and the open stand to keep it on. I took three or four snaps, one of which came out very well. It was a very evoca-tive picture."
In 1934,Jaganbhai got a scholarship of the then Bhavnagar state for going to Vienna, Austria to study at the Institute of Graphic Arts there.” Mind you, I was not a resident of the old Bhavnagar state. I used to go there with Ravibhai and still the ruler, Krishnakumarsin-hji, was so nice that he gave me the scholarship." In August of that year,Jaganbhai left Ahmedabad for Austria, leaving behind wife,Malti,and his parents, friends and the familiar surroundings.
He pursued studies and research in photography, reproduction techniques, and photo-gravure printing and allied areas for more than a year and a half. During this period, he came in contact with a number of Indian leaders such as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and became secretary of the Hindustan Academical Association set by Bose in Vienna,and later the underground movement in In-dia.
In Vienna,everything seemed going well when tragedy struck. Well into the second year of his scholarship and assured of the third year,Jaganbhai fell sick. He had very high temperature in the beginning,later it was judged that he had a spinal problem, proba-bly TB of the spine. He was hospitalised for 33 days, and when dis-charged at the end, he was told to spend a lot of time resting at hill stations and nursing his health back.” I had been living very frugally in Austria, cooking my own meals.But,after this illness, there was but no option to return home. My family too was worried stiff. I had been wearing a leather corset, sleeping on a flat bed, just like a liv-ing mummy in a coffin. I had such an excruciating pain in the ver-tebrae that I sometimes felt it was better to die than to suffer like that. I spent some five months in different sanatoria and hill sta-tions in Austria before returning to India in May, 1936."
The old man looked out of the verandah of his modest home as he recalled those painful days. In the trees outside,crows were making a ruckus,but he did not seem to register it. "I was really in the state of a Trishanku,suspended between the planet earth and heaven. Back home, my father started my treatment, his medi-cines, sunbath, and home-made food rich in calcium. I began mov-ing around on my own in 1938.But a big question was: what next?"
"Till then, I had not pursued photography as an independent pro-fession. True, I had taken some pictures but that was not as a pro-fessional,"he remembered.Then,he got some assignments to go round Kankaroli,Udaipur and Mount Abu for photography and the work turned out to be very good. "I felt a surge of self-confidence and at the age of 30,in 1939, took a plunge as a photographer, launching what I called photo home service. The idea was to tell people that so long they were going to a studio for getting their pic-tures taken. Here was I who would go to their home and snap them in familiar, homely situations. I can see in my mind's eye even to-day myself going round in 1940 on a bicycle,with folding reflectors and a camera,for photography.I used to eke out enough to make both the ends meet,but I was never unduly worried,or impressed by money.Probably, it was the Gandhian upbringing in our house—a nationalist’s house- that led to it."
He had a friend,Dr Manubhai Trivedi, the son of a well-known Gujarati J.P.Trivedi who had made a name in Pune in those days. Manubhai had been to Vienna to study medicine, chiefly because he did not want to study in England. Later he shifted to Wardha at the suggestion of Late Jamnalal Bajaj and settled there as a med-ico.
Said Jaganbhai: "I had got an idea around that time that Gan-dhiji's day-to-day activities and life should be documented in pho-tographs, and if possible on film too because one day all this would be of immense historic value. I had been writing to Manubhai in Wardha, tossing about the idea. Manubhai said it was a good idea and encouraged me to pursue it.
Recalled the photographer: "Though Manubhai was enthusiastic, I could not avail of his invitation to go to Wardha for several years.As I do introspection today, perhaps, I was lacking in a spirit of adventure. Or, perhaps it was because of the principle that I would never borrow money for anything.
He said,” Maybe God had ordained it that way. But an opportu-nity did come by in 1947.I was close to Madhavsinh ,a follower of Shri Devendraprasadji Maharaj of the Kalupur Swaminarayan tem-ple and a painter himself.He asked me to accompany the entou-rage of the Maharaj to Ayodhya where at the Haumangadhi the mundan ceremony of today's Kalupur acharya,Shri Tejendra-prasadji was to take place.I went there to do photography and chanced upon a news item that Gandhiji was to make a peace tour in the riot-hit Bihar where communal trouble had sparked while the Mahatma was in Noakhali.I sought permission of the Acharya for going to Patna." Not only permission, Devendraprasadji also gave him Rs.400.Jaganbhai already had some Rs.200 he brought from home when going to Ayodhya. With this princely amount the pho-tographer set out on his mission; he had no introduction from any newspaper, no idea if he would be allowed to join the tour.
