Gandhi in Nationalist Prints

Print edition : April 27, 2018

Mahatma Gandhi. Photo: Courtesy: Gandhi Smriti

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Gandhi dominated in the visual imaginary of nationalism among printmakers of pre-Independence India and the artists they commissioned to make “nationalist prints”, and the portrayals reflected popular culture, resulting in some interesting images of the Mahatma, for instance, with Bhagat Singh and even as Krishna.

MOHANDAS Karamchand Gandhi was the pre-eminent public face of India to the rest of the world for more than three decades after his return to India from South Africa in January 1915. But just how did his name and teachings circulate in India, and to what effect? The burden of the recent scholarship on Gandhi, which shows little signs of diminishing even as it has taken new turns in recent years, has been to critique, complicate and indeed defang the hagiographic readings of “the Mahatma” and to suggest that there were multiple Gandhis. One of the intellectually more engaging attempts to move away from the received view is encountered in the historian Shahid Amin’s complex reading, to put it simply, of Gandhi from below. 1 Drawing upon local newspapers, pamphlets and other forms of what we may call little literatures, he argued that common people did not always subscribe to the authorised image of Gandhi; sometimes they even committed violence in his name. Large as the archive is that Amin drew upon, there are still larger bodies of material shaped around Gandhi that have received relatively little scrutiny. Gandhi appeared in thousands of prints, oil paintings, watercolours, sculptures, cartoons and advertisements: this extraordinarily rich and varied archive suggests that the representational apparatus played a significant role in generating a public persona of Gandhi and transforming him into the Mahatma, a world historical figure, the “prophet of ahimsa”, and much else. I shall turn my attention here to a small set of nationalist prints produced in black and white.

Christopher Pinney has on several occasions characterised, though on what grounds is far from clear, S.S. Brijbasi & Sons, based in Karachi, as the most important printmaker in pre-Independence India. Printmakers were active in many of the larger cities, among them Karachi, Lahore, Delhi, Allahabad, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata). But the most important centre of nationalist printmaking may yet have been Cawnpore (Kanpur), however surprising this may appear to someone whose impression of Kanpur is that of a city that has none of the attractions of a metropolis and all of its drawbacks, from extraordinarily poor urban management to unspeakable levels of filth and pollution.

Kanpur was, of course, one of the principal sites of the rebellion of 1857-58: it is here that the rebel leader Nana Saheb was alleged to have committed atrocities against the British, thus invoking the full force of British vengeance and cruelty. But, what is possibly more germane to understanding the place of Kanpur in the history of nationalist printmaking are the following: the non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhi was received with much enthusiasm in Kanpur; the 40th annual session of the Congress in 1925 was convened in Kanpur under the leadership of Sarojini Naidu; moreover, over the course of the decade, most of the principal stalwarts of the nationalist movement, among them Lala Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malaviya, visited the city to drum up support for the Congress. In 1913, the promising young journalist Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi founded the journal Pratap, which would become a vehicle for nationalist opinion as much as a voice for the working class. By the early 1920s, Vidyarthi had assumed a place in the local leadership of the Congress; and in 1929 he was elected president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee.

The city had a large Muslim population and many of its Muslims stood behind Gandhi’s Khilafat campaign, even if by around 1930 some had become alienated from the Congress movement. But Kanpur’s singularity lay perhaps in something else, as a city which was hospitable to both the mainstream nationalist movement and the armed revolutionaries whose exploits made them household names in much of north India. It is in Kanpur that the Communist Party of India had its inaugural meeting in December 1925. In the British view, its industrial character gave birth to “a large number of persons of very desperate character—a factor not to be found in any other city of U.P.”; communist activists, on the other hand, saw in Kanpur a fertile field for trade union activity. 2 In a few years, Kanpur would emerge, alongside Delhi and Lucknow, as one of the three principal sites for the organisational activities of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA). 3 The young Bhagat Singh even served a short stint as a journalist for Vidyarthi’s Pratap. 4

The ‘picture merchant’

