“In the Mother’s Presence” – an interview with Shobha Mitra

The following interview is courtesy Golden Chain magazine (http://www.goldenchain.in/), where it was published in the Vol. 14 No 1 (Nov 2013)


Shobha Mitra ’56 has been the head of the Indian music section for decades and every student who has passed through SAICE has had some contact with her. She has put down her memories in a book, originally published in Bengali, the English translation of which has just come out. To her great surprise this book, Sri Mayer Dibya Saniddhye, was sold out within a year of its printing. Not only that, she was awarded the Sri Aurobindo Puraskar for it. The Governor of West Bengal handed over the award and the citation to the person who received it on her behalf in the Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Kolkata. This award is given every year on 15th August and it is given to those who have achieved excellence in a work in English, Bengali or Sanskrit.

This book, titled Living in The Presence in English (translated by Maurice Shukla ’75), is filled with episodes where we see how the Mother worked and guided those souls who had come drawn to her. There are also letters in Mother’s handwriting showing how she was involved in the smallest details of everyone’s lives. Through Shobha-di’s words we get a picture of the life of the Ashram of those days. The book was written over several years by putting down a few pages at a time, in the middle of her hectic schedule in the Music Section.

Sunayana ’79 spoke to Shobha-di about her book, the music section and other subjects.

 

WRITING A MEMOIR

SUNAYANA: Shobha-di, it has been a while since your book came out and now the English translation is being printed. It should be available in SABDA and at the Library by the time this interview is read by people. How did you get the idea of writing this book?

SHOBHA-DI: I had the habit of narrating my small incidents with the Mother to my students and to others whenever the occasion arose. This was my old habit and I used to enjoy it. Once, Dilip Mehtani, Sumitra and Uttama called me to the Flower Room to narrate some anecdotes to the children. I did it. On another occasion “The Continuing Education” group requested me to tell them something about my contact with the Mother. Then again, Anand and Deepshikha called me to talk about my reminiscences about the Mother. Like that, for some years, these occasional meetings kept taking place. There was always a suggestion from the listeners that I should preserve these stories in book form. But I did not pay much attention to that. I used to feel that there were more able people who could write about their reminiscences as Priti-di (Dasgupta), Mona (Sarkar) and Tara (Jauhar) have done.

One day Maurice came to me for some work. We were discussing about the School and the Ashram. Spontaneously I spoke to him about something that the Mother had told me. He was so moved to hear the Mother’s comment that he said to me, “Shobha-di, why don’t you write these things down? These incidents will be lost if you don’t do it.” I said, “Maurice, I am not a writer. Moreover, I can express my deepest thoughts and feelings only in Bengali. How many will be able to read it?” He replied, “Never mind about that. I will translate the book. You just write.” Maybe that was the day I took the final decision to write the book. I started to gather the material which would be of common interest to everybody. Some very personal things I have not published. But I took the courage to include some things to show the way the Mother worked on us. Sometimes a blow from Her worked like a miracle. At other times Her invaluable touch of grace uplifted us, encouraged us to walk on the path we have chosen.

SU: Did you feel any hesitation about talking of these extraordinary experiences?

SH: Extraordinary, that’s the word. There are certain experiences during programmes which if they had not happened in my own life, I would not have perhaps believed them. Like the time when I had two big boils and I told the Mother that I would not be able to dance and She said, “Don’t worry, dance. You will be able to dance.” And She did make me dance. This is extraordinary. If it had not happened in my own life, I would have doubted it.

SU: Perhaps you would have believed it with your mind but not with your heart.

SH: For example, the Mahakali dance that I have written about in my book. She said, “You have invoked the spirit of Mahakali.” This is extraordinary. This happened in the Ashram, with us.

SU: People of your generation know about these things because they happened in front of them. They know the story of the Mahakali dance. But the younger generation would not have known about it had it not been published. It would have been known only by a small number of people.

SH: I have never spoken about these extraordinary things. These are things you cannot tell everybody. You can only speak about these things to very close and intimate friends. It is true that the people of my generation saw the programmes about which I speak in the book. But they did not know about the Mother’s comments on the programmes because I had never spoken to anyone about them except to very few. Some of the Mother’s comments are very personal. They should not be told to anyone. But, this time, I felt that it was the Mother who was important, not I. So, I have published certain things only to show the Mother’s working on us. I had to make a huge effort to get rid of my idea of not publishing them.

