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

A Three-Minute Journey Through Gandhi's India

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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