• July 15, 2015

Tracking Gandhi’s Ghost: A Sensory Tour Through Rural India

Becky Harlan

The whir of a cotton spinning wheel, the sung prayer of Dalit school children (once known as Untouchables), the cry of a newborn child—this is how photographer Rena Effendi transports us to India’s villages.

Cows stand along the coast of Porbandar, looking out at the port in the town where Gandhi grew up
The city of Porbandar is the birthplace of Gandhi. Here, cows look out toward Porbandar port from the junction that leads to Mahatma Gandhi Road. Gandhi spent his early childhood here, strolling on this beach road on his way to the temple and library.
All Photographs by Rena Effendi

“India lives in her seven hundred thousand villages.”—Gandhi

For the July 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine, Effendi was tasked with telling the story of Gandhi’s lasting influence in contemporary India. She was asked to capture what she calls a “ghost story”—a tale with a main character who is no longer with us. So she decided to trace the route of his famous 1930 Salt March from his home base at Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad to Dandi Beach, a 241-mile journey that peacefully protested an unjust British law banning salt collection within colonial India. The march helped to build momentum and support for India’s eventual independence in 1947.

Picture of a man spinning cotton on a traditional  wheel or charkha while sitting on the floor in his home in Bihar
Loyal to a dying craft, Pramod Shah spins cotton thread on an old-style wheel, or charkha, at his home in Bihar. Millions of Indians once made cloth by hand, inspired by Gandhi’s vision of spurning British goods and reviving village economies. The market for hand-spun cloth, or khadi, is small today, though staunch Gandhians wear it religiously.

Along the route of the march, Gandhi stopped to speak with people in the villages. And so Effendi did the same, seeking his traces in the the landscape and the people and finding his influence in the rituals and lifestyles of those she met along the way. She and her assistant Oliver Saurabh Sinclair collected audio in many of the places she photographed, creating the video above and allowing us to not only see but also to hear the sounds of an artisan workshop or a celebration of Gandhi’s birthday. It’s not a plane ticket, but it is a quick trip to the richness of rural life in India.

Dressed in colorful clothing, women from the Self-Employed Women's Association wash clothes in a communal area outside under green trees
Solidarity in the workplace spills over to the village well in Rasnol, Gujarat. It is one of thousands of places where the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a Gandhian trade union, has taken root. Its founder, Ela Bhatt, calls women ”the pillars of village society.”

Read the feature article and see more photos from the story “In the Footsteps of Gandhi.”

You can also hear Rena Effendi speak about her experience photographing this assignment on Proof.

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Biliana Stoimenova
    July 27, 2015

    It is a wonderful reminder of the values of Life! It is also an exciting journey within ourselves! Thank you for this work!

  2. Biliana Stoimenova
    July 27, 2015

    It is a wonderful reminder of the values of Life! It is also an exciting journey within ourselves! Thank for this work!

  3. Girish Gupta
    July 27, 2015

    This is an humble effort by Rena Effendi to highlight salt route adopted by Gandhi in 1930. I have walked this route twice and ready to share details.

  4. Susan Bell Rochow
    July 26, 2015

    I am so lucky to have had Nat’l Geographic to read every month of my life from age 9; I am now 75. And tonight, late night I have heard the singing, and seen the villages as never before. Nat’l Geographic is new again! Thank you. Thank you!

  5. steve
    July 26, 2015

    We can only live life as it came to use and Ghandi lived his and changed the world. what a great soul

  6. Hugh Webster
    July 26, 2015

    I can remember when Gandhi went on a hunger strike but he did drink juices and I think his hunger strike lasted for about 200 days and the juices sustained him all that time.

  7. venze
    July 26, 2015

    Gandhi preached and practiced non-violence. If still alive, he would greatly lament the chronic lack of tolerance in the world today.

  8. Connie Highfill
    July 26, 2015

    What a wonderful reminder of what a great human being Gandhi was and of the worldwide impact he has had on all of us.

  9. Charles
    July 26, 2015

    I was struck by what Ms. Effendi said near the end of her brightly colored piece, that India today may not be living Ghandi’s dream, but in pockets there remain pieces of that dream, people living the way Ghandi imagined they might. A very nice insight. I thought the same could be said about the USA.

  10. Donna
    July 16, 2015

    I love hearing the photographer’s voice and the sounds in the video. It makes the story and even the history of Gandhi more real.

  11. Jim H
    July 15, 2015

    This story reminds me of my favorite Mahatma Ghandi quote, “Live today like you are going to die tomorrow; learn today like you are going to live forever.”

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