Memories of the Mahatma: Family take on memorabilia industry

Gandhi rejected materialism but everything he touched has become a valued relic. Now his family wants to stop the trade in his memorabilia, reports Andrew Buncombe in Delhi
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He was the original minimalist, a man who spurned material possessions and fought for independence from Britain dressed only in a homespun loin-cloth and simple sandals. But sixty years after his death, the possessions of Mohandas Gandhi, known worldwide as Mahatma (Great Soul), regularly come under the auctioneer's hammer. Each time, the government in Delhi or an Indian businessman feels obliged to try to buy them for the nation.

But now a granddaughter of Gandhi has called on the authorities to stop trying to obtain every piece of memorabilia associated with the independence movement leader, saying its intervention at international auctions pushes up prices and detracts from his original message.

Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, also a member of the committee that advises the government on such sales, said the time had come to rethink the long-standing policy. In her office at Delhi's Birla House, the site of her grandfather's assassination, she said: "He lived with the minimum of things. He dressed like a farmer in the fields, a man in action. In Delhi, when he was here, he had no shoes and no socks."

Mrs Gandhi Bhattacharjee, whose father, Devdas, was the youngest of Gandhi's four sons, said the freedom leader's values were at odds with attaching high monetary value to items that may once have been in his possession. Moreover, because he gave so many things away, "if someone gave him a spoon he gave it away because he only needed one spoon to eat", there was no shortage of memorabilia linked to him that could be put up for sale.

She said that while some things, such as manuscripts, should be saved for the nation and placed in museums, she had now advised the government it need not seek to obtain everything linked with him. "That is the advice I gave, but there are still some people who think that every time there is something, we should try and get it back," said Mrs Gandhi Battacharjee, who was just 14 when her grandfather was killed by a Hindu extremist. "It inflates the prices. But it also takes up our energies [from dealing] with the problems we have today."

She said India had been slow to address the problems of poverty, discrimination and prejudice Gandhi had fought to change. Instead, some Indians had become increasingly interested in ostentatious consumerism. She added: "We are still waiting for the real liberation of the Indian people, respect for all life, for all forms of life, without exploitation of man or nature."

Ironically, many items of memorabilia that have come up for auction have been sold by members of the extended Gandhi family. This year, a 1910 Zenith sterling silver pocket watch was part of a controversial sale of items in the US. The watch, along with a bowl and a plate that were also sold, had originally been given by Gandhi to his grandniece, Abha Gandhi. The American who sold a total of five items, James Otis, said he had obtained all of them from members of the family or other auctions.

Gandhi was assassinated in the early evening of 30 January 1948 as he walked through the garden of Birla House, a large property in south Delhi owned by an industrialist in which the independence leader was staying in Delhi while he worked to end the bloodshed that had erupted during Partition six months earlier. Shot three times at point blank range by a Hindu nationalist, Nathuram Godse, as he made his way to a small temple to pray, Gandhi collapsed on the floor. The spot where he fell is today marked by a stone pillar inscribed with the words Hey Ram ("Oh God"), - said to have been his final words.

Later that evening, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, clambered on to the property's front gate to declare: "The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. I do not know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we call him, the father of the nation, is no more."

Yet despite Gandhi's background as a successful lawyer and the international fame he gained in securing India's freedom and developing the notion of non-violent resistance, he was a man with few possessions at the time of his death.

The room in which he slept, and in which he had been talking with a fellow independence leader, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, minutes before he was killed, contains a simple mattress, a small writing desk and wooden spinning wheel. In a display cabinet, are a pair of spectacles, a watch and a simple set of cutlery. "It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver," Gandhi once said.

In March, when Mr Otis auctioned the possessions, the Indian courts sought an order to stop him. In the end, the sale went ahead and Indian alcohol and aviation billionaire Vijay Mallaya stepped in with a £1.1m bid that secured the items, which he said should be saved for India.

In July, letters and postcards signed and autographed by Gandhi were bought in an auction by two entrepreneurs, Gulam Kaderbhoy Noon and Nat Puri. About £10,000 was paid for them and the items were presented to the Indian government. On both occasions, the advisory committee of which Mrs Gandhi Bhattacharjee told the government there was no need to try to intervene in the sales. She said the government had not yet officially responded.

But this month, the sale of a bronze statue that Gandhi gave to a female Irish friend went ahead without fanfare. The statue was reportedly sold at Bonhams for £7,000 without the Indian authorities trying to get involved, a possible indication that her committee's advice had been listened to.

"We are too close to history with regard to Gandhi," she said with a sigh. "People get very emotional still."