Revolutionary Work: Pandurang Khankhoje and Tina Modotti
My father, the agronomist and political revolutionary Pandurang Khankhoje, was born in 1886 in British colonial India, the son of a Marathi vakil, a petition writer in the courts of law, and the grandson of a revolutionary who fought in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Born into a Brahmin family that treasured learning above all else, Khankhoje was mentored by his grandfather, who taught him to recognize the inequity and violence of British colonial rule. The Indian famine of 1896–97, due to the failure of the monsoon as well as an administrative breakdown engineered by the British, left a deep mark on Khankhoje, one that was to determine his choice of a career bringing together revolutionary and agrarian concerns in pursuit of social justice.
As a student, Khankhoje was an ardent admirer of the French Revolution and of the American War of Independence. Closer to home, the Hindu reformer Swami Dayanand and his Arya Samaj movement, which called for a spirit of reform and social change, became the hero to a young student group led by Khankhoje, who, by the time he was seventeen years old, had the police warning his parents about his “seditious” activities. India’s independence became Khankhoje’s aspiration, one that was to lead him to many parts of the world: Japan, the United States, Turkey, Syria, Persia, Germany and, finally, Mexico. Khankhoje’s first departure after he finished school, however, was made to meet his guru, Lokmanya Tilak, one of the first Indian thinkers to proclaim “Swaraj (Self-rule) is my birthright and I shall have it,” and to demand complete self-determination.
India was to gain its independence only many years later—after two world-shattering wars—and it would be brought, ultimately, by the nonviolence movement of Mahatma Gandhi. Nevertheless, freedom from colonialism cannot be achieved in days or months, perhaps not even in years; the foundations of resistance and the mental preparation of the Indian people took decades. It began with the Indian Rebellion of 1857, with a mutiny of sepoys from the British East India Company’s army, often called the First War of Independence; many other resistance movements were to erupt in India before colonial rule ended in 1947. Bent on bringing armed struggle to India, Khankhoje was instrumental in one of these movements: the Ghadar Party.
First, though, and on Tilak’s advice, Khankhoje left for Japan. The recent victory of the Imperial Japanese Navy over the Imperial Russian Navy at Port Arthur in 1904, and the humiliation of a Western power by an Asian power, was unprecedented in modern times. There, Khankhoje met O-kuma Shigenobu, the former Japanese prime minister then president of the Indo-Japanese Foundation, who promised sympathy but nothing more. Destitute, Khankhoje met the exiled Chinese revolutionaries of Sun Yat-sen, the first president and founding father of the Republic of China. They promised financial help and instruction in the military arts in exchange for English lessons. This resulted in a momentous meeting with Dr. Sun himself, who encouraged Khankhoje’s revolutionary aspirations. He also stressed the importance of agriculture in a nation’s development. This conversation would have a profound effect on Khankhoje and the trajectory of his life and work to come.
In those days, passports were not common; people traveled on the strength of letters of permit, sailors’ passes, or nothing at all. Khankhoje had left India without papers, fleeing the colonial police. Slowly abandoning his puritanical, Brahmanical customs, he traveled as a laborer, cleaning decks and taking refuge with the African workers. After a year in Japan, Khankhoje read an announcement in the newspapers calling for labor to help rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. With the help of his Chinese friends he was soon traveling to the United States in the hold of a ship carrying workers to San Francisco. Once there, rejected for all construction work due to his poor physique, Khankhoje went through the gamut of experience of an unskilled immigrant in the United States: he worked as a waiter, a cleaner, a dishwasher, and a hospital attendant. After saving enough money for college fees, he enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley as a student of agriculture. After just a year at Berkeley, Khankhoje joined the nearby Mount Tamalpais Military Academy, which he felt would better assist his desire to lead an armed struggle against the British. It was during his holidays that he made a point of meeting Indian immigrant workers in nearby farms, exhorting them to join the ranks of his formative idea, an Indian Independence League in the United States.
