When Paris Met the Mahatma

When Paris Met the Mahatma: A look back at Gandhi’s visit to the City of Light, and the complex confrontation between his philosophy and European modernity

01 December 2011

MAGIC CITY WAS A LARGE DANCE HALL on Paris’s Left Bank, used over the decades for purposes as diverse as transvestite balls in the roaring 1920s and the storage of Jewish property confiscated by the fascist French government in the 1940s. It was seized by the Nazis and lavishly refurbished as a radio studio run by the Gestapo during the Occupation, and it was where French television broadcasting set up shop during the 1950s.

It was also the place where Mahatma Gandhi—on his way home from the Second Round Table Conference in London and en route to visit Romain Rolland in Geneva—made his only public appearance in Paris, on 5 December 1931, in the very same space where the celebrated Parisian drag queens Kymris and Monsieur Bertin once strutted their stuff.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts of the event, it was a strange evening. Patrons were ushered to their seats by girls “bizarrely uniformed in bright red skirts, leather boots, and wide leather belts from which hung cutlasses”, according to the journalist Robert Gauthier’s report in Le Temps. Gauthier observed that the “atmosphere, part circus, part dancing hall, the overheated room, the massive columns of red marble, the flashes of magnesium from here and there, and the floodlights ready to be lit into action were not on the same level as this leader of men.”

Further to the right, reporter Georges Suarez had a different take in L’Echo de Paris: “Mahatma Gandhi proves himself to be a great comic.... He appears crushed by his lamentable half-nakedness ... but, if his sandals are those of Mohamed, his little bathing suit does not conjure up Napoleon’s coat at Wagram.” According to Muriel Lester’s Entertaining Gandhi, an account of her travels with the Mahatma in Europe, Suarez was angry that he’d been denied a tête-à-tête interview with Gandhi earlier in the day after he snuck into the apartment where Gandhi was staying on Boulevard Raspail. He promised Lester he’d write nasty things about Gandhi if he wasn’t given access to the man, and he did.

By the time Gandhi arrived in France in 1931, he was an international celebrity. His 1930 Salt March had been widely covered by the foreign media—whose interest in the proceedings was mocked in a book-length satirical poem, called The Saint and Satan, published the same year:

Mira Kamdar is a Contributing Editor at The Caravan. The award-winning author’s essays and opinions appear in publications around the world.

Keywords: london Europe colony Paris France Gandhi Mahatma reports celebrity media French Enlightenment colonialism independence independence movement