The following account is based on conversations I had with Dhanavanti at her studio.
Dhanavanti began to stay in the Ashram in November 1943 at the age of nine. Her family had been coming each November for Darshan and they would usually stay for a month. This time while they were visiting, the Mother decided to start a school for the children who had gathered in the Ashram. Many of the children did not know how to spend their time, and the Mother thought that they should be given an education. Dhanavanti reminisces how simple things were in those days. Nothing was prearranged. The children were there, they needed an education, so the school started. Dhanavanti and her elder sister Kusum asked the Mother if they could join the school and it was done. She believes there were about 30-35 children then, and several Ashramites were assigned to teach.
Later, in 1958, Dhanavanti, her brother Pravin, and her parents became Ashramites. Dhanavanti was 24. Her elder sister, Kusum, was already an Ashramite, as the Mother had already given her regular work looking after the boarding when she was just 18 years old.
Dhanavanti remembers something very interesting about the Wednesday evening classes Mother started in 1953. These classes were open to whoever wanted to come. She recalls that even her parents would be there although they did not understand French, which was what the Mother spoke. Just the atmosphere of the class and listening to Mother’s voice had a deep effect on all those present.
Dhanavanti recalls the darshans of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Everyone would wait expectantly for the grand moment, preparing themselves inwardly. For the last three or four days before the darshan she would be thinking all the time of being there in front of Them. She recalls that although Sri Aurobindo was not physically very tall or stout, when he sat there on the chair he appeared like the Himalayas, with his hair flowing like the rivers. He had a grandiose pose. Moreover, she always had the impression that in the way that he sat, with his arms out to the sides, and his feet coming close together below, that his pose had the shape of India. She would always see the shape of India in that pose. “And looking into his eyes was like looking . . .” she goes within for a moment searching for words . . . “I don’t think God could be anything more.”
For Dhanavanti, the Mother appeared completely different when she sat next to Sri Aurobindo at the darshan. At other times, she was like the queen, the leader and conductor of everything. But when she was beside Sri Aurobindo, she totally effaced herself. It was as though she was saying, “look at him.” So Dhanavanti would always look at Sri Aurobindo first, and only afterwards at the Mother. She explains that just like in his writings, every sentence “englobes” you, so with his eyes he would englobe you: “It was like being filled up, absolutely drowning in bliss.”
Dhanavanti worked in the Ashram school as a teacher for 10 years, from 1954 to 1963. She recalls that on 7 April 1954 she was sitting in one of her classes as a student, when someone sent by Amritada came to say, “Mother is calling for you.” She was a little nervous, wondering “Why would Mother be calling me?” But as she stepped nimbly up the stairs to meet the Divine, she felt delighted, self-confident, and responsible. The Mother informed her that there were children waiting to enter the school, but the next term was still eight months away. She did not want the children to waste their time and energies. She asked Dhanavanti if she would teach them French—the medium of instruction in the Ashram school—so that the children could go to their respective classes well-equipped at the beginning of the next term. Dhanavanti said “Of course, Mother, if you want me to do that, I surely will.” And from the next day it was all arranged: there was no gap between the decision and the execution. Dhanavanti explains that “Things were so simple in those days. The Mother wished and ordered and everyone worked to execute her wish in perfect harmony and full collaboration.”
Dhanavanti started taking French class, and the next year she took Mathematics to teach to small children. Later she would also teach Science, English, and Art. For some years she taught French Auxiliary, which was for the new students who had to be made ready to start their other classes. These classes were a little difficult, because there would be students at all different grade levels, and each had to be brought up to the appropriate level. There was no book to teach such a class, so the teachers had to devise their own course work for each student. Although challenging, Dhanavanti recalls that it was a joy, whatever work she was given she carried out with joy.
In 1954, Dhanavanti also started learning drawing and painting from Krishnalal and Jayantilal. She explains that Jayantilal’s encouragement and guidance at the start helped her to persevere. She loved everything in Nature. She has never stopped marvelling at life. But what fascinated her most was the human face and the human body. But somewhere in 1956 she found a new meaning to art. She was in a questioning inner state looking for an answer. As she dived within, she had a vivid experience she felt compelled to paint then and there. As she relates in her book, Tapasya, she then “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” (Dhanavanti, 2008).
Then again, probably in the early 1960s, there was another turning point. She was ruminating over the words of Sri Aurobindo, “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.” She says “slowly, silently the depth and extent of their meaning became a web around me” (Dhanavanti, 2000). She went within and tried to put on canvas what she felt. As was her practice, she took these paintings to the Mother.