Thus, it is in Kanpur that Shyam Sundar Lal came to be established as a “Picture Merchant” with an office at the Chowk. 5 Although a few scholars have over the course of the last decade or two drawn attention to popular prints, little, if anything, is known about Shyam Sundar Lal and how his business originated, and much the same can be said for most other major publishers of prints from the 1920s to the 1940s. 6 According to his grandson, who still manages the business, Sundar Lal opened his shop and publishing venture in 1923. 7 We similarly have very little idea how these prints were used or circulated. Just how many copies of each design were printed? Were they put up in the marketplace or affixed to walls in other public spaces to goad, inspire and provoke people into political action before they were torn down by orders of the police? Were these prints framed and prominently displayed in homes where nationalist feelings ran high? No mention of them is found in any memoir or autobiography of those days, as far as I am aware. Is it possible that they were passed from one hand to another at political meetings?

Writing on the images of armed revolutionaries, one scholar avers that many can be traced to Kanpur, “and of these, a disproportionately large number appears to have been published by one press: Shyam Sundar Lal”. 8 Radhe Lal Agarwal, most likely a member of the family, is mentioned on some prints as the “sole agent” in U.P. Shyam Sundar Lal could apparently rely upon several printers in Kanpur—among them Job Press, Coronation Press, Misra Press, National Press, Ramdass Press, and the Central Press—as well as printers in Allahabad, primarily Krishna Press and Bhargava Press. Just how many artists were commissioned or employed at his workshop, provided he had one, is also uncertain; in the nationalist prints, at least, the names of Roop Kishore Kapur, on whom Pinney has lavished some attention, and Prabhu Dayal predominate among the artists. The images were copyrighted, suggesting that Sundar Lal was not averse to acquiring profits. Indeed, as other prints, such as those of wrestling champions, 9 from his publishing company suggest, he was not inspired solely by nationalist sentiments.

Nevertheless, Sundar Lal must have been aware that in publishing material that was in some cases, as shall be presently seen, in open defiance of press regulations and other measures taken by the government to check seditious activity, he ran the risk of having his business shuttered and himself being hauled into jail. On April 13, 1940, the police finally pounced upon him: descending upon his shop with a search warrant, they found “in his shop a number of pictures for sale, publication or distribution, such pictures coming under the category of unauthorised news sheet”—the latter a term defined in the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act of 1931. 10 The martyrs featured in such prohibited posters, postcards, and calendars included Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh and Jatin Das. The case came to trial on June 6, 1940, in the court of Rama Kant, Magistrate of Kanpur, who declared himself convinced that the “objectionable” material found in Sundar Lal’s shop fell well within the definition of “unauthorised”, and that the defendant therefore was guilty as charged.

It is Gandhi, however, rather than armed revolutionaries who was by far the most common subject for printmakers, and whose life and work generated an extraordinarily diverse array of narratives. The enterprise of putting into question the received teleology of Indian nationalism, in which Gandhi figures as the high priest, commenced neither with Subaltern Studies nor with Dalit scholars. The first generation of Marxist commentators, such as M.N. Roy and the young Soumyendranath Tagore, were by the 1920s already writing about Gandhi and the Congress in a highly critical vein; and we may say that later the historians of the Subaltern School brought a certain sophistication to their critique of not only imperialist but, more significantly, the nationalist school of historiography, seeing them as joined at the hip with their emphasis on elites and the uncritical adulation of the idea of the nation. Pinney, quite possibly the most engaging scholar to have launched forays into the vast visual archive of Indian popular culture, has extended the critique yet further. He has argued, putting it rather plainly, that Bhagat Singh and his cohorts loomed much larger in the political imaginary of what is termed “the freedom struggle” than the sanctioned official historiography will allow. If his argument had gone thus far, it would scarcely be exceptional; after all, Nehru had admitted as much in Gandhi’s own lifetime. “Jatin Das’s death,” wrote Nehru of the revolutionary who died of a prolonged hunger strike in protest against prison conditions, “created a sensation all over the country.” The “popularity that the man achieved”, he wrote in similarly effusive language about Bhagat Singh, “was something amazing”; at one point, Nehru was to add in his autobiography of 1941, Bhagat Singh had eclipsed Gandhi in popularity. 11 Indeed, the historian Manmath Nath Gupta, who over several decades vigorously championed the “revolutionaries” as the true if unheralded architects of Indian Independence, was as early as 1939 calling into question what he took to be the hegemonic nationalist narrative. 12

