Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya is established to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram. Mahatma Gandhi established this Ashram after his return from South Africa to strengthen his struggle to strive for social justice and overall betterment of our people.
Independence movement to free the country from colonial power was the first objective of his struggle. One of the most important civil disobedience movements, the ‘Dandi Yatra’ also originated from here. Sabarmati Ashram in many ways is described as Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Karma bhoomi’ where he practised his philosophy of Indian way of life during his stay here in early years of 20th century.
The Sangrahalaya building is built in early 60s by the Gandhi Smarak Trust and is designed by Architect Charles Correa, and then a young Architect, who was offered an opportunity to design this sangrahalaya, which once realised, became one of his most important works. “Correa was asked to design a memorial sangrahalaya and study centre in 1958 to house a treasure of some 30000 letters written to and by Gandhi (some on microfilm), photographs and documents including several hundred volumes edited by his secretary Mahadev Desai. The collection continues to be added and is the major repository of memorabilia on Gandhi.” 1
At the inauguration of the sangrahalaya, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said;
“I thank you for inviting me to this old place, full of memories…It is good that you have built a museum – a beautiful museum. Beautiful not because somebody has put up a huge building using marble and such things – for that is not proper. In fact when I look at our temples I often wonder why marble, etc. has been put on them. I am upset when I see them. They must have been built by rich people who are giving reverence to the marble. Really I dislike seeing such materials used on such occasions.”
“I have seen some other museums; one at Madura (which I opened), and the Gandhi Museums at Delhi and elsewhere; but I very much like the way this one is built over here. Whatever little I have seen has been done with an understanding – and of a sort which suits this holy place. There is nothing pretentious here, but in itself shows that is a very simple and lovely thing. And that is why I am pleased to see it. I congratulate the people who built it.” 2
The above quote from inaugural address by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru describes his impressions about the Museum. The perceptions of museum spaces evoked in him such feelings enabling him to relate to those emerging from the values which symbolised Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of life here - the value of simplicity, respect to locale and purity of nature. The Architect’s intention to capture the sense of memory of the spirit of life of an iconic individual is in itself a struggle and to be successful at that is a true realization of the intent with which he begins. This success is measured only when visitors feel the same evocativeness while experiencing the spaces, as expressed by Pandit Nehru.
The Architect conceptualises the form of space through material and construction techniques. He chooses these means in consonance with the purpose and it is the nature of purpose which provides the sense of space for which the form stands for. In this building the choice of simple local materials and pure forms like a hollowed cube and pyramid roof made from natural materials like timber, stone and clay tiles reflect the austere simplicity of means and reliance to indigenous resources. “The modular simplicity of the structure is continued in the basic materials; stone floors, brick walls, wooden doors and louvered windows devoid of glass, and tiled roof.”3 These choices strongly adhere to the philosophy which Mahatma advocated and practised in his life. “I do not want my house to be walled on all sides and my windows be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to blow about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them. (Mahatma Gandhi).” This statement seems to be the basis for the architect’s choice of pavilion form. The cuboids and the pyramid are also the simplest derivatives of natural forms, open from sides and sheltered from above, the assembly of these two forms provide a sense of enclosure but leave all sides open to all directions on a site on the river bank, which provides abundant sense of horizon from within.
In architect’s own words “….the concept of flexibility and increamentality addressing the contemporary issues is paraphrased in one of the first projects in Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya (1958-63) at the Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad. Here the museum and research centre is disaggregated into series of separate spaces; one for books another for photographs, a third for letters and so forth. Not only does this allow for future growth but it generates movement patterns between these areas that emphasise the horizontal plane – making for an ambience of tranquillity and meditation.” 4.
The building is designed based on a modular pattern. The basic pavilion module is measuring 6.00 meter square on plan with 2.10 meter height under the channel beam supported over four corner ‘H’ shaped brick piers. The channel supports a pyramid timber roof which is clad with boarding from inside and mangalore tiles from out side. The basic pavilion is open from all sides and therefore, extremely flexible for connections on sides with great ease in future extensions. This basic pavilion form is repeated in a manner that it creates free and flexible spaces with interspersed open court yards formed by the manner in which these are connected. The pavilion is lifted off the ground and therefore gives an impression of a floating plane, which is a means employed to make it prominent though very low height from the ground. The spaces for exhibits and the circulation areas are formed by the arrangement of these pavilions on a site which overlooks the river. The river itself provides a great sense of horizon to the east. The building merges very well with the surrounding structures which were built for residences for Gandhiji and other dignitaries staying and visiting him from time to time while he stayed here. The scale of the building, its serene construction and its openness in merging itself with the overall environment of Ashram lends it an image of a ‘place’ rather than a confined limited ‘space’. In architectural meaning a place is for people while a space confides to subjective intentions. Places invoke in people higher meanings and when an architect designs buildings ‘places’ – the indefinable domains are found and discovered through very sensitive handling of evocative forms, places echo the serene human aspirations and also support desires for contemplation and solace in an institution. The building designed here provides this very important quality to the visitors and as Nehru expressed, it does help people to remember and at once experience the strength mind, power of intellect and fragility of body of a great individual. The building too represents the same qualities through representation of the structure, form of the building and simplicity of materials employed.
Correa’s work after almost forty years is a living place. It has retained its freshness in spite of the passage of time. Any one, who visits, finds it as much rooted to the place but, at the same time, extremely universal in its quality simply because the naturalness of form and means employed have a sense of universality. This is what people associate instantly in as much as they associate with the universality of Hridya kunj where Gandhiji stayed. In Correa’s words the building is also fragile and extremely simple and hence requires utmost care in maintaining and preserving its purity. In designing the furniture and display elements also great care was taken to maintain the ‘Indian character’ of activities and employ as far as possible timber for making display stands and low level seats for reference and study areas.
Gandhi Ashram to day is an important place for visitors from all over the world. It is a world monument of sort where people flock to witness the spirit of a man, who though extremely fragile in appearance, gave an indelible path of non-violence and civil disobedience to fight injustice in human society. The building of Sangrahalaya is also a place where visitors find a lot of information on various aspects of his life and works. The building also is slightly aged due to passage of time, with materials showing signs of aging, requiring fresh interventions to restore the conditions. Exhibits that are on display also require conservation and rearrangement ant at the same time fresh interpretations to inform the successive generations of visitors. The Trust which controls the Sangrahalaya has once again invited the architect Mr. Correa to advise them on restoring the building and to also undertake upgrading the exhibition and other areas. A comprehensive proposal covering the approach to Ashram, the Sangrahalaya building including the exhibitions and the overall Ashram complex is now being prepared to infuse renewed life to the entire institution.