SU: How long did it take to write this book?

SH: A very long time!

SU: Did you sit down and write regularly?

SH: At the beginning, no. Because of my other responsibilities I could not sit down regularly to write. I could not give much time. My one big difficulty was that I was never quiet enough to sit down and write. How could I concentrate? I had to think deeply because, first of all, these things happened a long time ago, years ago. Years have passed. What I had in my notebook were just Mother’s answers. Not incidents. At that time, I did not have the time to write down everything and I never thought it would be very important. But if you have heard something from the Mother, when you recall it, the whole incident comes back.

It is a wonderful thing because Mother’s words are so precious to us. So later on when I decided to write, I started recollecting the incidents. Then I wrote down the incidents one by one, with the answers. That took me quite a few years. Four or five years.

SU: What was the reaction of your readers?

SH: The reaction was mainly from Kolkata. The response was very good. Truly speaking, it was quite unexpected. Sometimes there was so much appreciation that I was asking myself jokingly, “What has happened with my book? Has the Mother created some wonder?” Really, it was beyond my expectations! In the Ashram, people of my age-group kept mostly silent except a few. My students liked the book. Many Ashramites, the parents of the children and some devotees liked the book. One thing, I have noticed that my questions in general and the Mother’s answers have helped many. They have spoken to me about this.

SU: What about the older students of the School?

SH: I don’t think they have read it.

A QUESTION ABOUT THE 1ST DECEMBER PROGRAMME

This happened in July 1954. The Mother had returned from Her game of tennis to the Playground. She had gone into Her room for a few minutes. After that She would head for the interview room. I was standing on Her way to the interview room because I wanted to ask Her a question. She came towards me. I went close to Her and said:

I — Mother, You remember you had told me about a subject for my dance?

Mother — Yes, my child. You had given me a wonderful idea. In the beginning, everything was fine. Then came the fall. That fall in the middle is not necessary. Why do we need a fall there? No, that is not needed. There is no need to show that all over again. Enough of all that. (The Mother looked at me intently) Take a simple subject and prepare a dance on it. In the beginning, show your devotion, turn that devotion towards the Divine. Gather the different parts of your being (the Mother showed me with both her hands this idea of gathering oneself), slowly open yourself, open yourself to the Divine. Awaken that aspiration within you. Call out to the Divine to come close to you, keep calling the Divine to take up your responsibility, take up responsibility for your entire being. (Once again looking intently at me) Don’t make the dance unnecessarily long. Keep it short. Say only what you want to say. The other day, your dance was very beautiful. I liked it very much because there was nothing superfluous in it, nothing that was not necessary. The entire dance was compact and focused. Your bodily movements were very graceful. I really liked the dance. I even told Charupada that your dance was very graceful. I have told Sunil about composing some music for your dance. See you then, my child, Aurevoir!

(An excerpt from Shobha-di’s book, pp. 68-69)

SU: I think people don’t read as much these days.

SH: Yes, nowadays I see that the students don’t read much. When we were students we used to read a lot. Perhaps they read things on the internet and don’t feel the necessity to read books. We used to also write a lot. I don’t know if students write anything for pleasure. Communicating on the internet has its own importance no doubt, but I feel they are missing something.

SU: Absolutely.

SH: What did you think of my book?

SU: I really enjoyed it because it is full of unknown facts.

I felt that somehow, over the years, nobody thought of noting down these stories, noting down the details of how the Mother interacted with the younger people of the Ashram, or of the School. Most of us know about the letters that were exchanged by the elderly sadhaks with the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. But we don’t know how the Mother was involved in the day-to-day details of the life of the Ashram. It is not your story, it is about the Mother.

 

MUSIC

SU: Can you tell us something about your training in music.

