Are we, Gujarati, a forgetful people or ungrateful people? The question is more than a million dollars worth because you have no answer many a time. One such occasion was the birth centenary of an extra-ordinary ordinary Gujarati, Jagan Mehta. It fell on January 29, 2009, a day before the Martyrs’ Day, which coincided with the day of assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

Only one low-key function washeld under the auspices of Gujarat Lalit Kala Akadami.An exhibition of Jagan Mehta’s photographs of Gandhiji and others was opened in Ahmedabad as the sole tribute to the camera wizard. Gandhian leader Narayan Desai and some others were to speak but skipped speaking as a mark of respect for the late President R Venkataraman, whose passing away was being mourned by the nation and no official celebration could be held.Everybody grumbled privately, but being good, obedient Gujaratis, refrained from unburdening their souls.

Gujaratis as a people are largely unaware of the tall feats by the photographic excellence of Jaganbhai. The apathy also brought back a flood of memories of a meeting with him in 1986. The hour-long encounter with the camera wizard remains firmly etched in the mind. The memory trailer has been ever green because thereafter Jaganbhai became a phone friend.

The body showed the ravages of time, the face a map of wrinkles, veins standing out like a canal network on the back of his palms, the left hand supported by a cast owing to a shoulder bone injury in a fall, and a corset around the spine.

But, then the  86-year-old Jagan Mehta, a photographer who is world famous for his sensitive Gandhi pictures taken during the Mahatma's peace march in the riot-torn Bihar in March,1947, was old in flesh only. The spirit, as revealed by his firm voice and bubbling enthusiasm about his lifelong passion, photography, was young - and willing.

He said, with obvious pride: “I can still wield a camera, maybe not with a great speed. But I can still capture good photographs." Before he had a fall, hurting his shoulder, he had taken a couple of lovely shots of the noted Gujarati writer, Josef Macwan.

Of the innumerable photographs Jagan Mehta had clicked over the past decades, pictures captured during the six momentous days, stood out. The 40-odd pictures of the peace march of Gandhiji earned him a world-wide recognition, not because these were news pictures, but because these were superbly evocative studies of the agonies and sorrow of someone whom millions of his countrymen had ,during his lifetime only, hailed as the Great Soul, Mahatma.

These pictures have been shown all over the globe, including for a year-and-a-half in the United States of America alone.

These and other treasure-trove of photographic records of yesteryear are now in steel cupboards at Mehta's house in Chandranagar society, in Paldi area of Ahmedabad, not far from the bed on which the old photographer slept and breathed his last. In the Spartan house, there is no indication of the documentary wealth it is holding.”I never was good at making money all my life", Jagan Mehta used to explain, without a trace of regret.

In truth, his life has been a story of grit, determination and struggle throughout. And, yet, for all the trials and tribulations, the man, now known as Jagan but originally christened as Jagannth, was a jovial person. He smiled easily, laughed heartily, launched into a discussion readily and pottered around the room, rummaging the cupboards and bags to locate a photograph about which he was talking. Dressed in a khadi shirt and pyjama,he was  more than ready to help a younger man in photography. Even as he remembered the olden days,in 1986,he noticed the camera of a friend, Gautam Mehta. Surfacing in the present from the past he asked Gautam: "Is it a Pentax ?"

Born in 1909,in the house of Vasudev Vaidya, Jaganbhai was interested in painting from his school days, doing art work in both pencil and colour. His father was a well-known Ayurveda physician in Gujarat in those days and his grand-father, Ganpatram, too was a vaidya of repute,having studied Ayurveda under the renowned specialist of yesteryear,Zandu Bhatt. Recalled Jaganbhai:” Although my father was a noted vaidya himself, he never made much money for two reasons. He was a very sensitive soul, never able to bring himself up to charging the poor for treatment. He would say,' If I charge fee from a poor, the money creates a  burning sensation in my hands.' Secondly, he had been a follower of Mahatma Gandhi ever since the Mahatma came to Ahmedabad, first to the Kochrab Ashram and then to the Sabarmati Ashram.Vasudevbhai was among the pioneers, along with Indulal Yagnik,Hariprasad Desai and others to have attended the Congress session in Godhra in days when the session did not attract many."