Gandhi and Bhagat Singh

Pinney’s claim is rather more striking, namely, that popular culture is much less observant of the pieties of official nationalism and can barely be contained. Thus, in his reading, even Gandhi, however loath he may have been to allow revolutionaries who had resorted to violence a place in the emerging history of the nation, perforce had to concede that the nation stood in deep debt to the patriotism of martyred young men and women. His piece de resistance for this argument is a print from around 1931 where “Gandhi reveals his true allegiance to B.K. [Bakuteshwar] Dutt”: “Just as Hanuman, the monkey-god tears open his chest to reveal his allegiance to his master, the god Ram, so here Gandhi tears open his [inferior] peaceful existence to reveal his faith in revolutionary struggle”, a reference to the print’s representation of Gandhi baring open his chest to reveal an image of the holy trio of the martyred Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. 13 Popular opinion impels Gandhi towards the truth; his secret self triumphs over the self shaped by manufactured consent.

To bolster Pinney’s argument, it may be said that we do not have a similar image of Bhagat Singh tearing open his chest to reveal an image of Gandhi. However, this image lends itself to a great many more interpretations and questions than Pinney, who seems a bit too eager to join those contemporary commentators who have thought it fit to diminish Gandhi’s role in the struggle for Independence and also take the shine off him, is willing to allow. As Pinney recognises, viewers of the print would at once have thought of Ram and Hanuman. Should we then simply affirm that Hanuman is to Ram as Gandhi is to Bhagat Singh? Could such a view have had any traction at all to the viewers? That hardly seems possible: howsoever much Bhagat Singh was valorised, there is absolutely nothing else to suggest that Gandhi in the common imagination was held to be his bhakta. We might ask what relationship the image has to the written word: in other words, do the newspapers, pamphlets and broadsheets of the day at all support such a reading, which establishes Gandhi in the role of a bhakta to Bhagat Singh? How far does the analogy with Hanuman and Ram extend considering that Bhagat Singh was known to be a committed atheist and derived at least some of his following from those who held him up as an example of a revolutionary inspired not by Ram’s victory over Ravan but by the writings of Marx and the tactics of insurgency pioneered by Lenin? Could the printmaker have only been suggesting that Gandhi, whose own relentless commitment to ahimsa was a matter of public knowledge, had enough of largesse in him that he was willing to embrace Bhagat Singh? Might we even argue that the print was calculated to make Bhagat Singh acceptable to Gandhi’s followers and bring Bhagat Singh, lionised as a patriot, to the door of divinity by sheer proximity to Gandhi?

What is indubitably true, however one positions oneself with respect to Gandhi, is that he predominates in the visual imaginary of nationalism. Bhagat Singh appears with a fedora, in the jail cell, with the hangman’s noose around him and his companions, as the inheritor of the tradition of militant resistance that nationalism came to associate with Maharana Pratap Singh and Shivaji, or as the forerunner of Subhas Bose: it is largely within this world that he is circumscribed. But Gandhi overwhelms with his presence in nearly every domain of life, extending for the printmaker the representational apparatus in myriad ways—as a world historical figure, a modern-day Krishna, the architect of satyagraha, the instigator of local struggles, the weaver alike of yarn and epic narratives, the custodian of the country’s moral integrity, the exemplar of yogic discipline, the mariner who brings the boat safely to shore, and so on.

In the series of prints discussed here, most of them from Shyam Sundar Lal, we commence with Gandhi and Kasturba side by side (Figure 1): the caption describes Gandhi as “Shanti ke devta” (God of Peace), and at the bottom he is identified as “Mahatma Gandhi”. Kasturba is named “Dharmapatni Mahatma Gandhi”, his lawful or dutiful wife; strikingly, the caption above her portrait, “Mateshwari Kastur Bai”, characterises her as akin to Parvati, the consort of Siva (Mateshwar). Gandhi appears in a pensive mood, bare-chested: though he is already the Mahatma, he is pondering the course of action he might adopt to lead the nation. This is the Gandhi who has just been launched on to the national stage. The same photograph of Gandhi sans Kasturba appears in a print (Figure 2), also from the workshop of Shyam Sundar Lal, bearing the caption, “Rashtra ke Sutradhar”—the weaver of the country’s destiny, the stage manager charged with guiding the country to a new future. Quite possibly, the same photograph may exist with yet other captions, pointing to the mental agility of the printmaker, who is cognisant of the fact that Gandhi appeared attractive to some as a messenger of peace, to others as the arbiter of the country’s fate, and to yet others in one of his many other guises. Or, was the printmaker already attuned to the way of marketing?