The Mother looked at them for some time.
Then 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. Voilà.
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” (Dhanavanti, 2000, p. 78).
Dhanavanti realized that her fingers have to be conscious and obedient instruments of the deepest, highest part of her being. In order to do this, she had to stop thinking, establish calm throughout the whole being, be centred within, and to allow the inner vision to express itself through her fingers. After this, the figures in her paintings became simpler, consisting of just a few significant strokes, each one fully expressive of some inner movement or subtle emotion.
While teaching in the school, Dhanavanti was also taking care of her mother who was not well. It was becoming difficult to both teach and look after her mother’s increasing needs. This was in 1963. Towards the end of the year, Dhanavanti stated clearly her desire not to take classes in the next school term 1963-64. Her request was granted. Her mother passed away in April 1964. Dhanavanti told Mother she was now ready to do whatever she would want her to do. The Mother said, “You will work with Abhay Singh.”
Abhay Singh was a dynamic man personally trained by Pavitra-da. and chosen to take over the charge of the Atelier from him because of Pavitra-da’s responsibilities as Director of Education increasing day by day. He looked after the transports, which included purchase, maintenance and management of Ashram vehicles — cars, tractors, bus and lorry and organize the work of the drivers as well. There was the metal work which consisted mainly of tinning the vessels of the dining hall, making cans, syringes etc. for the garden and other miscellaneous needs of the Ashramites. He managed a petrol bunk, a wood working unit, a construction unit and eventually a big garden.
Dhanavanti worked mostly in the office. She recalls that the first work she was given was to arrange a big cupboard filled with all kinds of car parts and related things. Long afterwards, Abhay Singh told her, “I always give this work to those who come to work with us, because if they don’t like the work, they just would not turn up the next day. But you came so I concluded here is someone who may stick. Slowly different kinds of responsibilities from different units started coming her way and she enjoyed learning new things all the time. Gradually she was aware of all the goings on in the Atelier and took full interest in everything.
Abhay Singh was a great organizer, and he was exceptional in his treatment of people. He would never get angry or mistreat anyone. And yet friction had started brewing every now and then with one of the Ashramites working in the Atelier. Abhay Singh had his own ideas about how things should be done and this person had his own. Ahbay was trained under Pavitra-da, and always obeyed without question. Abhay was built this way—he was either a soldier obeying, or an officer in control. He could take both positions. Now Abhay was in charge and this person did not want to follow his instructions. So Abhay suggested to the Mother, “Mother, why don’t you give him the responsibilities of this section of the Atelier. Let him look after it the way he wants.” And she had replied, “No my child, I want all these departments under one roof, under one head, and that is you.”
One day in 1968, Abhay and Dhanavanti cycled to a place called Eden Gardens. There was hardly any garden left there. It was more of a jungle with thick underbrush. But once it must have been a very aesthetically planned landscape around a big bungalow, with beautiful statues of gods adorning the green of the garden. The place had an inviting throb. Returning to the Atelier, Abhay instructed the gentleman who often functioned as his public relations officer to find out the details about the land and its owner. Abhay’s public relations officer had not yet reached the party when their messenger was in the office explaining to Abhay that many people were interested in the land but the owner wanted to offer it to us if we would accept it. It so happened that the Ashram had previously rented a plot from the party and it was looked after Abhay. The party was so happy with the way in which the place was maintained that they wanted to offer it to Abhay. They made it clear that the land could not be sold for a certain length of time because of some legal issue. But they were ready to lease it for 18 years at Rs. 300/month. This was a very reasonable offer. Abhay Singh wrote to the Mother with the details and asked if she would like that he take up the project. The Mother permitted him to go ahead and so he did. Thus began the uphill task of rearing Nandanam — the garden of joy.
Listen to Abhay speak about Nandanam — it speaks also for him as a person. He wrote this for a magazine of Agriculture that published an article on Nandanam.
One fine morning we just happened to visit the place now called Nandanam. It radiated immense possibilities and in our heart there was enthusiasm and ardour to work hard. The two combined must bear results. We wrote to Mother asking if She would like us to take the land. She agreed.
To begin with—Her sanction. To continue—Her strength, Her zeal, Her perseverance. These are our tools and nothing else, because everything else just follows in. And we wish to continue with the same joy of creation to make Nandanam more and more fruitful, beautiful and peace-giving to all those who visit, in our endless effort towards perfection.
