Jagan Mehta, a Gandhian from Gujarat, was born in 11th May 1909 in Viramgam. His passion towards the arts was from a young age and in 1934 he joined Raval’s School of Art at Kum Karyalaya. It was here that he first took an interest in photography and dark room work. In 1934 he was awarded a scholarship to study photography reproduction techniques in Vienna, Austria.
The photographs taken of Gandhi by Mehta, some of which are shown here, brought him national and international recognition. They have been exhibited all over the globe, including for a year and half in United States alone. Mehta’s motivation for taking these photographs was a hope that they would become historical documents, and thus an important part of Gandhi’s legacy.
The Noakhali carnage took place on October 1946, a year before India’s independence. The carnage resulted in an estimated 5000 Hindus being raped and murdered, and close to 50,000 Hindus were trapped by Musilm hooligans and forced to convert to Islam. This genocide had paved the way for the Partition of India and the repercussions of this carnage resulted in Hindus killing several Musilms in Bihar. The exact number of deaths is still not known. The Statesman estimated about 5000, the Congress admitted to 2000 and Jinah claimed around 30,000. To calm down the riots, Gandhi set forth on a march in Bengal as well as Bihar, in a notion to bring forth peace. Mehta documented this march in Bihar.
Gandhi was a firm believer that citizens should live besides one another irrespective cast, creed and colour. Seeing India on the brink of partition, before Independence, was Gandhi’s biggest misery. Mehta has eloquently documented this misery in pictorial form; his evocative studies are a result of the proximity he shared with his subject, and they allow us a rare insight into the sorrows and agonies Gandhi carried.
The pictures taken in the last week of the March were taken in natural light and without flash – adding to their sense of reality and naturalism. Mehta was also not in heated competition with news photographers, which allowed him a much more privileged, relaxed and more genuine vantage point. He began approaching his subject with a pictorial instinct, and tried to get the best composition possible in order to reflect the inner divinity of Gandhi, whom many recognised as the Great Soul, Mahatma.
By looking the photographs shown bellow we can see how Mehta emancipated the strife Gandhi was facing. One of the images show Gandhi going for a walk, with his hands on two associates and the tall figure of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, walking by his side. The photograph has received immortality because of its perfect light and shade. Another shows Gandhi and his colleague talking deeply as they walk. The third and fourth show the contrast in emotions felt by Gandhi; a melancholic feeling appears to gloom over him, as the path for partition seems sure to happen. Gandhi’s dream of Muslim and Hindus living side by side seeming far from possible.
The photographs of Gandhi by Jagan Mehta evoke a sensation of beauty, although they document a time of great misery in India. Mehta captures the impossibility of one man’s humanitarian thought. Even though Gandhi’s ideals were accepted as divine by the people, they weren’t always implemented into their lives.
Mehta brings to light the inner feelings of Gandhi in pictorial form. Now in the 21st century, through these photographs, one can actually feel a glimpse of the hardship Gandhi went through, in trying to create a united country.
These photographs made Mehta world famous, but never rich. On return to Ahmadabad in 1948, he opened a studio, which closed in 1954. To succeed in business was perhaps not in Mehta’s stars.
From 1957 for 10 years he served as an official photographer. His last job was at the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay, where he documented stone carvings, bronze sculptures and paintings.
Mehta was known by his peers and friends to be a jovial and enthusiastic person during his lifetime. Even during his last years, he was keen on teaching younger students photography. Even at the age of 80 he was determined that he could still wield a camera. Jagan Mehta passed away on 10th February 2003.
– Srinath Iswaran