The Sutradhar

It is literally as the Sutradhar that Gandhi appears in another undated print from Sundarlal’s workshop (Figure 3). Here Gandhi sits beside the charkha: he is looking into the camera, obliging his interlocutor. The top of the print bears a caption, “Azaadi ke Paigamber ki Ghoshna” (“An announcement from the divine messenger of freedom”); below Gandhi’s image are printed his “Eleven Demands”, which, though the print is undated, can be traced to the demands that Gandhi put forward before Lord Irwin in late January 1930. 14 Gandhi had called for total prohibition; reduction of the land revenue, and similarly of military expenditures, by at least 50 per cent; a protective tariff on imported clothes; and, among other things, the elimination of the salt tax. The constituency the print was most likely aimed at is suggested by the use of a somewhat elevated or Sanskritic Hindi.

We have already encountered the characterisation of Gandhi as “Devta”, as the “Prophet” of freedom; at the same time, in the public imagination Gandhi was indelibly linked with the cause of the charkha: he could be found spinning at his ashram and in public forums, in and out of jail. Print after print points to how these two representations would be conjoined, as Prabhu Dayal (Figure 4) amply suggests. The thread passes through Gandhi’s supple fingers; the caption says it all: “Bhagwan ki Takli”.

Sabarmati ashram

Sabarmati Ashram, where Gandhi eventually made his home after a brief spell at Kochrab Ashram before finally embarking from it for Dandi more than a decade later, was in many respects the centre of his universe. Ashram dwellers were bound to a set of observances; much as anyone else, Gandhi partook of most of the activities that dominated ashram life, but he also devoted a portion of his day to reading, writing and keeping up with his correspondence (Figure 5).

It is at this ashram from where, on March 10, 1922, shortly after the publication of a number of his pieces that were deemed seditious, Gandhi was taken into custody. The police party arrived late at night, and Gandhi was sent word that he could take time to bid farewell to friends and the ashram inmates and collect a few belongings. The drama of that night is captured in a print called “Arrest of Mahatma Gandhi”, published by Arorbans Press, Lahore (Figure 6). Gandhi was awoken from his sleep; a police officer bends towards him, a paper—presumably the arrest warrant—in his outstretched right hand, while another policeman hovers just behind him. The beam of the flashlight illuminates the warrant, the dark night, and a portion of Gandhi’s face. There is yet more attention to detail, suggesting more than just the printmaker’s familiarity with some elements of Gandhi’s life: for instance, the alarm clock on a little night table just behind Gandhi’s bed reminds the viewer of the demands on Gandhi’s time, his punishing schedule, and his strict adherence to punctuality.

The disciplined life is evoked also in Prabhu Dayal’s print for Sunder Lal called “Satyagraha Yoga-Sadhan” (the achievement of satyagraha by means of yoga; Figure 7). Gandhi is centre stage, flagged at either end by Motilal Nehru and his son, Jawaharlal: he sits meditatively on a bed of thorns, reminiscent perhaps of the dying Bhishma as he lay upon a sheaf of arrows and delivered a last set of teachings on the duties of the king and the slipperiness of dharma. There are no rose bushes without thorns; there is no freedom without restraint and discipline: indeed, if Patanjali may be paraphrased, the freedom of spiritual integrity is experienced in the act of discipline itself, which is ultimately rendered superfluous by the reality that its practice discloses. The sun of “Purna Swaraj” shines upon the three—the resolution demanding “full independence” had been passed in December 1929 by the Congress at the annual meeting in Lahore presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru.

