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India’s Mani Bhavan: A simple museum for a simple man

Mahatma Gandhi in his lifetime lived in a number of houses, one wich is the Mani Bhavan in Mumbai, India that is now a museum…

Mahatma Gandhi in his lifetime lived in a number of houses, one wich is the Mani Bhavan in Mumbai, India that is now a museum and research institute. Another of the house he lived is Satyagraha House, in Johannesburg, South Africa which is also a museum and a guest house.

When he revisited Mani Bhavan in 1959, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, is quoted to have said: “Mani Bhavan in Bombay will ever remain a precious memory to all those who visited it on many occasions when Gandhiji used to stay there. I am glad therefore, that this house is being converted into a Gandhi Memorial.”

Fifty-six years after, this saying still rings true as many tourists will not visit Mumbai without a pilgrimage to Mani Bhavan, the building that housed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi, for 17 years.

Located on leafy quiet Laburnum Road in Mumbai, ‘Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya,’ simplified as Mani Bhavan, is the old Mumbai residence of Gandhi. The two storey building, where the revered leader lived from 1917 to 1934, is taunted to be one of the most important Gandhi memorial museums in India.

Gandhi, who died from a gunshot in 1948 at age 79, was a prominent figure of the Indian independence movement. Employing non-violent civil disobedience, Gandhi led India to independence from Britain and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.

One of the twenty eight Tableaux (Mini doll-like figures) by Smt. Sushila Gokhale-Patel depicting Gandhi meeting the King in London in 1931.

One of the twenty eight Tableaux (Mini doll-like figures) by Smt. Sushila Gokhale-Patel depicting Gandhi meeting the King in London in 1931.

He was first referred to as Mahatma in 1914 in South Africa as a mark of reverence and honour. The museum, which is recognised as a research institute for Gandhian thought and rural development, has a library on the ground floor that contains more than 50,000 books on Gandhiji, Gandhian thought and allied subjects. There also an auditorium where films on Gandhi are shown and recordings of his speeches are aired from time to time, which unfortunately, this reporter was not privileged to listen to.

On the second floor is Gandhiji’s room which going by his outlook to life is very austere and Spartan, having only bare essentials. The humble nature of the room which he sometimes used to entertain guests makes one to pause and reflect on the fact that one so great as Gandhi did not require ephemeral things aside from will and an intelligent mind to change the fate of India and leave an indelible mark in the world.

Adjoining his room is a room with exhibitions in miniature doll-like figures depicting his life from when he was born, till he left India for studies, his time in South Africa, his return to India, some of the defining moments of his life, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, the Salt Satyagraha, his fasts, the death of his wife Kasturba and his own death and cremation attended by millions of people. 

These mini-figures, which are contained in 28 tableaux that reenact Gandhi’s life, give a visitor the feeling of knowing him up close and personal. One of the revelations I got from this room is that the image of Mahatma, the ever smiling bespectacled frail old man, wrapped in white clothing (dhoti), with a walking stick as captured in most of his pictures, had not always been so as there are figures of the young Gandhi in Indian and Western dresses.

Just as sugar was boycotted by many during the movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, Mahatma changed his style of clothing to dhoti which covered his loins and draped over his shoulders. He had in the 1920s begun promoting the spinning of khadi for rural employment and self-reliance as part of the Khadi movement, aimed at boycotting foreign goods, including cotton and promoting Indian goods, thereby improving its economy. It is reported that when some people complained about the cost of khadi, he started wearing only dhoti.

The rooms on either side of the exhibition room were converted into a picture gallery that display an array of photos depicting important events, copies of documents, noteworthy clippings and letters to him – among which is Albert Einstein’s missive of admiration and encouragement and Mahatma’s response; letters he wrote to world leaders – among them is his letter to Adolph Hitler- are framed and captioned in English and Hindi. These help make Gandhi more real and more human as Jena Nicols Curtis, a tourist from New York, said: “Letters and photos from Gandiji’s life make him seem both more real and more inspiring to me.”

  Tourist in one of the photo gallery reading Gandhiji’s letter to Adolph Hitler

  Tourist in the photo gallery reading Gandhiji’s letter to Adolph Hitler

At the terrace where he sometimes slept and held his prayers, is a bronze plaque that indicates place of the tent where he was arrested in 1932. In one of the corridor is a life-sized image cut-out of Mahatma which on entering the corridor can startle the unsuspecting visitor at a first glance, into thinking he has come face-to-face with the legendary leader.

Aside from the tranquility of the environment that captures a visitor’s attention as it is unusually quiet for a city that has over 20 million people, the warm reception from the smiling staff who handout pamphlets and give directions, is the fact that it requires no gate fee or prior appointments as people are welcome every day from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm.
Mani Bhavan, which tries to capture and preserve the time of Gandhiji at the house, is fitted with a modern air conditioning system and restrooms which are very clean.

Writing about his experience at the Mani Bhavan, Rob S. Kandi said: “This is a little museum that lauds the actions of a great man. Gandhi’s life changed India and the world and it is fitting that such a great man would have his life and deeds celebrated in such a humble museum which so succinctly summarises his life and deeds.”

A tour round Mani Bhavan, a building that once housed a world icon, leaves you in awe, humbled and inspired to leave a positive mark on the society and most importantly, makes you want to reassess and put your objectives in perspectives.

This probably holds true as world leaders when in India, often carve out time to visit it as was the case in November 2010 when US President Barack Obama, and First Lady Michelle Obama visited the museum during their three-day stay in Mumbai.

Once you exit the museum and are on the street, you get overwhelmed with the feeling that Mahatma died all over again as a feeling of loss that is well captured by Jawaharlal Nehru’s address to India when Gandhi died.

“Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that; nevertheless, we will not see him again, as we have seen him for these many years, we will not run to him for advice or seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not only for me, but for millions and millions in this country,” the former prime minister had said in an eulogy to the founding father of modern Indian.


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