In Patna,an old friend,Gunwant Jani, who had been living there for some years, helped him get aboard the train on which the Ma-hatma was travelling.
The historic pictures, taken in the last week of March, were in natural light, without any flash. Nor was Jaganbhai in mad competi-tion with news photographers. He approached the subject as a pic-torialist,intent on achieving best composition possible to reflect the inner divinity of Gandhiji. One of these, showing Bapu going for a walk,with hands on the shoulders two associates and the tall figure of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan,the Frontier Gandhi,walking on a side, has since been used countless times. The photograph has achieved a sort of immortality because of the perfect light and shade combination.Another showed Gandhi and his col-leagues,talking as they walked.The third one depicted the agony of the carnage,with a riot-hit sitting on ground with folded hands in front of Gandhiji.The Mahatma listened to the man's woes with his head down,as if the burden of the misguided deeds of his country-men was solely on his head.Yet another photograph brought out the pensive mood in which Bapu was sitting at a meet-ing,surrounded by followers, present physically, but wearing an ex-pression of profound sorrow on the face, as if he were somewhere else.
Jaganbhai remembers one episode most vividly, although he could not locate the print of the picture immediately. "I learnt that Bapu was to visit a poor man's house badly damaged by the mobs.I reached it early, and occupied a vantage point in a corner of the hut.As Gandhiji entered the place,the woman of the house touched his feet, crying. Bapu and another associate bent down to help her rise to her feet. I clicked away, capturing the moment showing the Mahatma lending a helping hand to the hapless woman, agony of the mankind writ large on his face. The frame was very moving and everybody around wept.
The pictures made him world-famous, but never rich. On return to Ahmedabad,Jaganbhai opened a studio on the Relief Road in 1948,only to close it down six years later in 1954. "To succeed in business was perhaps not in my stars," he ruminated.
For ten years from 1957,he served as an official photogra-pher,the last one, at the Prince of Wales Museum in Bom-bay,capturing in his camera excavated ancient bronze sculp-tures,paintings,stone carvings and other archaeological invaluables ,which too have been shown in a number of exhibitions in different parts of the country.The starting salary was Rs.250 a month.
Returning home, he worked for a year at the National Institute of Design for the Nehru exhibition project. In 1968, he joined the C.N.Fine Arts College to teach phtography on a nominal remunera-tion. It was a part-time job,but he used to devote full five days a week since his friend Rasiklal Parikh, a great painter, was the prin-cipal.
He had another passion-- that of photographing Gujarati writers and poets of repute,even if he were not to earn a single paise from the work.He had a collection of some 250 such pictures of literary personalities,another invauable collection of which many do not know.
In his twilight years, he lived with his son and grand-son, relish-ing the rich memories."I had to face trials and tribulations, but my wife, Malti, who died at the age of 75, stood by me like a rock. Dur-ing my studies and illness in Vienna, it was she who looked after the family,as also when I went away to Bombay. Never did she-grumble about anything in our life. Both my sons, Upendra and Bipin too owe a lot to her."
Jaganbhai was different from other old achievers; he rarely said "I did this or I did that." Instead, he would say such and such work got done through him. His modesty was matched only by his gen-erosity to give of his time ,experience and knowledge to other young professionals. :"Whatever one has learnt should be passed on to others. We should not become possessive, even of knowl-edge, wisdom or experience. Doing so gives me great pleasure in life.I am in the evening of my life, contented and happy to be with family members. God has been greatly kind to me." Vishwa Gurjari bestowed upon him the 1995 Gujarat Award ,commemoriating his achievements. By a sheer coincidence,this happened to the 125h birth anniversary year of the Mahatma.
The uncomplaining wizard left this world quietly. He never as-pired fame and we the Gujarati people have ensured it that he re-mains in the small print in the footnotes of our history.The question still begs an answer: are we forgetful or ungrateful? God only knows. Hey Ram!!!