Many visitors to the garden had observed that they had been to other gardens that were well organised and beautiful, but that this place had a very special atmosphere. Dhanavanti explains, “a bubbling fervour, a whole-hearted commitment, sagacious, detailed planning, well-organized labour, calculated dispensation of wealth and the available facilities went into the making of this garden with a special atmosphere.”
“Difficulties were many, problems galore cropped up like weeds,” she explains, “but Abhay was a man of solutions. Nothing could stop him from going straight ahead to his set goal. He had a swift, decision-making, practical intelligence that could make use of all the departments to complete each other and bear results profitable to all. It was a fantastic organization.”
The first three crucial hurdles to cross before starting planting In Nandanam were: (a) de-weeding — an Ashram engineer who worked with Abhay designed a special tool which was attached to a tractor and pulled out the recalcitrant weeds; (b) irrigation — a mould was prepared as per the need and channels in cement made on the spot were laid according to a carefully laid plan to reach all the parts of the land; (c) roads — there was a construction department and often there was debris to be transported and unloaded somewhere — this problem material came in handy to lay the roads.
The first thing planted was jasmine. It could easily go to the market for sale and it was useful because the Mother gave jasmine to the disciples in the evening. In Abhay’s room there used to be six large plates several inches deep all filled with jasmine. It was like heaven. Gradually a variety of fruit trees were planted, some vegetables were grown, and roses were cultivated, both the Edward variety for making rosewater, and others meant for arrangement that Mother gave to people who went for pranams.
In 1977, Abhay retired from his position due to a disagreement with the Ashram trustees. They had decided to take one of the departments from his control. He remembered Mother’s direction to him that she wanted all the departments kept together under his authority, so rather than give up this one department, he decided to resign from his position as head of all the departments.
For about a year he was hopeful that the situation would be resolved, but it never was. Dhanavanti stood beside Abhay. She too recalled at this moment Mother’s specific direction to her that she was to work with Abhay. After Abhay left his position, the Ashram did not specify any other work that either of them was to do.
Abhay stayed outside the Ashram for a short period looking after works related to Mother’s Agenda. They were a small group living and working together. Dhanavanti accompanied him and took on whatever responsibilities came her way. Both of them enjoyed their work in no way different than working in the Ashram for the Mother. But Dhanavanti remembers Abhay telling her often, “Dhanavanti, this is only a temporary arrangement for us. Our real place and home is in the Ashram.” Dhanavanti was happy to hear that, but also felt that if it was temporary, then the sooner they returned, the better it would be. Abhay was also suffering from a severe case of diabetes. They returned within three years, in 1983.
From then on, both of them kept themselves engaged in different activities, doing their work in the same spirit as they did previously, with the faith that “it is in our attitudes towards the work and the seeking and perseverance for perfection that the offering is made.” The line between the ordinary and the spiritual had vanished, for all was spirit. In 1985, Dhanavanti started an embroidery production unit. This developed over the course of 10 years to include a number of local workers, who produced the very finest quality work available with Dhanavanti’s original designs. Following this, she became involved for some years in the English translation of the poetry of a Gujarati Ashram poet, Sundaram, which eventually was published as a book (Selected Poems of Sundaram, Gujarat Sahitya Academy, Gandhinagar, 2001).
Then in August 2001, Ahbay Singh passed away. Independent as he always was, he collapsed as he was walking to his sister’s place in the evening as was his custom after having had a full normal day of activity.
This was a challenging period for Dhanavanti, in part because she had to readjust and find herself and her role again. The painting shown on the cover of her book Tapasyâ depicts her psychological state at this time, and perhaps painting it helped her to clarify her situation. It shows a figure standing in the center of a circle which is white near the top, but in which red and orange flames are coming up from below and on the sides of the figure. The circle is positioned at the center of a swirl (or whirlwind) of colors—blue, forest green, and reddish earth tones. She explains that she found that the solution to her situation was to stand firmly focused and centered in the Divine in this purifying fire as the whirl of powerful forces circulated around her. She looks back at this period as a movement of the Divine Force which helped to strengthen her and make her grow.
Dhanavanti explains that her art comes from such inner experiences, not from any outside influences. While she admits that she admires the work of certain artists such as Cezanne, Matise, and Van Gogh, and that they may have had some influence on her, she never endeavoured to emulate their styles or techniques. Similarly, various poems or lines of poetry may have an influence on her art, but she does not try to consciously depict specific lines of poetry or other ideas in her art. She adds that whenever she has tried to do this, it has been a failure and she did not keep the work. Rather, the composition of her paintings wells up from deep within her being, and then sometimes afterwards she sees a parallel or reflection in Sri Aurobindo’s poems or in the poetry or writings of her own or others.