Vasudevbhai had settled in Sanand, some 18 km away from Ahmedabad,and was never hankering after either wealth or fame. The son, who had an innate liking for art, had begun to do drawings and paintings quite early in his student days. Ravishankar Raval, who was hailed as Gujarat's kala guru ,was a close friend of Jaganbhai's father.So,when after failing in his matriculation examination in 1929,Jagan told his father that he wanted to pursue painting as a career and would like to go to Bombay to join the J J School of Arts, the first thing the vaidya did was to consult Ravishankar Raval.Recalled Jaganbhai:"My father could not afford the money for sending me to Bombay,although we had no problem in meeting day to day expenses. A living example of Gandhian simplicity,father never had that kind of money."

Raval at that time was bringing out Kumar magazine in Ahmedabad,along with an associate, Bachubhai Rawat. He saw young Jagan's art output, and asked him to work with him for Kumar."Ravibhai guided me in painting and also got me interested in photography, impressing upon me that photography was going to play an important role. I would go out of town also with Ravibhai and take photographs. I was barely 20 years of age then."

Jaganbhai was very proud that he had learnt the ABC of painting as well as photography from Ravishankar Raval."I took to photography very keenly, and got so much into it that painting got left behind. Soon I was good at working in the dark room too, washing, developing and printing pictures."

Ravibhai had set the young man on the road to photographer's life by presenting him with a Maximark camera. It was in 1933 that Jaganbhai took his first photograph of Gandhiji. Bapu had come to the Sharda Mandir for a meeting. Remembered the photographer: "I took the camera and the open stand to keep it on. I took three or four snaps, one of which came out very well. It was a very evocative picture."

In 1934,Jaganbhai got a scholarship of the then Bhavnagar state for going to Vienna, Austria to study at the Institute of Graphic Arts there.” Mind you, I was not a resident of the old Bhavnagar state. I used to go there with Ravibhai and still the ruler, Krishnakumarsinhji, was so nice that he gave me the scholarship." In August of that year,Jaganbhai left Ahmedabad for Austria, leaving behind wife,Malti,and his parents, friends and the familiar surroundings.

He pursued studies and research in photography, reproduction techniques, and photo-gravure printing and allied areas for more than a year and a half. During this period, he came in contact with a number of Indian leaders such as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and became secretary of the Hindustan Academical Association set by Bose in Vienna,and later the underground movement in India.

In Vienna,everything seemed going well when tragedy struck. Well into the second year of his scholarship and assured of the third year,Jaganbhai fell sick. He had very high temperature in the beginning,later it was judged that he had a spinal problem, probably TB of the spine. He was hospitalised for 33 days, and when discharged at the end, he was told to spend a lot of time resting at hill stations and nursing his health back.” I had been living very frugally in Austria, cooking my own meals.But,after this illness, there was but no option to return home. My family too was worried stiff. I had been wearing a leather corset, sleeping on a flat bed, just like a living mummy in a coffin. I had such an excruciating pain in the vertebrae that I sometimes felt it was better to die than to suffer like that. I spent some five months in different sanatoria and hill stations in Austria before returning to India in May, 1936."

The old man looked out of the verandah of his modest home as he recalled those painful days. In the trees outside,crows were making a ruckus,but he did not seem to register it. "I was really in the state of a Trishanku,suspended between the planet earth and heaven. Back home, my father started my treatment, his medicines, sunbath, and home-made food rich in calcium. I began moving around on my own in 1938.But a big question was: what next?"

"Till then, I had not pursued photography as an independent profession. True, I had taken some pictures but that was not as a professional,"he remembered.Then,he got some assignments to go round Kankaroli,Udaipur and Mount Abu for photography and the work turned out to be very good. "I felt a surge of self-confidence and at the age of 30,in 1939, took a plunge as a photographer, launching what I called photo home service. The idea was to tell people that so long they were going to a studio for getting their pictures taken. Here was I who would go to their home and snap them in familiar, homely situations. I can see in my mind's eye even today myself going round in 1940 on a bicycle,with folding reflectors and a camera,for photography.I used to eke out enough to make both the ends meet,but I was never unduly worried,or impressed by money.Probably, it was the Gandhian upbringing in our house—a nationalist’s house- that led to it."

