Can Gandhi be collected? And who can collect him? THE WEEK spoke to Peter Ruhe, a German collector who owns the copyright of Gandhi's pictures by Kanu Gandhi, to find out. Excerpts:
What got you interested in Gandhi?
For people outside India, it was difficult to get a realistic picture of Gandhi, and the material available for publication and research was limited. I found exhibitions an excellent way to reach out to a wide spectrum of society, hence I was always looking out for new material on Gandhi whenever I visited India. I did quite a bit of oral history and helped associates, contemporary witnesses and relatives of Gandhi to preserve their collections. In turn ,they allowed me to photograph or photocopy their material, or even gifted or sold it to me. I started a web site where this material got displayed.
There were a number of items I was excited to help preserve. The 26-minute film on Gandhi's march to Noakhali in November 1946 was in a very poor condition when I found it. The film was dehydrated and crumbled and I took it to the John Paul Getty Film Conservation Lab within the British Film Institute, London. Ten months later, I received a call informing me that the film had been saved! Today this rare film can be viewed at gandhimedia.org.
Did you ‘buy' Kanu Gandhi's collection of photos?
I met Kanu Gandhi in 1985 at his home in Rajkot and he showed me his photographs. After his death the following year I paid a visit to his widow, Abhaben, who was known as one of the two ‘living walking sticks' Gandhi used to lean on. When asked what she was going to do with the thousands of photographs of Gandhi lying around, Abhaben said she had no use for them, as she had lived with Gandhi and therefore does not need photographs in order to remember those precious days. I partly bought them and a part was given to me as present. Similarly, I got material from other sources as well and started marketing photographs on behalf of the rights holders. In India, Gandhi's photographs are all in public domain whereas outside India they're protected by the Berne Convention.
How would Gandhi have reacted to copyright issues?
He started Navajivan Trust for the dissemination and protection of his writings. He was concerned about copyright as it was the only way to ensure that works won't get altered after his death. Moreover, the income from licensing and sale of books helped support the Harijan cause. Gandhi allowed photographers a snap only against a donation for the cause. In the same spirit, we've been marketing Gandhi's photographs and other material. Our part of the share supports the educational and research work of the GandhiServe Foundation.