Albert Einstein wrote :Generations to come will scarce believe that such a man in flesh and blood ever walked upon this earth. Indeed ,no political leader in world history ,can be as exotic ,experimental and epicurian as Mahatma Gandhi. He was a master in setting up Ashrams in South Africa and Sabarmati,where he promoted community living ,bordering on quirkiness.
The Tolstoy farm was set up by Gandhiji in 1910 on a 110 acre land bought by Herman Kallenbach, his architect friend from East Prussia to practice the idea of passive resistance propounded by Leo Tolstoy ,the great Russian novelist. This is a wonderful example of an Indian setting up a Joint Venture in South Africa with a German ,based on the idelolgy of a Russian, to provide safe Haven to family members whose breadwinners were languishing in prison . Gandhiji was deeply influenced by Tolstoy’s book’ The Kingdom of God Is within you’ ‘,published in 1894 ,which was banned in his own country.Tolstoy was severely critical of the church as it extolled war.For Tolstoy war was an affront to the Christian principles.The Tolstoy farm became the experimental laboratory for Gandhi to practice his infallible conviction in the principle of non resistance.
This also became his ideological totem , when he led these movements from the front in India ,as in his iconic Dandi March , which happened 75 years back.
The farm housed a school which gave all round training to boys and girls , encouraged coeducation and combined manual work with creative work like sandal making and carpentering.Ganghiji left Tolstoy farm in 1913 ,but was in regular correspondence with Tolstoy,who wrote : ‘Your activity is the most important essential work ,the most important work being done in the world.’
Manual labor always excited Gandhiji as he read another important book,John Ruskin’s ‘Unto The Last’ on his train journey to Durban.A most controversial book written in 1860,it was a powerful polemic against Adam Smith’s uncritical celebration of wealth,even if it exploited the labour.Ruskin was deeply concerned about life in newly industrialised England ,where unrestrained capitalism had created a vast working class with deplorable living conditions for them. Ruskin was most anguished that capitalism placed little value on human life beyond it’s ability to convert labour in to profit.An architect himself ,Ruskin’s great fascination with stone Masons and Carpenters was responsible for his deep respect for labour of all classes.He was the first to advocate equal pay for equal work.
Gandhi wrote in 1908 that Ruskin’s book changed his life and convinced him that the life of the tiller of the soil and that of a handicraftsman are equally worth living.
The Phoneix Farm that he set up near Durban on a land of 40 acres was based on dignity of labour,equitable distribution of wealth,self sufficiency and individual freedom.No wonder,he used to coerce. Kasturba to do scavenging at Pheonix ,as a demonstration of practicing what he preached.This also provided the intellectual underpinning of the Sarvodaya movement ,which firmly belives in universal uplift or progress of all and dignity of labour.
The Phoneix farm is now decrepit and in a state of desolation.The Tolstoy farm now houses a brick making company.It is really admirable on the part of a few Gandhians who are now working on building a Legacy Project at this site .
I serendipitiously met Gopal Gandhi ,who was our High Commissioner in South Africa , in 1998,who had mooted this idea of a Heritage Project.As the President of the Sarvodaya movement in India ,it’s indeed comeuppance that he carries the Gandhian ideals and legacy in blood and belief.
The Tolstoy farm is the story of all those ,who worked jointly on a social development project without thought for the self and yearned for justice for all.Its legacy can not be undone by the cruel hands of unfettered market or the scant concern of a morally bankrupt political dispensation.
Ruskin ,Tolstoy, Kallenbach and Gandhi belong to a Quartet ,who firmly believed that a nonviolent society based on a crucible of dignity of labour and community fellow feeling is the way forward for a humane and just society.Gandhi’s designer glasses are not mere water marks on high currency notes ,but a mirror to the indelible ideals that he assiduously practiced ,and cherished for all of us to strive for.
Prof SNMisra is a trustee in Sarvodaya,Odisha Chapter