A little more than a year later, Gandhi was one of the pall-bearers at the funeral of Motilal Nehru. Sunder Lal’s printmaker captured the last journey of this great soul: the funeral procession emerges from the ancestral Nehru home, Anand Bhavan, the men ranged on one side and the women on the other (Figure 8). The caption confers the epithet of “tyagmurti” on Pandit Motilal but he is, I would argue, the most obvious but by no means the only figure of sacrifice. Gandhi, long since the Mahatma, and by now the principal architect of the Independence movement, leads the pall-bearers; he is himself a figure of sacrificial discipline and devotion.

It is with the idea of non-cooperation, asahayoga, that Gandhi had first stirred the nation and helped to transform the Congress into an organisation capable of spearheading a movement of mass non-violent resistance. The Non-Cooperation Movement lasted from 1920 until early 1922 when, after an incident at Chauri Chaura, which led to the outbreak of what Gandhi characterised as “mob” violence, a description that has been critiqued by some historians and commentators as an indication of his bourgeois sensibility and his inability to countenance the idea of a “real” revolution, he called for its suspension.

In the complex prints that I bring to the fore here, the trope of non-cooperation figures prominently—but not exclusively so (Figures 9 to 12). Krishna had lifted Govardhan to save the inhabitants of Vrindavan from the wrath of Indra, who, offended that the villagers were no longer willing to render him puja, decided to flood the land and submerge it under water. In a print from Calcutta, entitled “Asahayoga Govardhan” (Figure 9), Gandhi, ably assisted by C.R. Das, the Ali brothers, Motilal and Lajpat Rai, makes of non-cooperation a mountain under which one might expect Ram Rajya to flourish. Elsewhere, Gandhi, Motilal and Jawaharlal, who together embody the virtues of courage, endurance, shrewdness and heroism, are rendered by Prabhu Dayal as the three skilled boatmen (“teen chatur mallaha”) who can steer the boat of non-cooperation through a frightful storm to safety (Figure 10).

The idea of non-cooperation receives yet greater elaboration in a print published by the Bombay-based Joshi brothers with the title “Ramayana Asahayoga Setu Bandhan”, rendered into English on the print itself as “Non-Co-operation Setu Bandhan” (Figure 12). The print plays with multiple narratives, almost divided into several panels, in each of which the viewer is witness to a story. Gandhi is at the forefront of a group of political leaders astride a bridge across which the letters “NON CO-OP ERAT” are seen; a portion of the bridge, presumably bearing the letters “ION”, has perhaps fallen into the water or has not yet been put up. Non-cooperation was never a narrative only of how Gandhi induced the nation to cease cooperating with the British, and thereby sap the very foundations of colonial rule; it was also a narrative, at a time when the Congress was divided between “moderates” and “extremists”, of cooperation and rapprochement among Indians of different political persuasions. A print such as this one calls for considerable interpretation: the bridge to Lanka brings Ram closer to Sita even as it takes him into the fortress of the enemy. Non-cooperation always holds out the promise of a cooperation that is deferred; violence is inescapably present to every advocate of ahimsa.

The Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920-22 gave way to the “Constructive Programme”, activity by armed revolutionary groups, and, moving into the next decade, the Dandi March and the salt satyagraha (Figure 13) and widespread civil disobedience (Figure 14). Printmakers were alert in giving recognition to Gandhi’s view, to which he was deeply committed until the end of his life, that political emancipation from colonial rule was wholly insufficient unless one could also articulate a vision of economic, cultural and social freedom for the masses. Gandhi remained a staunch advocate of prohibition, as is conveyed in a print entitled “Destruction of Palm-Trees” (Figure 15), though the zeal with which the toddy trees are being felled suggests at least a touch of violence.