The beginning of the twentieth century was bringing changes across the colonial world. Imperialism appeared to be dying a slow death. Many Latin American countries had fought and become independent from Spain in the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth, the Irish were fighting for freedom from the Crown; indeed, Mount Tamalpais was run by a retired Irish Army officer, who sponsored Khankhoje. He graduated from Mount Tamalpais in 1910 at the height of the Mexican Revolution—often mistaken for a Mexican, Khankhoje made friends with many Mexican revolutionaries through a fellow cadet. If the world was indeed shifting, the philosophy of governance was undergoing a deep change: dictatorships were being overthrown and democracy was gaining ground; the colonized world was getting restive. For Khankhoje, establishing an armed struggle for Indian freedom from colonialism had to begin.
Nevertheless, Dr. Sun’s advice had stayed with him, and Khankhoje first headed to Oregon, where he worked alongside Indian laborers in a lumber mill; on Sundays Khankhoje motivated them to work for Indian self-determination. It was there in Portland that the Indian Independence League was formally inaugurated. The organization was formed with Sohan Singh Bakhna as president and Pandit Kashiram, the mill manager, as treasurer. By the end of the year they had more than four hundred volunteers. Khankhoje later encountered Lala Har Dayal, an eminent Indian intellectual teaching at Stanford University, while researching the organization of dissident Sikh farmers in British Columbia. Har Dayal had begun a propaganda campaign, publishing a newspaper that featured patriotic songs and articles in the vernacular languages of India. This was the seed from which the Ghadar Party would emerge in 1913.
While Har Dayal, a brilliant orator, set out to procure arms and ammunition for the Indian rebels, he made an alliance with the Germans who were secretly preparing to wage war. Khankhoje, as he dedicated his time to the Ghadar movement, began organizing a militant group consisting of retired ex-servicemen, making use of his recently gained military expertise at Mount Tamalpais. He trained his volunteers in an isolated farm belonging to a Ghadrite. Their intention was to raid Indian police establishments and attack armories, systematically creating trouble for the British by a chain of military incidents as learned from observing the Mexican Revolution.
In 1914, with the world about to experience a cataclysmic war, the Indian volunteers were ready to foment trouble in India; it was a period of activity and mass mobilization. As the Indian volunteers set out for India, Har Dayal was arrested and escaped to Switzerland. Khankhoje, after learning that the Germans were going to meet with Indian activists in Constantinople, left on a steamer, with forged Persian papers, to join them; he intended on subverting Indian troops at the Indo-Afghanistan border. While the Germans had planned expeditions to Afghanistan and Iran (as well as a third front in the Middle East) to cut the supply of oil and divert British forces, Kaiser Wilhelm II had no intention of helping Indians attain independence; his intention was merely to distract. Eventually, Khankhoje joined the expedition led by Wilhelm Wassmuss, the German “Lawrence of Arabia,” who, frequently mistaken for a Persian, led skirmishes against the British. As he fought the British and slowly built up an army of recruits to enter India via Indian Baluchistan—while waiting for the arms promised by the Germans as well as a shipload of volunteers from the United States—Khankhoje was wounded. He took shelter with the Qashqai tribes who had befriended him, where it took him a year to recover.
In the meantime, the quixotic war launched by the Ghadar volunteers in India ended in criminal trials and executions. Thousands of Indian soldiers had been recruited to fight in World War I, and loyalties were divided. It all ended, but not before the British Indian Government launched a series of cruel reprisals. Chased by the secret service, Khankhoje decided to join the mainstream of the Indian independence movement and left for Paris to meet Madame Bhikaji Cama, a Parsi patriot, who directed him to Germany. Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, brother of the renowned Indian poet Sarojini Naidu—or Chatto, as he was affectionately called—was in Berlin, leading a group of Indians intent on fighting for self-determination. Khankhoje was back in his element.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917 and Lenin’s founding of the Communist International (the Comintern), the Indians decided to seek Lenin’s help, and though the delegation was denied access, Khankhoje was singled out for a meeting; the Russian leader wanted to learn about the plight of the Indian farmer. Lenin and Khankhoje spoke at length. It became clear, however, that the Russians were more invested in the Persian democratic movement. Although Khankhoje would remain deeply committed to the ideals and principles of Lenin, he was also aware that India was not ready for communism.
