We are way back in 1954. I am 20 and brought up in the heavenly atmosphere of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. I have been living here since December 1943 when the Mother started the Ashram school. Let me make it clear that the adjective ‘heavenly’ is not just a spin-off from my childish imagination. It was the reality for us little ones of the Ashram. We breathed it, we drank it, we walked with it, slept in it, woke up in it, and in it we grew.
Two major changes took place in my life in 1954. I started teaching in the school. It was my very first responsibility. I loved my work. I loved the children. Both, the children and the teacher had in front of them a living future, many a vista and world to explore.
I also took to drawing and painting in 1954. Soon it was clear to me that I wanted to say something in this language of line and colour. What that “something” was to be and how I would express it became clearer to me as I advanced on the path. The path was almost a rosy one while I was learning art, thanks to the support and encouragement I received from my proficient teachers. I am especially and deeply indebted to Jayantilal without whose caring push at the initial stages, I may not have persevered the way I did. Jayantilal is certainly one of those to whom this book is inwardly dedicated.
I am now no more a child, a student in the school busy imbibing. I am, from now on, personally responsible for everything I do and everything I will become. There are continuously questions I need an answer to and I know I have to find these answers myself, within myself.
It was probably sometime in 1956 when I was in such a questioning state, trying to decipher if I had gone wrong in the subtlest of my being’s movements. To be able to do that I see myself with a powerful torch in hand, flashing the light in the chamber of my heart, examining every nook and corner to see if there is an iota of dust anywhere, a spot of dirt to efface. I find none. My eyes squint to see, my mind wonders, ‘Why then?’ And the answer comes as a picture along with a voice echoing “It is all fine. It is like this.” And I see a cascade dropping from a good height, vertically down. I can hear the gushing waters, feel the fresh spray on my face, a joy welling up within. The picture of the waterfall was so clear, so throbbing that I had to paint then and there. I called it ‘Pure and Puissant’. Later when we decided to print a card of this picture, Mother called it ‘Descent of the light’.
It was then I realized that it was possible to express an inner state triggered by some happening in real life, to get a pictorial answer to your question. It was indeed a revealing experience. LIFE becoming ART and ART LIFE.
Somewhere deep down a certain assurance was building up, that it is all within me: that which I wanted to express and the way I would express it. But to turn this knowledge into reality, into a lived life, there was work to do, a lot to explore and to experiment with. After a period of struggle during which I kept experimenting, I went into hibernation. I did not draw a line or see a single brush stroke of my own, for almost six months. The situation was painful, stifling, worse than death.
But then something began to stir, like life in the seed embedded in the earth. A moment of celebration seemed near. One evening, after having dutifully completed my chores for the day, I went home with a pregnant inner being heaving with expectation. I had a shower and prepared myself to receive.
A big sheet of hand made paper from our Ashram factory I held it under a running tap. When soaked to saturation I put it on the board and began dabbing colour on it with a big brush. On the paper there was no line, no drawing, nothing to indicate or guide what I was going to paint. The figure, the rock, the robe all took shape as dictated to the hand by the inner urge.
I was happy to have given birth to a painting in such an unusual manner. It was an adventure all the way. I called the painting ‘A last look.’
Let us analyse this more closely: In the first painting ‘Pure and Puissant’ I had seen the waterfall through my inner eye exactly as I would see in nature. In the case of ‘A last look’, there was no picture at all. Just a state of being, that got expressed in a picture as the painting proceeded. I also learnt how to gently guide the water colours on the canvas, and let them do the mingling without losing their transparency. Many a time I tried to get this effect without much success. But that effort was indispensable to arrive at something today. And that which I really gleaned from painting ‘A last look’ was that the technique is dictated by the inner urge.
So it was important for me to keep the inner urge burning. I did not spare myself any effort to do this because that was also the unwritten, undeclared condition for me to live in the Ashram.
I would like to end with a little episode because it has been my pilot-escort ever since, not only in my pursuit of art but more and more powerfully in my life too.
It was in the early sixties. I took to the Mother, as was my wont, some of my recent attempts at painting.
Lately, for quite sometime, I had been ruminating over Sri Aurobindo’s words “The heavens beyond are great and wonderful, but greater and more wonderful are the heavens within you. It is these Edens that await the divine worker.”
Slowly, silently the depth and extent of their meaning became a web around me. An introvert by nature, I was very much in my element, as I tried to enter the cave and core of my being. I tried to put some of this endeavour on canvas and took the paintings to the Mother.
She took her own time to view them. Phen she caressed my head and caressing, said, “My child, you have something here. But when it passes from here…” she slid her hand from my head to shoulder, arm and caught my finger “…to here, something gets lost. So you have to be conscious to the tip of your fingers. Voila.”
She held my hands, looked into my eyes, poured all the force I would need on the entire journey of my life to carry on, to reach my goal.
TO BE CONSCIOUS TO THE TIP OF MY FINGERS – a lesson for a lifetime! Nay, it is a lesson for a number of lives to come. I am sure I will carry it beyond this physical frame of mine, re-remember and live, even as I have tried to in this life.
My soul is a chirayatri, eternally on pilgrimage, from life to life and when on earth, from day to day, moment to moment. Everything I do here is to lay a road for that ‘nameless immaculate’. My paintings are my footsteps, my journey. Sometimes a flight or even a rocket-soar.
This is what the book presents: my pilgrimage.
With Pranams to the Mother Divine.
Originally published as a foreword to a book of art by Dhanavanti ‘Tapasya: Hymns in Colour’ (2008)