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Owning a piece of Gandhi's life is tough in India

November 09, 2013 17:42 IST

It's easier to claim a slice of Gandhi memorabilia in the West than in India, says Kishore Singh

The photograph that your grandfather had of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi with half a head of hair, standing deferentially in his company; your mother’s autograph of Bapu, somewhat crumpled but distinctive enough for his signature to show through; a signed copy of a book donated by the Mahatma to a library from where it was filched by a late honourary relative: it’s time to earn some remuneration from these provided you can get them to ye ol’ England and an auction house there with a fistful of provenance papers.

For all the noise about the father of the nation’s memorabilia being a national treasure, auction houses are heating up as more and more mementos associated with Gandhi come under the hammer in the West.

These have included his iconic eyeglasses -- regrettably, those in the Sabarmati Ashram are replicas -- and his spinning wheel, somewhat worn sandals, documents, letters, wills (of which he seems to have written a few), newspaper clippings, prayer beads, bed linen: the detritus of his life that had probably been retained by people who valued them not so much for their fiscal worth as much as their emotional or even historical association with one of the most significant leaders of the 21st century.

It is this stuff that has been turned into auctioneering bounty in this century with more and more Gandhi collectables coming under the baton.

Mullock’s auction house in Ludlow, Shropshire -- sounding delightfully like an address from a P G Wodehouse novel -- has been at the centre of much of this action, including, bizarrely, a pinch of soil and grass stained by his blood taken from the spot where he was shot dead in 1948.

Did someone back then imagine the fortune it might earn a few decades later?

Unfortunately, no right to information can earn us the names of the consignees of this and other ephemera as they choose to conceal themselves behind smokescreens for fear of ridicule or, worse, persecution, yet not all of it might have been smuggled out -- the Mahatma was not averse to sharing personal possessions with associates -- though it cannot be ruled out that some of the treasures may, in fact, have been moved out of the country in more recent times for reasons that might be less than altruistic.

After all, this week a modified charkha, a “last” will and other relics sold for Rs 1 crore, most bids for which came online, showing an interest far beyond the idyllic setting of bucolic Britain.

Earlier buyers have included Kamal Morarka (he bought the bloodstained soil as part of the 29 lots that Mullock’s auctioned last year for approximately Rs 90 lakh) and Vijay Mallya (whose bid included a blood test from Irwin Hospital, besides Gandhi’s glasses and sandals) from Antiquorum Auctioneers that ran to an alleged $1.8 million.
Despite protests that Gandhi memorabilia belongs exclusively to the nation, recent auctions have drawn less attention and even less flak, perhaps recognising the need of individuals to own a part of Bapu’s tokens. Besides, institutions in India are hardly flush enough with funds to bid for these items at an open auction. Much of Gandhi’s legacy lies in tatters across several museums.

That there is already so much in their archives, and given that there is nothing controversial -- yet -- in the auction lots, interest by dubious upholders of Gandhi’s legacy is fading away.

In the West, there is an active auction market for memorabilia, whether Princess Diana’s dresses or Hollywood glitter, something that has not yet caught on in India. Attempts to flog iconic Bollywood paraphernalia have been largely flaccid.

But then, few would have the nerve to stir a hornet’s nest with an auction of, say, Indira Gandhi’s saris that she might have gifted to a few select friends whose families now probably own these “treasures”.

Sadly, Indians tend to view such activities as commerce rather than one where it allows people from different walks of life to possess (and document) a slice of life of someone they might have admired.

It is what makes us poor collectors, and, certainly, poor archivists. Princely baubles in the past have been hawked for the value of gold and gemstones without factoring in any historic worth, considered nebulous at best.

There is much to be said for such auctions to be conducted in India rather than in the West for the customs duties they attract when bringing the so-called assets back to the country -- surely a more lenient view needs to be taken when claiming something for the country, as Vijay Mallya had complained when he had bid successfully for Tipu Sultan’s legacy, including his famous sword, but which sadly did not find the kind of favour from the government that Sachin Tendulkar’s Ferrari did.

If such duties could be avoided, or at least decreased, and the issue of antiquities rationalised, the possibility of memorabilia being brought to India for auctioning, instead of being smuggled out -- as is currently the case -- might actually prove more helpful. Bapu’s heritage might then find a home among the aam Indians whose claim on him is at least as strong as the nation’s.

Kishore Singh