After the end of World War I, Khankhoje feared the British secret service. The threat of extradition was very real. Mexico had become his only option, and, reminded of the Mexican revolutionaries who had impressed him, he set sail. There is little account of the problems and vicissitudes that he encountered on his arrival in Mexico around 1924, though we know from letters to his father that he nearly starved and grew vegetables in Xochimilco, a famous tourist attraction near Mexico City. Khankhoje reconciled himself to the fact that returning to India was prohibitive and that he simply now had to make a new life. He attempted to find his old revolutionary friends from the days of the Mexican uprising: one of them, Ramón P. de Negri, had become Minister of Agriculture; another was Senator Luis Monzón. After some time, Khankhoje was finally appointed as a professor at the National School of Agriculture in Chapingo. He had American credentials but no Spanish to speak of; a linguist at heart, however, he was soon teaching in pidgin Spanish.
After the war, Mexico was intellectually and politically dynamic. Years of colonial rule, a brief spell of Habsburg domination by Emperor Maximilian, and thirty years of the dictatorial rule of Porfirio Díaz had ended in a cruel and violent revolution. Mexico had entered a transformative phase. The mood of the Agrarian Revolution of Emiliano Zapata persisted even after his death. The Mexican farmer, the soldier, and the industrial laborer, the oppression of the masses by the rich and influential, became central themes of the new Mexican art, exemplified by the Mexican muralists, among them David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera. The new Minister of Public Education, José Vasconcelos—called “The Mexican Eagle”—was an intellectual who had developed a taste for Asian philosophy and yoga; he encouraged the popular arts, built schools, and fought illiteracy. He commissioned Rivera to paint a series of murals in the Ministry of Education and the former chapel of the National School of Agriculture in Chapingo. Rivera, the most famous of the muralists, had returned to his country after a decade in Europe and, in his own way, created a new school of Mexican painting. Using an amalgam of Spanish influence and Mexican indigenous art, he resurrected the ancient Aztec art of mural decoration.
In the midst of an explosion of Mexican art and liberal politics, Khankhoje found himself in the vortex of a different kind of revolution. Saddened by his failure to bring about Indian independence, he projected his desire for self-determination onto the Mexican people. While working with farmers in Mexico, Khankhoje realized their need to learn new techniques and scientific methods to improve the quality and yield of crops. He worked on developing new varieties of high-yielding corn, studying wheat, with particular attention to drought- and disease-resistant and high-yielding varieties. Plant genetics became the subject of his revolutionary endeavors.
It was here, doing this work, that he first encountered Tina Modotti, the Italian photographer, political activist, actress, and model. She had traveled to Mexico with her companion, the American photographer Edward Weston. Her initial work featured portraits of society women; her later, celebrated images would feature still-life studies of minimalist calla lilies, clumps of sugar cane, and shade-strewn palms, and, most famously, portraits of Mexican and Indigenous laborers and peasants. Her later work would bring her to be increasingly involved in the everyday life, politics, and poverty of the Mexican farmer. Meanwhile, Weston’s own famous series of artistic nudes of Modotti would prompt Rivera to make her his own model for the magnificent nude “Germination” (1925), a panel of the mural at the National School of Agriculture in Chapingo, near Texcoco.
It was in this crucible of ideas about art, science, and revolution that Khankhoje, Rivera, and Modotti met. Khankhoje was spending time with Rivera while he was painting, engaging in conversation about communism, his meeting with Lenin, and his ideas about better farming methods that might help the Mexican farmer and his crops. This led to the foundation in 1926, by Khankhoje, of the Escuelas Libres de Agricultura, the Free Schools of Agriculture, which would eventually become thirty-three free schools in several states of Mexico; Rivera would become deeply involved as a patron in this enterprise. The idea behind the schools was to improve agricultural farming methods by teaching new techniques to the farmers and deciding what was best to grow in each region: coffee plantations in Veracruz and maize near Texcoco, for example. Indeed, Khankhoje’s experiments with corn were a seminal contribution to the research and study of better varieties. These studies, many years later, would inform the Green Revolution spearheaded by Norman Borlaug. In turn, the Green Revolution would benefit India immensely, which in its way was the fulfillment of Khankhoje’s initial dream: to provide food for the people of India.
