Gandhi and Kallenbach's getaway

Pine Road in Orchards, Johannesburg, has for some years been cordoned off from the maelstrom of traffic heading towards Louis Botha.

The reason, one assumes, for the arrival of a palisaded sanctuary is to allow the Jewish community of the Pine Road synagogue to worship in peace.

But now there is another reason to ensure that the chaos of Louis Botha Avenue does not spill into the nearby leafy enclave. 

Next door to the synagogue stands Satyagraha House, the newly refurbished property that once belonged to German-Jewish bodybuilder and architect Hermann Kallenbach, intimate friend of Mohandas K Gandhi. The historic home, with stereotypical African influences, round rooms and thatched roofs, was dubbed “The Kraal” upon completion.

It was here, from 1907 to 1909, that Gandhi and Kallenbach shared digs, developed an ascetic lifestyle of vegetarianism and, as some records have it, abstinence. This included meditation, physical exercise and discourse with visiting satyagrahis.

But in March this year, Pulitzer prize-winning historian Joseph Lely­veld released the biography Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India.

In stark contrast to the belief that Gandhi and Kallenbach lived like Jo’burg monks was the revelation that the two may have had a physical relationship.

Extraordinary relationship
According to Lelyveld’s book, Gandhi is supposed to have told Kallenbach: “How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.”

In Satyagraha House, one can find a mezzanine built into the roof where it is believed Gandhi went to spend quality time alone.

The property is now divided into a guesthouse and museum. Historical artifacts include facsimiles of important photographs, history explained on wall panels and quotes from correspondence illuminating the extraordinary relationship between the two men.

The simple contemporary finishings in the guesthouse that surrounds the historical home are already finding their way into the top interior decor magazines of the country.

The architect of the refurbishment, Rocco Bosman, notes on the project’s website that, when the original house was built, it was in a country setting, far from the burgeoning metropolis. Today the venue is trying not so much to turn back the clock as to stop it from ticking too fast.

It offers yoga and meditation classes, meals made with organic produce, some from the kitchen garden, and the guesthouse is television-, alcohol- and cigarette-free (okay, there is a smoking area out back and wifi is available).

The floor heating is geothermal and the water for the garden and other non-drinking purposes comes from a spring on the property. Energy-saving lighting is favoured throughout the house.

The talent behind the project includes curator Lauren Segal and Gandhi specialist Eric Itzkin.

15 Pine Road, Orchards, Johannesburg. Room rates vary from R900 to R1 725 a night. More at satyagrahahouse.com

 
Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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