Exhibitions Kanu Gandhi's Mahatma

On the surface of it, it's a baffling thing, that a superb photographic legacy can be left to rot in obscurity for so many years. But then, when the legacy concerns the life of Mahatma Gandhi it's perhaps not so very surprising.

As a new exhibition at the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery reveals, the photographs taken by Kanu Gandhi, kinsman and disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, were a labour of love; it was never the intention of the photographer to be artistically appreciated or financially rewarded.

And these beautifully composed, naturally-lit black-and-white photographs, which offer an extraordinary insider's view of Gandhi's life and work, are all the more compelling when you consider that we would not be seeing them but for a chance meeting.

Saleem Arif, a London-based artist, was on an Arts Council-sponsored trip to his native India when he was invited to visit the town of Rajkot where he was introduced to Abhaben Gandhi in what he describes as "a moment of grace". A conversation about photography led her to show him her late husband's photographs. Amazed by what he saw, Arif learned that Kanu and Abhaben Gandhi had met when they were both "given" by their parents to the Gandhi household as "sacrifices to the cause". Abhaben was 13, Kanu was 17. They married, with Gandhi's blessing, when Abhaben was 18.

Kanu Gandhi began to photograph his mentor when he was given a Leica camera - on the strict condition that he use only natural light. According to Abhaben, her husband was aware that he was recording a monumental piece of history but was never interested in personal recognition. The day that Gandhi was assassinated (he died in Abhaben's arms), was the day that Kanu stopped taking photographs.

Although some of the images are well-known in India, until now only a small exhibition in Delhi has shown the work under the artist's name. This is the first time the work has been seen outside the country.

In a state of deterioration due to impossible conditions (heat, insects and dust), Saleem Arif has now overseen the restoration of around 100 of the prints and negatives. And while Abhaben was only too pleasd for her husband's work to receive aesthetic appreciation, she donated her entire loan fee to charity, preferring to continue living a simple yet dignified life. (Kanu died in 1986 and she died a couple of months ago.)

The photographs themselves are a revelation - the range of camera angles, feel for composition and the eye for detail is faultless. In what amounts to a compassionate and intimate visual diary, Kanu has captured Gandhi's actions and philosophy both in moments of solitude and interacting with famous politicians, attending prayer meetings, talking with lepers and addressing vast crowds.

An image where he is seen spinning cotton takes on greater significance when you consider an extract from Kanu Gandhi's memoirs: "In a train from Kalka to Delhi, late at night, Bapu [Mahatma's affectionate name] asked for his spinning wheel. I protested. He was exhausted, the train was shaky. 'This is my ritual. It is to be carried out, however adverse the situation,' he replied. 'I see the prosperity of our country in each thread spun out of this wheel.'"

Most disturbing, however, are the fasting photographs. And seeing this tired, old man lying inert in bed, it's impossible not to be deeply moved. Not from pity, but from admiration at such unflinching self-sacrifice. Which is, surely, all that Kanu Gandhi, photographer, would have wished for.

'Kanu Gandhi's Mahatma: 1938-1946', Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery (0116 247 3001) 29 Jul to 1 Oct