SH: I started learning music when I was a small girl. I used to go to learn music in a very well-known school of North Calcutta. The school was a big one. The music classes started with children aged 6 years. The students continued their training up to the level of Sangeet Visharad in classical music and they completed a course in Sugam Sangeet. That is to say, the school prepared a course where they introduced other musicians like Rabindranath, Nazrul etc. I was doing both — the course in classical music as well as the course in Sugam Sangeet when I was at Calcutta. I was also learning from Pankaj Mullick privately. But I came away to the Ashram when I was seventeen. I could not finish the course. Here, I learnt classical music from Moni Bishnu-da, the father of Arun Bishnu, and also from Shireen-ben, devotional and other kinds of music from Dilip-da (Dilip Kumar Roy) and Sahana-di (Sahana Devi). That was all.

When I started working in the Music Section it was the Mother who helped me all through! After taking up the work of music training I realized that my training in that music school in Calcutta had created a very deep feeling and impression. Those teachers were very serious, dedicated to music and the method they adopted was very systematic. They were very disciplined. That methodical training helped me a lot to build up the section here.

SU: You mentioned you had some training from Pankaj Mullick?

SH: He used to come to my house. He was a friend of my brother’s. When he heard me singing he said, “Shobha, I will teach you singing.” When Pankaj-da came to know that I had some problems about going out of the house he himself offered to come and teach me at home.

SU: And what about dance?

SH: I learnt from a student of Shambhu Maharaj, one of his best disciples. He opened a school in Calcutta. My family was very orthodox. My father would not have allowed me to go out to learn dancing. So when he saw that I was really very keen to learn dancing, he asked Gopal Maharaj (that was his name) to come to our house and teach me.

SU: I have seen many photos of you here in the Ashram where you are dancing in a very free style, like Anu-ben used to.

SH: One thing which I noticed about the Mother was that She always wanted us to do something which would be a new creation. When I told the Mother, “I want to learn classical music.”

She asked, “Why?”

I said, “Mother, I like classical music very much.”

She kept quiet. And after some time She said, “You know, we don’t have anyone to teach here. You have to learn classical music from a good teacher.” Then She said — and this was Mother — “The whole of India is full of classical music. I want from you your own music.” I was only 17 or 18. Mother was talking to me then about this. I couldn’t understand what She was telling me. “Your own music.” What is my own music? I didn’t understand. But I didn’t have the guts to ask the Mother. Much, much later I realized why She said this. Whatever musical capacity I have has all come from Her.

SU: Mother always wanted us to be creative, to do something new and not to go back to the old things. How far do you think we have succeeded in this, in the field of music in the Ashram?

SH: Except for Sunil-da, and Sahana-di to some extent, none of us have gone very far.

SU: Sunil-da was the highest we reached.

SH: Yes, Sunil-da was the highest. I think, if Mother had not wanted Sunil-da to create that kind of music, he would not have succeeded in creating those compositions. It is something that surpasses human capacity, what he has left us. It was the Mother’s grace which gave him that capacity. This is my personal opinion. I have great regard for Sunil-da. His creations do not belong to this world. At that time this sort of music was something exceptional. Now people in the world are trying out fusion music, and many are trying out new things.

 

ADULT EDUCATION

SU: There is another subject I would like to talk to you about. You are the person behind the adult education classes in the Ashram. I would like you to tell us how you started it.

SH: I think it was in the year 1999 when we started the adult classes. A few years before that I had had a dream of the Mother where She told me that it was very important to start classes so that everyone would be able to continue their education to help prepare them to study and understand Sri Aurobindo’s teachings. She also told me that if this was not done the Ashram would face serious consequences.

My mother was very ill at that time and I couldn’t take any step in that direction immediately. However, in 1998, when several of us formed a small informal group to plan to usher in the new millennium I put forward the idea of Adult Education and it started taking shape. From 1999 we were able to start several classes on the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

We also started classes in painting and several languages like English, French, Tamil, Sanskrit, Hindi and Bengali. I got in touch with many Ashram departments to let them know that we were starting the “Continuing Education classes” and gave the over-all responsibility to Ashok Acharya. He is still looking after this work. A large number of people joined these classes and continued for the first ten years or so. Not many join nowadays. Very few want to study.

