In November of 2011, I took my six students from Duke University who were studying in India to Sevagram, Gandhi’s ashram near Wardha in Maharashtra, as part of a course I had been teaching on Gandhi. This was my second visit to Sevagram. After we had walked around the ashram for a few hours, each following our individual impulse to explore and absorb, we gathered for the early evening meal that had been cooked by the residents of the ashram. We ate this wholesome meal of generous but not wasteful quantities quietly in an outer area that adjoined the kitchen. In customary ashram practice, we washed our plates with ash left in a bowl near the washing area. As the rays of the winter sun dipped and the giant trees quickly loomed over the rectangular courtyard whose perimeter was marked by bamboo sticks (suggesting an open but interior space of the ashram), we gathered for the evening prayer, taking part in a tradition established during Gandhi’s stay at Sevagram. We rolled out mats on the gravelly earth and sat facing a tall pipal tree.
A wooden stand with a placard on it read, in Hindi, Bapu dvara vriksharopan [tree-planted by Bapu] and in English, Pipal Planted By Bapu, noting the year as 1936. Amidst the sound of night insects, the stillness of all other activity at the ashram, and in the light of a kerosene lamp, songs and prayers in different languages were sung from many sacred traditions to the accompaniment of an Ektara, the single-stringed instrument characteristic of the Indian street singer. One resident worked his spinning wheel while singing; he explained later to some of my students who asked, that spinning helped him maintain concentration. Despite my reluctance to participate in public, collective recitations of scripture or prayer, this evening in Sevagram was the most moving experience of community I had ever felt.
I had first visited Sevagram in 2010 in the company of Mr. Narasimha Murthy (Dodda Murthy), a retired teacher in Sringeri (Karnataka) where I had spent many years doing ethnographic research on ethics and everyday life. Dodda Murthy had lived for a few weeks in Sevagram in 1944 when Gandhi was still there. I wrote about the impact of Dodda Murthy’s visit on him in my book of ethics in everyday life in 2006.
Intrigued by the life-transformation gradually instantiated in Mr. Murthy by his encounter with Gandhi, in 2010, I took Dodda Murthy to Sevagram—66 years after his first and only visit there. It was a return that he had dreamed of for over six decades but had never been able to make. He walked around in a silent reminiscence, peering into huts that housed Gandhi’s few belongings, now with signs for visitors. Occasionally he paused to say, “He [Gandhi] used to walk along this path every morning” or “This was where the tub used to be—he used to take long baths and get an oil massage before his bath” or “All vegetables came from the ashram’s gardens which used to be in that area.”
As I followed Dodda Murthy around the ashram, there was a new reality to the narrations of the 1944 stay that I had heard from him twice, first in 1995 and then again in 2004.
The walk through the ashram was an embodied recollection of a profoundly impressionable time in his life that had become integral to his self-formation. He had also shared with me the essay he had published in 1952 in a well-known Kannada daily called Tāyināḍu (Motherland) on his Sevagram experience. In it, he notes his astonishment at the remote location and the aridity of the village of Shegaon where the ashram was situated: “Perhaps the Mahatma selected this location for Sevagram,” Dodda Murthy writes, “so that he could transform this most backward region in India.” But other than these narrations, Dodda Murthy had not discussed with me or with others Gandhian methods and principles, nor had he joined rallies and causes. Neither had he ostensibly served disadvantaged fellow-citizens. In fact, I had been completely surprised when I heard him identified by another Sringeri resident as the “Gandhian in town.”
Dodda Murthy’s initial attraction to Gandhi had been sparked by his readings, by the ardent nationalistic spirit of his peers and his teachers, and by the general mood of India rising toward its independence. However, a lifelong transformation was initiated at Sevagram when Dodda Murthy came into direct contact with Gandhi. Sevagram ceased to be the arid back of nowhere, becoming instead the middle of everywhere in his life. Perhaps it was Dodda Murthy’s personal simplicity, his deferral of judgment of others, his continuous self-reflection, and his openness to diverse viewpoints and lifestyles while himself adhering to a traditional Hindu lifestyle, that together contributed to his being perceived as the “Gandhian in town.” So why had Gandhi moved Dodda Murthy so much?
As I followed 91-year old Dodda Murthy round in Sevagram, I realized his silent reminiscence, powerfully expressed in the emotive language of the body, was best captured through the medium of film. Mr. Murthy’s walk around the ashram returned me to his verbalized narrations but with new questions: Why had Gandhi so moved him? The encounter had transformed him deeply. He did not enter politics nor did he become a social activist; he chose instead to become a schoolteacher in his small town of Sringeri, Karnataka. And yet the town community regards him a Gandhian. Why?
Thus was born idea of a documentary film Moved by Gandhi which will narrate the quiet stories of such nonviolent unpretentious people who have been moved by Gandhi. Their passion is a contrast to the clamor of chest-thumping extremists. The documentary will take on an experimental approach as it speaks to various people across India who have been moved by Gandhi—people who have seen Gandhi, people who can only imagine him, and people who engage him critically but are still influenced by him,
The stories we have followed so far tell us Moved by Gandhi will be an exciting adventure with unexpected insights into questions that affect all of us like:
- How can one find solidarity amidst difference?
- How do people engage burning questions of justice and truth in everyday life?
- Is social protest a valid means of seeking justice or is it anarchist?
- Is simplicity possible in a world bursting with commercial choice?
In the spirit of Gandhian collectivism, we would love for you to join us on this journey. Learn more on Kickstarter.
The documentary is being made along with Professor Baba Prasad.