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Gandhi and "Alternative Modernity": A Q&A With Karline McLain

Living Like Gandhi

July 18, 2017 • By Karline McLain Living Like Gandhi


Sevagram Ashram in Maharashtra, India. Photo by Karline McLain.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote to his dear friend Jawaharlal Nehru in 1945, “I am convinced that if India is to attain true freedom and through India the world also, then sooner or later the fact must be recognized that people will have to live in villages, not in towns, in huts, not in palaces.”  Nehru, who would become the first Prime Minister of independent India two years later, was not persuaded.  In his reply letter, Nehru argued for a modern industrial society, writing, “One assumes as one must that true cooperation and peaceful methods must be aimed at, and a society which encourages these must be our objective.  The whole question is how to achieve this society and what its content should be.  I do not understand why a village should necessarily embody truth and non-violence.”

In June I visited Sevagram Ashram, the intentional community that Gandhi established in central India in 1936 as a model for his ideal village.  Sevagram means “Village of Service.”  Prior to founding this village, Gandhi had previously established two ashrams in South Africa during the twenty-one years he lived there: Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm.  Shortly after returning to India in 1915, Gandhi next founded Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad, Gujarat.  Thus, he had a wealth of experiments in communal living to draw upon as he built Sevagram Ashram, his fourth and final intentional community.  Like Nehru, many Indians in Gandhi’s day were skeptical of Gandhi’s penchant for the simple life, some excoriatingly so.  Yet others, both Indians and foreigners, have been drawn to it over the last century, and to the site of Sevagram Ashram in particular.  

In visiting Sevagram, I sought to better understand the trajectory of Gandhi’s experiments in residential living as part of my larger scholarly research project.  But I also found myself reflecting more personally on the relationship between the spaces we choose to inhabit daily and the idea of enhancing life on a personal and communal level.  To reach Sevagram, I flew in from Mumbai to Nagpur, Maharashtra, where my local driver insisted that I see Zero Mile before making the hour-long drive to the ashram.  I was intrigued to learn that Nagpur is home to the “zero mile” monument, a pillar that was erected by the colonial British government to demarcate the geographic center point of India.  The pillar lists the distances of India’s major cities from Nagpur: Bombay (Mumbai) is 809 km, Calcutta (Kolkata) is 1118 km, Delhi is 1029 km, Madras (Chennai) is 1117 km, etc.  Nagpur, then, as the geographical heart of India, is nearly equidistant from the country’s urban centers.  It is here that Gandhi turned when he was ready to create his final intentional community, Sevagram Ashram.

 Adi Niwas at Sevagram Ashram. Photo by Karline McLain.

When I first arrived at Sevagram mid-morning, it was already over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the sweltering pre-monsoon heat.  Yet the mature trees provided ample shade throughout the grounds, and the ashram buildings were well crafted with thick mudbrick walls, clay roof tiles, and palm leaf thatching that together kept the interiors relatively cool.  Sevagram today is both a heritage site with a small museum, visited primarily by schoolchildren from the surrounding areas on class field trips, as well as a living community with long-term residents.  Visitors are especially drawn to three of the historic structures: Adi Niwas, Bapu Kuti, and Ba Kuti.  Adi Niwas was the first house built at Sevagram, and was the place where the first ashram members lived together in the early days.  Bapu Kuti and Ba Kuti are the cottages of Mahatma Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba Gandhi, respectively.  Gandhi had taken a vow of celibacy in 1906, and celibacy was one of the eleven vows to which all ashram residents were expected to adhere.  Thus, male visitors to the ashram stayed with Gandhi in his cottage, or at Adi Niwas, while female visitors stayed with Kasturba in her cottage.

Bapu Kuti at Sevagram Ashram. Photo by Karline McLain.

Gandhi moved into Bapu Kuti from Adi Niwas in 1938, as more residents began to join the ashram, and Gandhi needed an escape from the noise of the growing community.  Here in a display case Gandhi’s sparse possessions are exhibited: a walking stick, a portable spinning wheel, a paper weight, an ink pot, a pencil stand, a bowl, prayer beads, a small statue of three monkeys, etc.  The cottage is partitioned into separate rooms, creating space for Gandhi to write, meet with visitors, and for guests to bed down at night.  It also contains a latrine connected to a septic tank, with a note informing visitors that Gandhi cleaned it himself.  Bamboo shelving hangs from the ceiling for storage needs.  For aesthetic effect, simple ornamental designs were carved into the walls: palm trees, an Om symbol, a spinning wheel.

Detail of interior wall in Bapu Kuti at Sevagram Ashram. Photo by Karline McLain.

Bapu Kuti was hand-built by Gandhi’s disciple Mirabehn, who initially resided in the cottage herself.  Mirabehn, whose birth name was Madeleine Slade, was born to a British family in 1892 and journeyed to India in 1925.  She became one of Gandhi’s close followers, joining him first at Sabarmati Ashram and then being sent ahead of Gandhi to begin establishing Sevagram Ashram and engaging in constructive work with the villagers (teaching them spinning and sanitation, among other topics).  Gandhi had instructed Mirabehn in the building of both Adi Niwas and Bapu Kuti, advising her to keep expenses to a minimum, and to use locally available materials such as mud, bamboo, and palm leaf.  Mirabehn was also responsible for the construction of Adi Niwas, with assistance from local villagers.

Gandhi exalted the simplistic beauty and practical sustainability of Bapu Kuti.  To him, the cottage demonstrated self-rule (swaraj) on a micro scale, one that he felt could be replicated throughout the nation of India as the country debated political self-rule.  This, then, is part of what Gandhi implies when he writes to Nehru about “true freedom” being found in the villages, in huts and not palaces.  On the cusp of independence from British rule, Gandhi grew increasingly reluctant to leave Sevagram for political meetings.  Rather than travel to New Delhi, he asked politicians to come to Sevagram, and thus it was at Sevagram – inside Adi Niwas – that the first meeting of the Quit India movement was held in 1942.  Gandhi wanted to show these politicians his model village, believing that it provided a roadmap for creating a more ideal, independent, and sustainable community on a larger scale.

Some politicians disliked traveling to a rural village and residing in a hut while discussing the future of their country.  However, other visitors during Gandhi’s lifetime – and many since – have taken inspiration from visiting Sevagram and spending time in Bapu Kuti.  To my surprise, while I sat in Bapu Kuti I found myself meditating less upon the historical significance of Sevagram, and more upon the continuing relevance of Gandhi’s statement in favor of huts versus palaces.  Beyond Gandhi’s historical time and political context, this message continues to resonate.  For instance, the tiny house movement advocates downsizing one’s residential space, encouraging people to select smaller, more efficient residential spaces that are less than 500 square feet in size (according to 2015 census data, the average size of new houses built in the United States is 2,687 square feet).  Evidence of the popularity of the tiny house movement can be witnessed in the numerous websites and television shows dedicated to tiny living, as well as the growing proliferation of new tiny house construction across the United States and beyond.  Those who are part of this movement cite a variety of motivations, including social, economic, and environmental – and often the rhetoric used by advocates of tiny living seems to echo Gandhi’s sentiments connecting residential space with the pursuit of freedom.  

In foregoing suburban McMansions in the United States, or luxury high-rise apartments in urban India, is there something to be gained?  Gandhi thought that such limits, voluntarily chosen, enhanced daily life for both the individual and the community.  What do the daily spaces that we choose to inhabit say about ourselves, our communities, and our shared future?