ABOUT THE ‘ASPIRATION’ DANCE

21st August, 1954. The person who had had the interview with the Mother came out of the room. I quickly got in. I noticed the Mother was already on Her feet, in order to come out. I asked Her,

I — Mother, have You decided anything for the 1st December programme?

Mother — No, nothing yet. I know only two things so far. (the Mother was arranging the flowers on a tray) I don’t want a lengthy programme. Last year it had become far too long. I just want two or three dances, one recitation and in the end, two plays.

I — Mother, You had asked me to dance. Shall I dance?

Mother — Yes, I have kept your dance.

I — How much time can I have?

Mother — I can’t tell you the exact time, now. I have to first check how much time all the other items are going to take, how long the entire programme will be.

I have already told you and I am repeating it once again: I did not know how to talk to the Mother. I would talk to Her in a very stupid way, ask Her very stupid questions. However, the Mother in Her infinite compassion, always tolerated all this and forgave.

I — In order to express ‘Aspiration’ what kind of movement would be appropriate: slow or fast?

Mother — Why don’t you find all this out yourself? This is not my work. Normally people lift their hands like this or like that. (Saying this, the Mother moved Her hands in different ways.)

I — Mother, people normally do it in this way, but what is the true way to represent ‘Aspiration’? What do You expect from me?

Mother — I don’t quite know. I have never taught dance. You can ask somebody. I don’t know who can show you the appropriate style for this. (At this point the Mother looked at me very intently.) Why don’t you try yourself to create new movements? (Then, She remained once again silent, as if in deep thought.) You know, it is not important whether your movements are in slow or fast speed, or whether your bodily movements go up like this or come down like that. You have to invoke the force of aspiration, call it down. Keep calling, calling and praying to it. This prayerful attitude must go on. Let a deep aspiration rise from deep within your inmost being and come into the outer being and suffuse all your bodily movements. Let this aspiration flow in you, in the smallest atom and particle of your being. Let it flow… That is what I want. My child, this thing is within you (looking at me meaningfully). You will be able to do it. You will. Keep praying, just keep praying. You will succeed.

The Mother stood in front of Her chair and I was standing in front. A great restlessness stirred within me because I felt that all the advice the Mother had given me, I had not been following. I started feeling quite a worthless child of the Mother. Feeling guilty, I bowed down at Her feet. I spread my arms on either side of Her feet and looking up at Her, implored,

I — O Mother! Here I am, surrendering myself to You. Make of me Your worthy child.

The Mother blessed me. She placed Her right hand on my left shoulder and looked into my eyes intently. It is impossible for me to express in words my experience of that day. After that intent look of the Mother, She smiled sweetly and said,

Mother — Aurevoir, then. I need to go now. It’s time for the March-past.

(An excerpt from Shobha-di’s book, pp. 69-70)

SU: Were there classes for adults when the Mother was there?

SH: At that time most people came with some education and the Mother always arranged for them to continue to learn, sometimes in the school, sometimes with other adults. For example when I came I was doing my I.A. The Mother arranged for my further studies. I joined the School from the following year.

 

MUSIC SECTION

SU: Let’s come back to the School. Now there are so many students who learn music. When I was a student hardly anyone learnt to play a musical instrument. Many went to some singing class on Sunday. So, what do you feel about the teaching of music in our school now?

SH: It has improved quite a lot. I see it in a global way, because I heard that from the Mother. The Mother had said, “I want all my children to learn music.” And now I can see how She has made it possible. It is not only vocal music, but many other types of music. She has provided all these. Now Ladzo has come, Suzanne is there, for piano Richard is there. I mean for Western music. When we were young there was hardly anybody. There was only a lady called Marie Amélie who used to teach Western vocal music. Later Narad came and then Alek for some time.

SU: And what about Indian music?

SH: We have quite a few good teachers now for Indian music, for the Shastriya and Sugam Sangeet in the Vocal Music Section. Vishnu-da’s contribution to the section is most outstanding. Then we have Basab (Basab Sen) who teaches sitar, Debiprasad occasionally helped us with sarod playing, Bryce teaches the flute and Tarun’s contribution to the tabla classes is unique. There are quite a few former students and singers who have joined the Vocal Music Section. Many school students and Ashramites are learning music. The Mother wanted all the students to learn music, music of some sort. Today, I see that she herself has made it possible!