He had a friend,Dr Manubhai Trivedi, the son of a well-known Gujarati J.P.Trivedi who had made a name in Pune in those days. Manubhai had been to Vienna to study medicine, chiefly because he did not want to study in England. Later he shifted to Wardha at the suggestion of Late Jamnalal Bajaj and settled there as a medico.

Said Jaganbhai: "I had got an idea around that time that Gandhiji's day-to-day activities and life should be documented in photographs, and if possible on film too because one day all this would be of immense historic value. I had been writing to Manubhai in Wardha, tossing about the idea. Manubhai said it was a good idea and encouraged me to pursue it.

Recalled the photographer: "Though Manubhai was enthusiastic, I could not avail of his invitation to go to Wardha for several years.As I do introspection today, perhaps, I was lacking in a spirit of adventure. Or, perhaps it was because of the principle that I would never borrow money for anything.

He said,” Maybe God had ordained it that way. But an opportunity did come by in 1947.I was close to Madhavsinh ,a follower of Shri Devendraprasadji Maharaj of the Kalupur Swaminarayan temple and a painter himself.He asked me to accompany the entourage of the Maharaj to Ayodhya where at the Haumangadhi the mundan ceremony of today's Kalupur acharya,Shri Tejendraprasadji was to take place.I went there to do photography and  chanced upon a news item that Gandhiji was to make a peace tour in the riot-hit Bihar where communal trouble had sparked while the Mahatma was in Noakhali.I sought permission of the Acharya for going to Patna." Not only permission, Devendraprasadji also gave him Rs.400.Jaganbhai already had some Rs.200 he brought from home when going to Ayodhya. With this princely amount the photographer set out on his mission; he had no introduction from any newspaper, no idea if he would be allowed to join the tour.

In Patna,an old friend,Gunwant Jani, who had been living there for some years, helped him get aboard the train on which the Mahatma was travelling.

The historic pictures, taken in the last week of March, were in natural light, without any flash. Nor was Jaganbhai in mad competition with news photographers. He approached the subject as a pictorialist,intent on achieving best composition possible to reflect the inner divinity of Gandhiji. One of these, showing Bapu going for a walk,with hands on the shoulders two associates and the tall figure of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan,the Frontier Gandhi,walking on a side, has since been used countless times. The photograph has achieved a sort of immortality because of the perfect light and shade combination.Another showed Gandhi and his colleagues,talking as they walked.The third one depicted the agony of the carnage,with a riot-hit sitting on ground with folded hands in front of Gandhiji.The Mahatma listened to the man's woes with his head down,as if the burden of the misguided deeds of his countrymen was solely on his head.Yet another photograph brought out the pensive mood in which Bapu was sitting at a meeting,surrounded by followers, present physically, but wearing an expression of profound sorrow on the face, as if he were somewhere else.

Jaganbhai remembers one episode  most vividly, although he could not locate the print of the picture immediately. "I learnt that Bapu was to visit a  poor man's house badly damaged by the mobs.I reached it early, and occupied a vantage point in a corner of the hut.As Gandhiji  entered the place,the woman of the house touched his feet, crying. Bapu and another associate bent down to help her rise to her feet. I clicked away, capturing the moment showing the Mahatma lending a helping hand to the hapless woman, agony of the mankind writ large on his face. The frame was very moving and everybody around wept.

The pictures made him world-famous, but never rich. On return to Ahmedabad,Jaganbhai opened a studio on the Relief Road in 1948,only to close it down six years later in 1954. "To succeed in business was perhaps not in my stars," he ruminated.

For ten years from 1957,he served as an official photographer,the last one, at the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay,capturing in his camera excavated ancient bronze sculptures,paintings,stone carvings and other archaeological invaluables ,which too have been shown in a number of exhibitions in different parts of the country.The starting salary was Rs.250 a month.