“The Way to Swaraj” for Gandhi lay in rural reconstruction, the revitalisation of the village economy, adherence to swadeshi and a respect for manual labour (Figure 16): though he has not been seen this way, Gandhi was also the theorist of the “handmade” and always mindful of the unmatched integrity of the hand. The singularity of Gandhi is evident in many of the prints, as we have seen, but printmakers were always animated by larger considerations. The economic exploitation of India had been a subject for Indian nationalists since at least the late 19th century and would become the subject of famous studies by Dadabhai Naoroji and Romesh Chunder Dutt, but printmakers were not far behind, as is evident in the print, also from Sunder Lal’s publishing house, called “Sampatti Haran” (“Looted by the Foreigners”; Figure 17). Gandhi appears here, at the extreme left centre of the print; he is dwarfed by the figure of a despondent Bharat Mata, as though to suggest that, in some respects, even a Gandhi could only be an onlooker to the immense economic tragedy unfolding in India.

What is most striking about nationalist prints, and worthy of a far more detailed analysis than is possible at this juncture, is the manner in which printmakers worked Indian mythic material—stories and characters from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the vast store of Puranic lore—into the nationalist narrative. “Asahayoga Govardhan” (Figure 9) may be recalled in this context, though two further examples will suffice for our purposes. The story of young Markandeya being saved from Yama, the Lord of Death, who comes astride a bull would serve Prabhu Dayal with the template in “Bharatuddhar”. Yama Raja now appears in the guise of a colonial police official, Bharat Mata substitutes for Markandeya, and Siva is transmogrified into Gandhi (Figure 18). “The Meeting of Krishna and Gandhi” (Figure 19) is extraordinary in its deceptive simplicity: the left-hand column narrates incidents from Krishna’s life and the right-hand column offers a parallel narrative of Gandhi’s life. This is far from being the only print where Krishna’s bansuri has taken on new life as Gandhi’s spindle. But where else, except in the marvellously fecund world of these nationalist prints, would one expect the butter thief (“maakhan chor”) to meet his match in the salt thief (“namak chor”)?

Vinay Lal is Professor of History & Asian American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).


1. Amin, Shahid (1984): “Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern UP, 1921-22”, in Subaltern Studies III: Writings on South Asian History and Society, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-61.

2. Joshi, Chitra (2005): Lost Worlds: Indian Labour and Its Forgotten Histories, London: Anthem Press, pp. 268-69.

3. Maclean, Kama (2015): A Revolutionary History of Interwar India: Violence, Image, Voice and Text, New York: Oxford University Press.

4. Dogra, Bharat (2016): “Bhagat Singh: a media role model”, The Hoot, September 27, online: http://www.thehoot.org/media-watch/regional-media/bhagat-singh-a-media-role-model-9669 (accessed on September 6, 2017).

5. Some of the prints bear the name “Shyam Sundarlal Agarwal”; yet others “Shyam Sunderlal”. Sundar also appears frequently with a variant spelling, “Sunder”.

6. One notable exception is the account of the publisher S.S. Brijbasi furnished by Pinney, Christopher (2004): ‘ Photos of the Gods’: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India, London: Reaktion Books, though even here we are far from having a full-fledged understanding of this publisher’s activities.

7. Phone interview with Kedar Nath Aggarwal, January 14, 2018. I am grateful to Rahul Rajora of Delhi for putting me in touch with Aggarwal.

8. Maclean, Kama: ibid. p. 126.

9. See Thomas, Rosie: “An Aladdin’s Cave of 1950s B-Movie Fantasy”, at http://www.tasveergharindia.net/cmsdesk/essay/103/index_3.html (accessed on September 7, 2017).

10. Case No. 507, “Judgement” of June 6, 1940, in the court of R.S. Rama Kant, Magistrate 1st Class of Cawnpore. Rahul Rajora kindly shared the text of this judgment, which to the best of my knowledge has received no previous mention in the scholarship, with me.

11. Nehru, Jawaharlal (1941): Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru, Boston: Beacon Press, pp. 134-44.

12. Gupta, Manmath Nath (1939): Bharatiya krantikari Andolan ka Itihas, translated into English as History of the Indian Revolutionary Movement (Bombay: Somaiya Publications, 1972); see also his They Lived Dangerously: Reminiscences of a Revolutionary (Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1969) and Bhagat Singh and His Times (Delhi: Lipi Prakashan, 1977).

13. Pinney, Christopher: ibid. p. 136.

14. See (1930): “Clearing the Issue”, Young India, January 30, in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 100 vols, New Delhi: Government of India, Publications Division, 48:271.

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