SU: It’s not so much for producing singers or musicians but if the school can educate students to be able to appreciate music that itself would be a big thing.

SH: That’s what Mother had said. She said, “I want all my children to learn music, not because they will all become musicians, but because they will learn to appreciate music.” These are Mother’s words. This is very important. She also said, “You should never present any music that is light because true music comes from a higher world. Never allow them to disrespect music.”


The Mother watching Shobha-di’s dance

 

MOTHER’S PRESENCE

SU: How did you feel when the Mother left her body and was not there physically anymore? Those of you who were so close to her, how did you adapt to this new situation? What difference was there for you in your mind?

SH: As far as I am concerned, from my very young age, She made me conscious that I must not depend on Her physical presence. I was very fond of the Mother and I used to be very jealous of those who used to go to Her very often. All these problems were there and sometimes I expressed it to the Mother and She used to say things to me. So She made me very conscious that I must not depend on Her physical presence. And this hammering, this insistence, “You must find me here (pointing to the heart).” She used to tap my heart and say this, “You must see me there, you must find me there.” I don’t remember my feelings on the day She left her body, but this much I remember that there wasn’t an absolute gap in my life. I never felt that I had lost something. I don’t remember ever having felt that I did not have Her. I have always felt that I can concentrate and pray to Her and She helps. But if I am not getting the help it means I am not sincere, that I have not been able to make the contact. This was always my feeling. If I am all the time distracted then that contact cannot be established and I cannot ask the Mother to come and help me. I am not open myself.

 

PROGRAMMES

SU: In the past you used to always organise some programmes before Darshan. It used to mark the beginning of Darshan time and help us to create the Darshan atmosphere. Now it has stopped completely.

SH: People come and tell me that. And request me to put up those programmes even now.

SU: Can’t anyone do it in your place? Is there no one to take up the responsibility? Is it because we do not have singers to participate?

SH: This responsibility cannot be given to anyone as a duty. One has to feel it from within, to do it with inner feeling. You are talking of singers. All those with whom I worked and offered those programmes are still there! Very much there! Only I have withdrawn, withdrawn consciously! You know, Suni, this has to come from within.

How can I put this? One thing is certain, nobody ever asked me to do all those programmes. It came from my heart. I could do many other programmes. I had the possibility and things were in my hands. Not that I am criticising anybody, I am sharing with you an observation. All those programmes that I did on Mother and Sri Aurobindo, it was out of my choice, my effort, my prayer, my aspiration. And whatever people remember, it was because something came out of my heart, I was not conscious of it myself. I used to do those programmes as I loved doing them. There was probably something in me which expressed itself. I am telling you frankly. It should come spontaneously from others. Why is it not coming? Why has it stopped? Nobody has asked them not to do it. Just as nobody had asked me to do it, in the same way nobody is asking them not to do it. Can you push anyone to do such a programme? The person has to feel. Slowly, slowly, with the disappearance of that kind of programme which I used to do, some other kind of programmes have started coming in.

 

SRI AUROBINDO PURASKAR

SU: What was your reaction when you came to know that your book had received an award?

SH: I could not believe my ears when Biswajit Ganguli phoned from the Bhavan in Kolkata on 15th August evening! I asked him to repeat what he had just said. He said that my book had got the Sri Aurobindo Puraskar. This Puraskar was presented by the governor in Sri Aurobindo Bhavan and Biswajit received it on my behalf. You know, Suni, from the time my book was published I had my doubts about how the book would be received by the devotees, especially by the Mother’s beloved children! The Sri Aurobindo Puraskar was indeed a blessing for


Shobha-di with the Sri Aurobindo Puraskar award

me from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. I did not expect such a grace. With deep gratitude I repeated silently this prayer which the Mother gave me on one of my birthdays and asked me to repeat every morning:

Je te salue, O Mere,
dans une gratitude intense
que, dans ma vie, rayonne ton
Unique Presence.
 

[I salute you, O Mother,
In gratitude intense.
May my life become radiant
With your peerless Presence.]

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