Returning home, he worked for a year at the National Institute of Design for the Nehru exhibition project. In 1968, he joined the C.N.Fine Arts College to teach phtography on a nominal remuneration. It was a part-time job,but he used to devote full five days a week since his friend Rasiklal Parikh, a great painter, was the principal.

He had another passion-- that of photographing Gujarati writers and poets of repute,even if he were not to earn a single paise from the work.He had a collection of some 250 such pictures of literary personalities,another invauable collection of which many do not know.

In his twilight years, he lived with his son and grand-son, relishing the rich memories."I had to face trials and tribulations, but my wife, Malti, who died  at the age of 75, stood by me like a rock. During my studies and illness in Vienna, it was she who looked after the family,as also when I went away to Bombay. Never did shegrumble about anything in our life. Both my sons, Upendra and Bipin too owe a lot to her."

Jaganbhai was different from other old achievers; he rarely said "I did this or I did that." Instead, he would say such and such work got done through him. His modesty was matched only by his generosity to give of his time ,experience and knowledge to other young professionals. :"Whatever one has learnt should be passed on to others. We should not become possessive, even of knowledge, wisdom or experience. Doing so gives me great pleasure in life.I am in the evening of my life, contented and happy to be with  family members. God has been greatly kind to me."  Vishwa Gurjari bestowed upon him the 1995 Gujarat Award ,commemoriating his achievements. By a sheer coincidence,this happened to the 125h birth anniversary year of the Mahatma.

The uncomplaining wizard left this world quietly. He never aspired fame and we the Gujarati people have ensured it that he remains in the small print in the footnotes of our history.The question still begs an answer: are we forgetful or ungrateful? God only knows. Hey Ram!!!

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches

Rohit Mehta, who died at the age of 86 at Varanasi on March 20, 1995, is remembered differently by different people. Some recall his cogently thought and delivered lectures on philosophy. Some talk of him as a man with legendary memory who could quote flawlessly from Sri Aurobindo,Upanishad,Gita as also Marx, a teacher with a vast repertoire and a subtle sense of humour and a prolific writer,and a man of unfailing kindliness.

Still some  others think of him as a charismatic personality, donned most of the time in spotlessly white dhoti and yellowish khadi-silk kurta,slightly stocky in build,and wearing a black-framed pair of spectacles over deep penetrating eyes.He was brilliant, but never flamboyant, solid but never seeking recognition, an original thinker who could easily and without showing any burden mix with the most ordinary.

An unusual man who was extra-ordinary in many respects, and yet strove to conceal all this under modesty and nonchalance

Remembered Late Prof.P G Mavalankar, former M.P. and a well-read man himself: “Rohitbhai was a five-in-one personality - a thinker,philosopher,interpreter, writer and speaker, clear in thought and precise in language and eloquent in delivery. All these took him to the top.” He was all this, and much more.

A many spleandoured man,Rohitbhai as he was universally known was not just a run-of-the-mill freedom-fighter,a socialist-turned-spiritualist. He was in the world class, a thing about which he never had to seek certificates or to boast. Yet, he was so self-effacing that one would have to hunt for a photograph of his.

How tall was he could be measured from the fact that he was one of the pioneers of the Socialist Forum within the Congress in the early 1930s .He went to prison repeatedly, starting from student days and would have gone far had he stuck to politics. It was Rohitbhai who introduced a then young Morarji Desai to the youths during the freedom struggle.

He quit it in 1935,and was never to regret it.

He penned more than 25 books on philosophy, delivered thousands of lectures all over the world and sought to interpret the coming world far ahead of his time to his contemporaries. He was an able interpreter of his friend and philosopher,J.Krishnamurti,of Gita,of Upnishads and Yoga.

Yet, he was no parochial a preacher. His vision could embrace technology and spell out its impact on society and mankind far ahead of his fellow human beings.

What he diagnosed in 1950 in one of his early volumes, The Intuitive Philophy,rings so prophetic after 59 years today,as if it has been foreseen in minute detail by him.He said: “Ever since the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, there have appeared such factors in our society as have led to rapid and revolutionary changes in the socio-economic structure of the world. This tendency towards rapid changes has been considerably intensified by the scientific advance in the course of the last 100 years and more. Large-scale economic production and the breaking down of the barriers of space have been the two most outstanding features of the social and economic revolution which began in the 19th century and which still continues its onward march.”