Christine Devin, one of the Auroville team who published her book Tapasyâ, beautifully explains in the introduction to the book the character of her paintings:
Dhanavanti’s paintings are mystical journeys, discoveries of the invisible, landscapes seen only by the inner eye. They constitute a unique artistic approach, because precisely it is an approach that is not only artistic. Born from meditation, they bear its serene and burning imprint. To look at them is to deepen one’s vision (p. 6).
Dhanavanti relates that she has exhibited her art outside the Ashram on two occasions, and these exhibitions occurred quite naturally without any endeavour on her part. The first time, there was a Bengali gentleman who had come to the Ashram and who saw her paintings and liked them very much. He asked why she has not exhibited them in Calcutta? He moved in a circle of people who could arrange such things, and so he arranged an exhibition there. Many people came and admired the paintings, but Dhanavanti had stipulated that no paintings should be sold. The purpose was just to give a wider exposure of her art to those within the art world so that they could be seen and appreciated.
Later (this was when Abhay had retired and Dhanavanti’s work in Atelier ended), a friend of Dhanavanti’s from Brazil was visiting the Ashram. Dhanavanti received a clear inner indication from the Mother to speak to this friend about Dhanavanti’s situation in the Ashram. This friend invited Dhanavanti to come to Brazil and stay with her for a time, which was then arranged. Dhanavanti brought some of her paintings along, because she finds it easier to communicate when a painting is there as a focal, starting point. Later, this friend arranged an exhibition. Dhanvanti puts it differently. She says that Mother arranges things—somebody comes, and everything is taken care of. Dhanavanti also gave talks and workshops which involved a combination of Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s teachings and painting. These were highly appreciated and regularly attended over the period of three months in which she stayed in Brazil. The exhibition also was quite successful, and there she sold some of the paintings so she could pay her expenses for traveling and staying there and to give gifts to the people who had helped her to put it on. What was left over she gave to the Ashram.
Dhanavanti wishes to keep her paintings together rather than let them be dispersed to different people. Presently they are kept in her studio where she paints and lives. Mother had given her the studio to paint and told her that she would create many paintings there. Later, after Abhay Singh passed away, the Ashram constructed some rooms behind the studio for a kitchen and bedroom to make a complete living space for her. Her brother also helped her to furnish the rooms and provided other support. It is a beautiful spacious room adorned with many paintings and prominent photos of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The publication of her two books was one way she found where her art could receive some exposure. In this too, events seemed to organize themselves.
I asked Dhanavanti whether she could offer any advice or suggestions to our readers based on her many years of sadhana and service. Humbly she answered that she would not like to say anything in the name of Sri Aurobindo or the Mother, but what she herself has discovered is that the best contribution that anybody can make is to perfect himself. She feels that if we would really perfect ourselves in every movement, physical and psychological, such that we would not even throw out a single negative thought or emotion into the air, that would be the greatest contribution we could make. In saying this, she recalls the line from Savitri, “One man’s perfection still can save the world” (p. 531).
She elaborates that at first when she started feeling this way she thought that perhaps she was becoming more selfish or self-centred. Previously she used to have ideas of changing people and of accomplishing this or that. She now feels that the best offering she can make to the Divine is to have vibrations that are nothing but love. Moreover, she feels that if more people would sincerely try this, to become more and more conscious and simply live in their own light, without trying to do anything big outwardly, it would provide a much more solid basis for making the new world.
Dhanavanti explains that she feels she is most active when she is just sitting in her chair and doing nothing else. She said that sometimes when she sits like that it feels as if she has the energies of an atom bomb. She says that we must become conscious of the power that is in every cell of our body, and that we must make a constant effort to use that power in the right way. She explains that usually when we say we must become conscious, we mean mentally conscious. But that is not sufficient: “We must become conscious “there” (she pinches her skin). We must begin from “being,” not from “thinking” (she points to her head). When we begin from “being,” we are rooted, and nothing can shake us.” She admits that sometimes the power within her is still not always properly controlled. But she is convinced that a day will come when she will use that power solely for creative purposes. That is what we are here to do, on earth, in life.
Originally published in Collaboration, v. 34 No. 2 (2009), pp. 9-13