New Delhi: Recently, a debate has been sparked regarding the removal of certain historic photographs taken at the time of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on display at Delhi’s Gandhi Smriti.
The old Birla Bhavan, located on Tees January Marg in New Delhi, is known as Gandhi Smriti. It was here that Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead on January 30, 1948. Gandhi lived in this house from September 9, 1947 till January 30, 1948. The museum houses the memories of the last 144 days of Gandhi’s life.
The old Birla Bhavan was acquired by the government in 1971 and converted into a national memorial for the father of the nation, and was opened to the general public on August 15, 1973. Photographs and information regarding Gandhi’s time here and other historical events including his assassination have been collected and put on display.
The controversy surrounding the removal of photographs erupted last week, when Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar Gandhi alleged that photographs of the Mahatma’s final moments, captured by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, are now being digitised and displayed on an LED screen without captions, thus failing to provide the context and significance of these photographs.
Tushar claimed that removing the photographs was equivalent to erasing historic evidence. He said that it was like removing Renaissance paintings in the Louvre Museum in France and replacing them with digitised versions.
Shocked. The evocative photo gallery of Henri Cartier Brasson displaying the post murder photographs from the Gandhi Smriti have been removed from display on the orders of The Pradhan Sevak. Bapu’s Murderers are obliterating Historic evidence. He Ram!
— Tushar (@TusharG) January 16, 2020
Bresson took Mahatma Gandhi’s pictures almost an hour before his assassination on January 30, 1948. He also captured the common people’s grief on camera after his assassination, along with the photographs of his funeral.
The part of Birla House where Nathuram Godse opened fire on Gandhi after the evening prayer has been converted into a museum. Here, Bresson’s photographs are exhibited along with other memorabilia and photographs of Gandhi.
When a team of The Wire reached Gandhi Smriti museum to investigate Tushar’s claims, the staff as well as the director refused to say anything about it. The director said that nothing has changed and the photographs are still there.
However, while most of the photographs remain as they are in the photo gallery, only Bresson’s photographs concerning Bapu’s murder have been removed. Instead, a 42-inch LED screen has been put up, with a slideshow of images.
That it is a slideshow is not easily discernible, because the interval between changing images is long and at one glance the viewer may not realise that the photo is going to change.
When asked about the removal of the photographs, the director of Gandhi Smriti, Dipankar Shri Gyan initially refuted the claim saying, “The photographs are there along with the LED screen. If you wish, you can see both.”
However, he refused to say anything on camera. Though he did not show us all the photos, he got one of them placed right next to the LED screen. The panel with various photographs and manuscripts which was brought to us measured around 4×6 feet.
Gyan informed us that there are a total of 13 such panels that have been kept in a store room, but he seemed hesitant to show us those panels. Later, he told us that under the process of digitisation, some pictures have been removed. Those pictures will be displayed on a screen with an interval of two minutes each, he said.
Regarding the reason for the removal of the photographs, he said, “Visitors, especially children used to touch the photographs. Now, no one will touch them after digitisation. Music will play in the background, which will make the experience more pleasant.”
However, if it was merely a question of visitors tampering with the photos, other means could have been adopted, such as keeping them beyond the reach of visitors or putting them behind glass.
Another significant question that arises here is why only photos of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination were removed, while the rest of the pictures of his life hold their place. Why were the other pictures not removed or chosen for digitisation too?
The photos and texts were clearly visible and could be easily read in the panel which was brought to us in the gallery. But the photos displayed on the screen in the photo gallery were comparatively smaller and could not be clearly seen.
In addition, the captions on these photographs need to be read within two minutes because the image changes and the next image appears. When we shared our experience regarding the photographs and the panel, Gyan said, “It must be your ‘perception’.”
When he was asked about the panel from which the photos were removed, he told us that it would remain that way. If needed, they would be used in exhibitions, etc.
When asked on whose orders the changes were made, he initially refused to answer. But when we insisted, he told us that the decision was taken after an order of the higher management committee to remove the assassination-related photographs.
On the question of the role of the government in the removal of photographs, he replied, “Gandhi Smriti is an autonomous institution. The government only funds it.”
However, Tushar Gandhi finds the change shocking. Expressing his anger over the decision to replacing photographs of Gandhi’s assassination with an LED screen, he said, “Those were photographs taken by French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson. He had printed them and gifted them to Gandhi Smriti.”
“They were excellent and vibrant pictures of depicting the tale of Bapu’s murder and its aftermath,” added Tushar. “The pictures explained the history of the period and the events very well. When people saw those photographs and read the details, they easily comprehended the events that had happened and their historical significance.”
He claimed that the change has been made on the orders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “When I enquired why the pictures were removed, I came to know that PM Modi had visited the museum in November last year and the photos have been removed on his orders. I found it surprising and also saddening that a historical exhibit has been removed and people have been deprived from the knowledge of the history of that period and especially that particular event.”
“Among the photos removed from display was the photograph of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru delivering a historical speech (The Light has gone out of our Lives) on the evening of Gandhi’s assassination along with the script of the speech,” Tushar said.
According to Tushar, one of the exhibits also included the statement of an American journalist, an eyewitness of Gandhi’s assassination, in which the details of what he saw that evening were included with the picture. There was also a picture of the gun with which Bapu was killed.
The photographs should not have been removed, he said. If digitisation was to be done, it should have been done thoughtfully, because those pictures enhanced the dignity of Birla House.
“Everything must not be digitised,” he added. “Some things should be kept as it is, bearing in mind their philosophical significance. It made me sad as also to doubt that it was done intentionally to obliterate history in people’s minds and that removing the photographs is an attempt to muzzle the voices of the past.”
“Though all the images are getting displayed on the LED screen, they are much smaller in size,” he further said. “They are not as attractive as when they were bigger in size. Now, by the time you are able to understand what the photograph depicts, the image is gone. Often, people would simply pass by because they were not aware that the screens were exhibiting a slideshow of photographs.”
He termed the removal of photographs condemnable. “Those who removed the photos are not comfortable with this history because they are scared of it. They want to erase the evidence from history. They want Birla House to stay but the people to not know about its history.”
No question of removing the pictures, says Union minister for culture
Meanwhile, Union minister for culture Prahlad Patel said last Friday that replacing the original photograph of Mahatma Gandhi’s final moments taken by renowned photographer Henri Cartier Bresson on display at Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti with a print version is out of the question.
Patel told the reporters, “There is no question of removing the photographs. Both the LED screen and pictures will be displayed at separate locations simultaneously. Viewers will see the pictures on the LED screen as well as the photographs taken by the French photographer for a better and detailed understanding.”
(With inputs from PTI Bhasha)
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. You can read the Hindi original here.