Modotti, meanwhile, was evolving in her political consciousness and becoming a revolutionary: she joined the Mexican Communist Party and began concentrating on social themes in her photographic work, which featured in political publications such as El Machete. (Her solo exhibition in 1929 at the National Library would be called “The First Revolutionary Photographic Exhibition in Mexico.”) She further focused on the activities of the Mexican Indigenous people. In the official legal documents of the Free Schools of Agriculture, Modotti is listed as the photographer that recorded the activities therein. She joined Khankhoje on his forays into the farming hinterlands of Mexico and soon began to take brilliant photographs for his monographs, among them Maiz Granada “Zea Mays Digitata,” su origen, evolución y cultivo (1936). The book traced the origin of maize from the corncob to the lowly teosinte grass, and was an exacting treatise on plant genetics, illustrated by the photographs of Modotti. Her sharp eye and stark black-and-white modernist compositions infused light and life and allegory into what would have been stolid scientific records. Her 1928 depiction of a new variety of maize showed an ear of multigrain corn that opened like a pomegranate. In a single brilliant study, Modotti gives this corn life, composing a narrative that promises sustenance.
In Mexico, Modotti was deeply moved by Khankhoje’s quest to improve the yield of plants to better feed the world. Moving around the Mexican countryside, she also recorded a way of life that was slowly being made extinct by modernity, that of the small farmer or peasant tilling the soil to feed his family. In addition to this pastoral body of work, however, she also shot Khankhoje in his laboratory. In a photograph composed with the pathos of a Northern Renaissance painter, Modotti shows Khankhoje’s worktable laid with a few specimens, the strength and concentration of the subject illuminated by a ray of sunlight through a window. The image brings to the fore the emotional impact of food and poverty and social justice. There are many other photographs: see the geometric display of corn in the laboratory, Rivera sitting in a lighter moment, Khankhoje holding an ear of corn like a flambeau of liberty. Each image with the backdrop of the mystical maize, the high-yielding varieties of drought-resistant wheat and the better cultivation of yam, the unrefined food of the masses was given the importance it deserved. Rivera did not remain untouched or uninfluenced by Khankhoje’s and Modotti’s work either. With almost biblical overtones, he depicted Khankhoje in an allegorical mural called El pan nuestro (1923–28), painted at the Ministry of Education. It showed Khankhoje at the head of a table, distributing bread as if to the people of the world. Much later, in his famously destroyed fresco for the Rockefeller Center in New York, called Man at the Crossroads (1932–34), Rivera included Khankhoje’s agricultural studies as a small detail along the bottom of the mural. (The mural also featured Lenin, which would ultimately cause the Rockefellers to destroy it.)
In 1930, after a series of political assassinations and attempts, Modotti was expelled from Mexico by the anticommunist authorities and extradited to Europe, where she would escape to Moscow and work for Workers International Relief and the Comintern. After joining the struggle in the Spanish Civil War, its end found Modotti again in Mexico, where she died in suspicious circumstances in 1942. Her grave, in Panteón de Dolores in Mexico City, features a text written for her by Pablo Neruda: “Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life, / bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam, / combined with steel and wire and / pollen to make up your firm / and delicate being.”
The complete archive of Modotti’s photographs of Khankhoje and his botanical research and agricultural work stayed in his custody in Mexico, where he remained, settling down and having a family. Khankhoje would only leave Mexico in 1955, for his final return to India after it gained independence. Disillusionment set in there, however: on his return, he refused financial aid, preferring that money be spent on agricultural initiatives, which the government was unprepared to fund. Khankhoje withdrew from public life, reading the Vedas and Indian philosophy at length, and refusing to join politics. Khankhoje passed away in 1967, in Nagpur, at the age of eighty-one. In India, he will be remembered for his revolutionary work, and for his contribution to the Ghadar movement.
Indeed, Khankhoje’s exile in Mexico, and the life and work he made there, might well have been forgotten but for Modotti and her brilliant photographs. A woman both of and ahead of her time, Modotti almost elevated Khankhoje’s agricultural and botanical research into an art form. Her modernist photographs document a singular era, a period of art and revolution, of solidarity and social strife, one which forever stands encapsulated in the strange beauty, exacting seriousness, and deep social consciousness of her images.