Back in 1969, the year of Gandhiji’s birth centenary, scores of countries rose to pay tribute to the Apostle of Non-Violence by way of stamps, coins, currency notes, artefacts, books and commemorative articles. Kishore Jhunjhunwalla, a Mumbai-based businessman, began collecting these items. What began as a curiosity for Gandhiji, five decades ago, soon became a passion and then a haunting obsession. It has resulted into what is the world’s largest private collection of memorabilia related to India’s best-known citizen.
Today, at the age of 76, Jhunjhunwalla has nearly 1,000 stamps dedicated to Gandhiji from around the world. The stamps however were just the beginning of a life-long passion. As he studied the stamps in different shapes, sizes and colours, it ignited a passion for other collectibles from the Mahatma’s life. Soon Jhunjhunwalla’s accumulation not only soared in quantity, but sheer variety and quality – priceless by any measure – literally piling up in his apartment in Walkeshwar Road in the posh south Mumbai.
“Yes, I ‘invested’ a little to acquire some items, but mostly ordinary folks simply walked in and gifted me many Gandhiji-related items as they had no clue what to do with them,” chuckles Jhunjhunwalla.
He adds, “I have everything from A-to-Z concerning or related, directly or indirectly, to Gandhi, many touched or felt by him, from everywhere on the planet. This collection is extensive enough to set up large and independent thematic museums in each continent.”
He unhesitatingly displays a few of his “owner’s pride, others’ envy” samples: Gandhiji’s ashes, barely 100 gm, stored in an urn; a 1946 palm-print of Gandhiji taken in Kolkata with a quote in his own writing on it; original self-corrected copies of his speeches, sermons and writings; over 50 hand-penned letters on now-ageing paper, including the oldest dated in 1904 from South Africa and the last to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948, barely 12 days before his martyrdom; Gujarat’s oldest newspaper dated July 3, 1892 announcing his return from England as a Barrister, and an issue of Time Magazine when it nominated him ‘Man Of The Year’ (1930).
There is a staggering variety of colourful postal stamps, currency notes, flags, gold, silver, platinum and other metallic coins from virtually every country in the world, gramophone records in Gandhiji’s voice and autographed items.
Plus a huge collection of newspaper-magazine clippings which could be converted into a book, and rare black-and-white pictures of Gandhiji with historical figures like Pandit Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Rabindranath Tagore, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Indira Gandhi, and foreign luminaries like King George VI, Lord Louis Mountbatten, then British PM Clement Attlee, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, and other national and global celebrities.
As the obsession possessed him, Jhunjhunwalla undertook extensive tours all over India, South Africa and England, walked the Dandi March route and scoured other places to further fuel his collections and came back hugely rewarded. And now, Jhunjhunwalla is eagerly looking forward to further enriching his collection with the Gandhi sesquicentenary when the world will flood him with more accolades.
Not one to sit back on the laurels of his overawing collection, Jhunjhunwalla has launched a one-man marathon effort to find out and catalogue each and every place on the planet named after Gandhiji. He has found more than 100 just in Mumbai alone!
“It will be a cumbersome but extremely rewarding effort and I want to complete it as early as possible,” he stresses.
For over two decades now, he is a practical recluse from his supportive family and their traditional business of manufacturing rubber products. However, though the spirit is strong, Jhunjhunwalla’s body is now showing signs of reluctance to keep pace with his expanding collectibles and so he wants to ensure it has a safe future.
“So far, it has come to light only in three private exhibitions, from Oct. 2, it will be displayed in a big way at the National Gallery Of Modern Art, and later at the Nehru Science Centre here. I am willing to take it to any country in the world which is ready to host an exhibition,” he said.
Among the options he is toying with are: develop a permanent museum if he can get a grant of around 25,000 sq. feet constructed area, which is practically impossible in urban centres like Mumbai.
Other plans include to “segregate the collection country-wise” and hand it over to the respective governments worldwide, or consider if some world-class museum is willing to take it over. “Over the decades, I have realised that Indians have little or no value for their rich past and such magnificent collections, and it has remained my one-man effort so far,” Jhunjhunwalla rued.
Apart from Gandhiji, he has a big, exclusive collection of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, but he says “We shall speak about that at an appropriate time..!”