I remember seeing Ela ben first, with her husband Ramesh Bhai at my father's exhibition. I was a child then and they both looked very simple. Like most of my father's friends who were Gandhians, they wore very simple Khadi clothes and lived a simple life.
Ela ben affectionately asked me what I am interested in and about my studies, etc. She kind of reminded me of my mother or aunt, foi jeva. That was my first encounter with her. Subsequently, when I was growing up in Ahmedabad, I used to read a lot about her, and also meet her often socially and otherwise, at some of the functions that would take place in the city.
Growing up in Ahmedabad is interesting because it's like a small village where everybody knew each other, and especially if you are from a certain community and belong to a certain ideology and philosophy then, definitely you would come across familiar faces and will be introduced to their ideas and work.
A Soft-Spoken Social Worker With a Spark Within
I think Ramesh Bhai was more at the forefront than Ela ben that time as per my father's introduction of him. But later on, whilst working on an assignment on Ahmedabad’s textile mill workers as a student at the National Institute of Design(NID), for my research, I was asked to meet some women from SEWA, the Self-Employed Women's Association which, as the world knows now Ela ben had founded. When I visited them, she introduced me to some of her co-workers who took me to the areas where mill workers stayed in a chawl and where SEWA was working with these women.
And so, she was very helpful. I mean when you met her, the first impression of her was of someone who's so unassuming, simple and very soft-spoken. But there was a fire within her that you couldn’t make out, the strong leader in her was not the first thing you realised about her.
Nothing like the politicians or union leaders whom we typically imagine or what revolutionaries would be like. Despite keeping a low-key personality, she was totally determined about what she wanted to achieve and do for the women she believed in.
I went and photographed these women for months. I continued to do this well after I had finished at NID for a book with Jan Bremen-- a professor from Amsterdam University. In the late 80s, situation in Ahmedabad grew tense with most mills closing down. Ela ben who was also closely associated with the Textile Labour Association, worked relentlessly with the community of mill workers. So, I would go there and meet her often to talk about Majoor Mahajan Sangh, some of the archives, or the photographs which I wanted and she would generously guide me to resourceful sources.
Years later, when we finished the book, Working in the Mill No More, I went and showed the book to her. She immediately suggested that we do an exhibition of my photographs but not in a big gallery or a hall but in some mill area instead, where these people lived. So first, the book was released in SEWA.
I remember still, there was a SEWA office next to the Ellis Bridge in Ahmedabad. And then, we held this exhibition in a community hall probably in Saraspur, a mill workers' area. She came there and inaugurated the exhibition and an event. She was extremely involved and had an eye for small details. Even when women weren't direct beneficiaries of such initiatives always, they were referred to, involved and the message was put across.
SEWA Helped Better Lives of Low-Strata Women
In 1985 or in ‘86, India today had asked me to photograph her for a story on her winning Padma Bhushan. Still a student in NID, it was my first assignment to shoot a personality for a prestigious weekly. When I went to her house and requested her for a photo session, she said, "Let’s have tea first." And she went inside the kitchen and herself ground some ginger and tulsi and we savoured some sips together before the shoot.
She asked, “Where would you like me to sit?” And I said, "It'll be lovely, if you could sit on the jhula in the verandah" and she obliged.
It was a beautiful afternoon that sauntered into the evening where we talked about a lot of stuff about my work, my studies, my ideology and what she was up to those days and how I can help conduct a workshop with the women of SEWA which had set up a video unit. She had this quality of finding people who could help in her endeavor of improving the lives of women from lower strata of our society.
She shared a unique taste in music and talked about it often. Many years later, when I got married, my wife Vidya and I went to visit her once. She would tell my wife, "Oh, I'd like to listen to you!"
In 1986, when after graduating from NID, I went to Cambridge, Massachusetts and wanted to stay with somebody as I was new to the city. There I met Mihir — Ela ben's son who was studying architecture at MIT and he offered me his room for a few months to stay. So, it was very interesting, how we kept connecting in different places and ways. She was in a way, always around me, irrespective of the fact we were not in regular touch.
She was much senior to me and in fact, my father's contemporary. But like I said, her ideology and philosophy from the similar school of thought which was also being inculcated in us, resonated instantly.
A Die-Hard Gandhian, Ela Ben’s Strength Was Rooted in Her Grace
My father was also working with a lot of crafts-women. Hence, she would take his advice and inputs on an exhibition or a museum she was planning for the SEWA. In 2014, when my father put up an exhibition on Gandhi at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Ela ben had come to the opening. I remember her pointing to one of the paintings which was called “Ashram” and said, “This painting is so direct, simple and what Gandhi believed about how an ashramvasi should be always ready for – Jail or martyrdom”.
The Ahmedabad I grew up in and where I got to know her, had an atmosphere of Gandhian ideology, social work, crafts, literature, and cooperative movement – all very present and yet not overstated. And Ela ben was very much, not only a part but also in the making of this culture. A really warm and interactive person, her strength seemed to lie in this grace.
I will also carry a vivid image of her as someone who felt like a close family member but again, very strong-willed and committed to her cause. On her passing, it seems like the end of an era that believed in the idea of simple living and an unshakeable commitment to social justice.
(Parthiv Shah is a Photographer, filmmaker and designer. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are of the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)