A collector of Mahatma Gandhi memorabilia on the demand for mementos of his life and death
70 years after his death, there's a brisk trade in memorabilia related to Mahatma Gandhi | #FirstCulture
Exactly 70 years ago today, 30 January 2018, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated at Birla House in Delhi at 3.30 pm. Ever since, every aspect of his life and work has been studied all over the world, and he remains one of history's most recognised men, globally. At least one book is published on Gandhi every year, as historians and social scientists continue to revisit him with fresh eyes (and perspectives). This enduring appeal has also been — in a sense — Gandhi’s undoing, as a sizeable narrative has now come to be written against him. More than the studious inquiry, Gandhi has also been elevated to the level of myth and hype of popular culture. From being joked about in shows such as Seinfeld, to being on t-shirts around the world, Gandhi has outlasted the cycle of fame and remembrance itself. Consistent with that theme are the many odd things associated with Gandhi that are now treated as collectibles. Odder still is the number of people, who search for, sell and collect them.
Bengaluru-based Jayaprakash Sarda claims he is the most ardent of Gandhi collectors. “I have close to 8,000 newspapers from the pre-Independence era that mention Gandhi. I started with stamps in the '80s. But in the late '90s, I came across papers through some dealers who contacted me. Most of these came from Gujarat and Rajasthan. I decided then that I would only collect Gandhi (related papers),” Sarda says. What Sarda means by 'dealers' is agents who actively look for and sell Gandhi-related memorabilia, not only in India, but throughout the world. There is, according to Sarda, a whole industry of collectors, agents and scouts around Gandhi within India itself. “I think there must be more than 1,000 collectors within India.”
Some of the Gandhi memorabilia in Sarda’s possession sounds truly unique. From the announcement of Gandhi’s death in nine international languages to telegrams exchanged between British officials that chastised the man, Sarda’s collection both venerates and humanises the 'Mahatma'. But what about the authenticity of these? “There is rigour to all of this. I read as much history as professors and historians. There are a number of people who’d want to con a collector that a letter was written by Gandhi, or tea cup was from some ashram and so on. There are societies, like the Royal Nuismatic Society, that evaluate and authenticate these objects. Once the history adds up, I buy,” Sarda says. The buying and selling part of this informal industry is huge. For example, a set of six stamps that the Government of India launched as a limited edition soon after Gandhi's death was recently sold at an auction for several crores.
Sarda claims to know of things that have escaped historical documentation all together. “A few years ago, this man who has helped me with most of my collection from Gujarat and Rajasthan, got hold of a file. The file contained correspondence between officials during the days leading up to and after the Dandi march. As you’d know, there was a media blackout for the march. At a place called Viramgam in Gujarat, a number of men were beaten, some maybe even killed. Most gruesomely, women were beaten on their private parts with wooden bats that had barbed wire rolled around it. This information and the story of Viramgam has never gotten out and I have the only surviving proof that any of this ever happened,” Sarda says.
Apart from letters, papers and other documents, Sarda also owns three charkhas that Gandhi himself worked on. “More than a decade ago, I got a call from someone in a Tamil Nadu village. This person knew about me. A woman who had lived and worked with Gandhi in the ashram had left behind a charkha. The family did not throw it away, because they thought it was of value. Somehow the news of its discovery made its way to me and I travelled to the village to get it,” he says.
It is near incredible that even 70 years later, these objects keep cropping up. The reason they do is also because they have become commodities that can be bought and sold. “There can be — and there are — dry periods, but eventually something or the other turns up in a couple of months. It is largely because people have kept things in their trunks or hidden away in tin boxes that they do not know the value or historic importance of,” Sarda says. Is there then something that everyone is looking for? “Of course, the fourth bullet that (Nathuram) Godse fired at Gandhi is still missing.”
Sarda now has a network across the country. Anything related to the Mahatma, wherever it pops up, he is amongst the first to know. Regardless of that association, Sarda has his own critique of the man and doesn’t necessarily agree with him on every idea, something he is clear to point out. That said there must surely be that one prized asset that he has been waiting all these years to get his hands on. “During Godse’s trial he spoke extempore for more than an hour or so about why he killed Gandhi. The Hindustan Times was then the only paper who got the transcript and printed it. (Jawaharlal) Nehru immediately forced the press to pull the edition and burn all printed copies. But some must have gotten out. I’ve been waiting to get mine till today,” he says.