“The new means of transport and communications, moving at terrifically increasing speeds, have eliminated distances between countries and have thus brought the peoples of all nations suddenly together. Along with this advance there has been an enormous increase in the scientific and mechanical skill as applied to economic production. This scientific technique is becoming more and more perfect so that there is today production of economic goods on a colossal scale. These goods must be sold and one country is too small an economic unit for the absorption of commodities produced on a mass basis. This factor of large-scale economic production, coupled with the elimination of distances, has tended to break down national barriers. Economic life has become international, for economic trends during the last years have moved in the direction of world unity.”

He perceptively observed: “But this economic currents have been obstructed in their progress by political forces. While the world is becoming one on the economic plane, it is kept divided on the political level. The idea of complete national sovereignty does not leave its hold on the minds of the people.”
He said:” One of the major contradictions of our age is this: the trend towards unity in the economic sphere and the maintenance of national sovereignty on the political plane. ... This is one of the paradoxes of our civilisation that while we desire for peace, we work for war !”

“Man’s psychological inability or refusal to adjust himself to the requirements of technological revolution has created an immense problem for our human civilisation...We cannot stop the advance of science producing continual changes in the material conditions of life, nor can we stop the activity of the mind which makes every change in the objective conditions too dangerous for the very existence of human civilisation. It may sound strange to say our generation is mentally tired while it has reached new heights of mental development through scientific advance.”

He thought specialisation and over-specialisation was the craze of the modern age, which had enabled us to create a wall between the real problem of life and us, the real problem being the increasing mental tension in the life of the individual. The problem of the individual, according to Rohitbhai, was to discover the fundamental value of life. Today the subjective life of man has been rendered extremely poor while the objective conditions are changing at a terrific pace. Man is trying to cover up his inner poverty by erecting huge mansions for social, political and economic activities. But these activities, instead of providing relief, gradually create greater and greater psychological tension in the life of the individual. Probably at no time in human history was the gulf between the subjective and objective factors as great as it is today. Unless harmony is established anew between these two factors, the human crisis is likely to move towards a deepening horror, the result of which will be complete destruction of our civilisation. We must discover a philosophical approach that would enrich the subjective life of man.” Prophetic words, coming from a man then in his early forties, and that was ages before Alvin Toffler had dreamt of his Future Shock.

Rohitbhai was born on August 3,1908 at Surat in the family of Hasmanram,who used to be a professor in physics at the Elphinstone college,Bombay.The bright child was destined to do unusual things from the early age. At the age of 18,he led a student strike in the Gujarat college in Ahmedabad against the dictatorial behaviour of its principal F.Shiraz.His two other associates were Jayanti Dalal, writer and Nirubhai Desai,who later became a famous journalist and author.Shiraz had ordered that no student shall participate in any political activity.The strike continued for three months at the end of which the young Rohitbhai was rusticated from the college and the Bombay university, according to Dr Bhaskar Vyas of Baroda.

Between 1926 and 1934,the young man was sent to jail five times for his activities in the freedom struggle, making him a blue-eyed boy of Mahatma Gandhi. He had already been an avid socialist by then, a core member of the group believing in socialism within the Congress in those days. During the floods in 1927-28,Rohitbhai did a lot of work for the poor.

He went to jail during the salt satyagraha too and in 1934,Rohitbhai was handed a two-year term of hard labour, and sent to Ahmednagar.The heat and hard work in breaking stones there led to a terrible illness. He suffered a sun-stroke and then was partly paralysed. The alarmed authorities rushed him to the KEM Hospital in Bombay under the care of Dr Jivraj Mehta, who was to later become the first chief minister of Gujarat.

Rohitbhai had refused even to go on parole but the Mahatma intervened. According to Prof Bababhai Patel, a Congress worker,Jamnadas Dwarkadas took J.Krishnamurti to see the ailing Rohitbhai. Krishnamurti kept his hand on the parts of the sick man’s body wherever it was paining. The therapeutic touch is said to have cured Rohitbhai completely. He walked next day, and was discharged from the hospital soon.

Rohitbhai who was in the freedom struggle along with Jaya Prakash Narayan ,was a sort of maverick. He invited Subhaschandra Bose to Gujarat,ignoring Vallabhbhai Patel’s orders.

But the spiritual bend of his mind had already started asserting over his rebellious political mind. He had begun to realise the “soullessness” of politics and plunged into studying the works of theosophy and Krishnamurti.
Leaving “the dunghill of politics”, he took to spiritualism and philosophy for life. He explained in 1937 his transformation in a volume called, A new world of theosophical socialsim,predicting the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union.

In 1941,Rohitbhai went to Adyar in Tamil Nadu to act as recording secretary of the theosophical society,and soon became the international secretary. He explored the ideas propounded by many and yet did not subscribe to any one idea completely. This however was not out of an intellectual arrogance but out of modesty. He was to be later given a doctorate in philosophy by the Swiss University at Lugeno.Among the books he wrote were many notable ones such as Yoga-the Art of Integration, The Nameless Experience, From Mind to Super-Mind,The Call of the Upanishads,the Intuitive Philosophy,the Play of the Infinite, the Dialogue with Death,the Being and the becoming, the Eternal Light,the Creative silence,Seek Out the Way,the Search for Freedom, the New World of Socialism, the Science of Meditation, and the Journey with Death.

In 1936,Rohitbhai was married to Shrideviben,a decade younger to him. She used to sing very melodiously. At his lectures, recalled Prof P.G.Mavalankar, Shrideviben would sing bhajans and hymns appropriate to the theme of his talk.” People would appreciate these after listening to Rohitbhai since the talk would make them understand the bhajans and hymns and their meaning all the better”, Mavalankar said. Prof.Mavalankar and his wife used to know the Mehta couple well and fondly remember Rohitbhai’s request at his talks (he would call them talks, rather than lectures): “You cannot leave while Shridevi is singing the bhajan. However,you can leave when I am talking.” Hardly anybody would go.

He used to live in Varanasi,when not travelling or lecturing around the world and the country.He used to come to Ahmedabad at least once a year for a series of lectures,which would start at 6.30 p m in the lawns of the late Rambhai Amin’s house in Gulbai Tekra,on the Labh Pancham day .Prof.Mavalankar remembered having seen around 2,000 people listening to Rohitbhai in rapt attention.When his health started giving in, he used to come every alternate year.

Remembered Mavalankar:” Rohitbhai had good diction,and he would speak neither fast nor slow,quoting with ease from a variety of works.His sense of humour would peep through in subtle manner every now and then.He was an optimist and knew the future lay in re-discovering India.This could be done by reviving its great culture which has been showing strands of decadence.”

Rohitbhai was a widely travelled man,having lectured at various places in Europe,the U.S.,Africa and Asia.He could talk fluently in English, Hindi and Gujarati.”

Dr Bhaskar Vyas of Baroda, who knew him for more than two decades remembered of an attempt by himself and Dr D V Nene at doing a biography of Rohitbhai. He read some chapters Vyas had written and recommended: “Tear them up”. Apparently, to Rohitbhai ideas were more important and lasting than the man who thought them, even if it was Rohit Mehta.

Despite his tall stature in the world of philosophy,Rohitbhai always preferred to remain the shadows, shunning the limelight. In 1993,a greeting card he sent to his friends said:” The mind that is constantly renewing itself never grows old. It is constantly on a voyage of discovery. It never arrives. It moves on towards an endless journey. And the secret of life is found not by one who has arrived, but by one whose journey never ends.”

In January,1994,he came for the last time to Ahmedabad.Shrideviben’s younger brother, Late Devendra Oza, a veteran journalist and humour writer in Gujarati,under the pen-name of Vanmali Vanko had lined up an interview for this writer. Hours before the meeting,Rohitbhai developed fever and the meeting was put off to a future date. That date would now never come. He has moved on to an endless journey of no return.

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches