(Teacher in the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education,
actress in Sri Aurobindo’s plays and dancer)
Jhumur is one of the true swans of the Ashram. Tall, statuesque, regal and elegant she gracefully moves about the Ashram compound in beautifully hand-painted saris and most of the time she carries with her lovely and colorful parasols that protect her fair skin from the scorching tropical sun.
She, her cousin Chum and her elderly aunt, Minnie-di are the last three of one of the Ashram’s original families who still reside in the “Art House”, their large French-style colonial residence on Jawaharlal Nehru Street in Pondicherry. Jhumur graciously welcomed me into her home on each day of the interviews and her regal bearing and inner and outer beauty are indications of a life lived in pursuit of higher values and spiritual goals. Her purity of purpose became more and more evident to me as the interviews proceeded. She was born in Calcutta on November 27, 1939. Her great-aunt, her paternal grandmother’s sister, was one of the first disciples of Sri Aurobindo in West Bengal. The aunt, Indubala Banerji, immediately recognized Sri Aurobindo as her guru and he gave her a very specific work. She had begun to read Sri Aurobindo’s early writings, came into contact with him and he asked her to start a center just outside Calcutta. Many who were followers at that time later became the first ashramites. Among them were Noren Das Gupta, Manoj Das Gupta’s father and Rajani Palit, Romen’s father, and some of Jhumur’s family members. They were required to live in the center and work together as a spiritual family in order to prepare themselves for life in the Ashram when Sri Aurobindo would declare them sufficiently ready for this next step. They were not permitted to go to the Ashram for darshan until Sri Aurobindo had said yes. Her father told her that his family used to say prayers daily to Sri Aurobindo. They were all worshippers of Shakti Force and always worshipped together as a family. The entire village came to their home for Kali puja.
The Bhattacharya family is descended from the highest caste of Brahmin priests. About seven generations before her grandfather’s time they had been priests to the royal family of Assam (in those times known as Kamrup). Their story goes back to the original ruler who was not of Hindu or Aryan origin, but, rather, a Mongol. Jhumur was not quite certain of all the exact details of the legend because her grandfather and father are no longer alive to verify certain facts, but she has given the story to me to the best of her memory. The ruler had a dream in which he saw a Brahmin sadhu giving diksha (a blessing or initiation). In the dream he saw the sadhu standing by the waters of the Ganges, facing a particular direction and holding a stone. The king asked his ministers to go there and search for this sadhu and to bring him back to the palace in Assam. This was Jhumur’s ancestor. He was found and brought to the king where he converted him to Hinduism and initiated him into a new path of spiritual practice. From that time to some time in the 1800s no one in the family worked. The priests of the family performed all rites for the king and his successors such as weddings, coronations, funerals, pujas (religious rituals) and the king and subsequent rulers gave the family jewels, silks, tea, land and all the monies from the growing of crops on the land went to the family members.
The original stone was in the family’s keeping for many generations to come. It was always the eldest son in the family who presided over all the religious ceremonies and who was the keeper of the sacred stone. A special temple was built to house the stone and only the eldest son was allowed to enter the temple and attend to its safety. Seers had predicted that so long as the stone remained within the family unit the family would flourish. Then family members began to disperse and to go off elsewhere to study law, medicine and pursue other careers. Jhumur’s grandfather had become a doctor. Soon there were no family members qualified to preside as priests in the home and none to take care of the stone. Eventually, the remaining family members had to hire outside priests to come to their home to perform puja. These priests soon began to take the stone with them to their homes and then the Bhattacharya family house completely broke up. Ultimately refugees began to pour into West Bengal from East Bengal and the land now belongs to the government and is used partly for agriculture, partly for housing.
Word was sent to Sri Aurobindo when Jhumur’s parents married in 1936 after which special blessings came to them for their marriage directly from Sri Aurobindo. So deep was their devotion that they automatically accepted the divinity of Sri Aurobindo without question.
In 1937, a year after their marriage, Millie-di, Jhumur’s mother, gave birth to a baby boy who was born with hydrocephalus. Millie-di suffered blood poisoning and after childbirth almost died. Sunil Bhattacharya, Jhumur’s uncle and the well-known composer and musician in the Ashram, was also a gifted astrologer. Jhumur said that the baby was a beautiful child and that Sunil had said he had exceptional markings on his hands; all the markings of a Rishi. Millie-di wrote to the Mother almost every day praying to her and asking her to take the child. He was called Khoka, which means simply “Little Boy” in Bengali. Millie-di used to sit and hold him in her arms and rock him. On November 24, 1939 — she was expecting Jhumur at that time, Millie-di was sitting in meditation in observance of Sri Aurobindo’s Siddhi day when suddenly and quietly the little boy passed away. Jhumur was born three days later.
When did your family permanently settle in Pondicherry?
When my mother and I moved to Pondicherry it was 1942 and I was just three years old. Our family often visited Pondicherry. Nolini had also lived in the Calcutta center and his sons as well. His sons had also lived in our house and all our correspondence to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo went through Nolini. At that time my father was still in the British Army and stationed in the Middle East. He was a strong man and loved to travel. He also took part in various maneuvers of bombing attacks and was trained for the army in Maharashtra and Jaipur. My father joined us in the Ashram after World War II was over.
Jhumur in her room at Art House. Dec. 2002
Jhumur and Millie-di at Art House, 2001
What was life like in the Ashram in those early days?
Well, in those days children under age four were not allowed to be in the presence of Mother and Sri Aurobindo and had to stand back two blocks away near the French Institute. The pressure was too strong for small children. Slowly and gradually children were allowed to come closer. As children we used to feel badly that we could not go to the Ashram main building. I remember sidling inside where the bulletin board is kept where we were not allowed. Eventually, someone told the Mother that the children were not happy because we were not able to go up and see her. Then she said we could come to her on the 15lh of every month. We went by ourselves to the Mother. It was a very special time. She used to organize children’s games for us around her apartment and sing to us. This went on until after age four. She would ask us what we had studied, about any poems we had learned. I had learned a poem about a tiger which I recited to Mother. Mother helped me with the poem. The Mother became “excited” and told me, “You must feel the power of the tiger.” When I grew older I was allowed to visit Mother every day. The Mother was very busy overseeing every department of the Ashram. Some of us (Tara Jauhar. Gauri Pinto and others) would go up at mid-day after school and wait at the top of the staircase. She evolved games that we played with her as she wanted us to develop our memory and impressions. There were occult powers in precious stones (amethyst, sapphire, ruby) and she made up cards explaining the various meaning of the stones. The same game was devised for learning the spiritual meanings and significance of flowers and plants. From these games I learned how to read very well.
As I grew older, especially towards the end before Mother left her body, I would go to her and automatically I would feel the sense of belonging to her only and that nothing else counted or mattered. She would look deeply into my being with her eyes wide open. It was as though I had become immersed in the ocean and was drowning. I was eleven years old when Sri Aurobindo left his body. The Mother said, “Now I must teach you something about sadhana. Have you read Prayers and Meditations” She gave each of us a copy signed by her and she said, “Every Wednesday after March Past, gymnastics, concentration and distribution of sweets and prasad, I will teach a class.” Thus on Wednesday nights she began the talks that were later published as Questions and Answers. Everyone joined in. She taught us young people the deeper meaning of yoga and sadhana gradually and slowly.
Can you speak to me about your impressions of Sri Aurobindo. What do you remember?
Sri Aurobindo was a magnificent sight. He was golden colored and looked the embodiment of majesty and grandeur. We saw the Mother every day but only saw Sri Aurobindo four times each year. I never saw him stand up but his grandeur seemed to me, at so young an age, to be a combination of all the kings of the world in one form! I always tried to get a good look at him before standing before him for darshan. I just immediately knew from within that he was the Absolute in human form. There was no talking, no words, only the offering of garlands to him.
I know that you performed in many of Sri Aurobindo’s plays in the Ashram school and theatre. I saw you in many performances. How did this expression begin for you?
By the time I was eight years old in 1947 I loved to recite. The Mother said, “I will teach you some lines from the poem ‘Jeanne d’Arc’.” The lines were so beautiful. I did not perform at that time, but Mother said, “It will happen at another time.” Years later in 1984 Cristof (a member of the famous Pitoev family of French actors) wrote a play about Jeanne d’Arc who died at age nineteen. I was asked to play the lead. I said, “I can’t now because my father is ill and in the nursing home so I am not free. Please ask someone else.” Cristof said, “If it is not you, it won’t be done!” A few months later my father recovered and Cristof said, “Now will you do it?” Then I remembered Mother’s words and said “Yes”. Acting gave me so many experiences. I could plunge into the innermost depths of my being and it put me in touch with my psychic being. Mother said if you perform anything written by Sri Aurobindo, he, too, will always be there. All of my performances were an offering to them. The audience was not important to me. Mother said acting is not for show, never should it be, but rather it is for the growth of one’s consciousness. My mother created all the costumes. Everything was organized by the Mother and she would come to the “Art House” to make suggestions and changes where they were needed.
In about 1960 the Government of India sent a commission to visit our Centre of Education and to observe the Ashram. Pavitra suggested that we put on a performance with music in the theatre in English and in French. He choose a long prayer from Mother’s Prayers and Meditations for me to recite (March 31, 1917) with Srimoy (another member of the Pitoev family of actors). Srimoy had such a very dramatic delivery that I did not particularly like and she insisted that I recite it in the way she was reciting. Three days before the performance I lost my voice. I went to Pavitra but could not speak. I said, “You must choose someone else.” Pavitra went to Mother’s apartment and the Mother said, “Is Jhumur outside?” I went in and Mother said, “Give me the book.” Mother read it once and said, “You listen.” The second time she said, “You listen. Now you must keep absolutely quiet, do not speak for three days, only eat and drink. Don’t rehearse and stay quiet until you go on stage.” When I opened my mouth during performance it was very clear to me that Mother, herself, was speaking through me.
Performing was so helpful for my sadhana. I would make a personal prayer to Sri Aurobindo and call to him strongly. My prayer was, “I pray that I do this in the way in which you would want me to do it.” His help did come. I felt his Force. From December 1, 1958 Mother no longer came physically to the theatre, but she said, “Every year on December 1, you can be sure that I shall be present in the theatre during Savitri presentation.” Now and then I do see her.
What plays of Sri Aurobindo did you take part in?
Well, there was Vasavadutta, Rodogune, Perseus the Deliverer, Vikramorvasie (The Hero and The Nymph) to name a few and of course Savitri.
What other guidance did Mother give to you for your sadhana?
I remember going to her and telling her that I just didn’t want to continue to grow taller and taller and taller! My father’s family were very tall. I said to Mother, “I don’t want to be so tall anymore. I am always put with the boys and it is not fashionable to be so tall. Mother, please let me stop growing.”
“Why?”, she said, “It is nice to be tall. To grow tall is a sign of the body’s aspiration for the Divine.” After she spoke those words I was never again bothered by my height.
What is the atmosphere of the Ashram like for you since Mother and Sri Aurobindo are no longer in a physical form?
Now one has to concentrate more inwardly to find them. Sometimes it is possible to come almost physically into contact with them. I see them sometimes on the subtle physical planes. One year, sometime in the 1990s, I saw Mother sitting and smiling in the Ashram theatre. During the 50th anniversary celebration of the playground, I was going to Sri Aurobindo’s room in playground uniform and I was facing Mother’s balcony. Suddenly, I saw her come out dressed all in white and for a moment I forgot that she was not actually physically there. In the August 1995 Bulletin of Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, one of the Ashram photographers had taken a photo of Mother’s balcony and it shows Mother standing there, in kitty cap, in a subtle physical form! So you see, she is still with us and continues to show us that she is there in our midst, from time to time. Sometimes I even smell Mother’s perfume. It is not an actual fragrance, but comes from the subtle realms. It is also the same with Sri Aurobindo that I smell a subtle fragrance, then I know that they are both present.
In 1972, a year before Mother left her body, on a visit to her she said to me in French, “On ne se quitte pas” (“I will never leave you”). On another occasion she also said to me in French, “Ces mains, je les connais!” (“I know these hands”).
What changes do you see taking place in the Ashram?
We must be true to what Mother wants the Ashram to be. If there is any disloyalty that must go. Some people question too many things and this must be given up and we must have faith and be faithful. Then she will lead us to the place she wants us to go. The Mother’s formula is “Be simple, be happy.”
Do you believe that the Ashram and Auroville will become more closely linked in time?
You know Mother’s presence is there always in the Matrimandir. All outside matters will be sorted out in time. There is much more closeness and harmony now than in past times. Each must know their role. Both are creations of the Mother and aspire ultimately for the same goal. What Mother starts cannot fail. The failure is in ourselves and our fixed opinions. This, and the ego, stand in the way and then it takes longer.
I was very close to your mother, Millie-di. She was such a pure soul. She had a light that was always shining from within. I used to love to sit with her in satsang and meditation at “Art House” during my visits. She passed on shortly after I left Pondicherry during my visit in 2001. Will you tell me what happened?
She broke a bone just lying in bed in March 2001. She had an operation but her heart was very bad. The hip surgery went well, but an infection developed in a heart valve. She tried many medications but not a single medication worked. She tried everything. She was very cheerful in the nursing home. She painted and walked with her walker. On May 23, 2001, in the early morning, she passed away peacefully.
I used to tell her that she was a collector of children in the “Art House”. In 1964 the Mother gave her blessings to start the “Art House”. This had come out of her years of creating costumes for Ashram plays and the hand painting of Mother’s saris. We all used to work there after school making beautiful hand painted saris, handkerchiefs and other designs. My mother was a great lover of beauty. She painted beautifully. My family members were painters, writers and musicians. Our family, when still living in Calcutta, used to put on productions with singing, dancing and drama. They would make a stage by joining beds and put on plays, dances and dramas. It was always a very lively place. At one point my Aunt Minnie went back to visit the old home and friends and all the neighbors said, “Since your family left the street has died, there is no more music. No more laughter.”
As I entered the “Art House” I realized that it is only yourself your Aunt Minnie and Chum remaining in this grand and stately house. As I sat waiting for you I could see all the lovely saris in the gift shop and all the works of art that continue to be created there and kept alive. I could still feel the presence of Millie-di. It was the same with Sunil as people still visit his music studio, buy his tapes and his beautiful music was heard wafting sweetly past my ears as I sat waiting for you on the verandah. It was a happy feeling. Will you speak about your uncle, Sunil Bhattacharya and his music?
He taught himself to play sitar. Although he studied science at St. Xavier’s College in Bombay, he was an excellent football player, botanist and mathematician who taught in the Ashram school and he loved music. From 1945 he began composing musical pieces as accompaniments to dance performances. Eventually music became a means to his sadhana and he gave up teaching in the Ashram school after many years to devote himself full time to composing. From 1965 he was entrusted by the Mother to compose the New Year music, the theme of which she always gave him on his birthday on November 3rd. In 1966 Mother requested him to compose musical accompaniments for her Savitri readings, a work he continued until the end of his life. In the mid 1960s he recorded for Delhi Music Archives. He said, “The Mother revealed to me the secret world of music where harmonies meet and blend to make melodies richer, wider, profounder and infinitely more powerful. I have tried to take my music from her. My music is my labor and my aspiration for the Divine and what I try to convey through it are the voices of my inner experiences.
“My grateful thoughts are with her who has been my Guide, Guru, Mentor and Mother. One day it was her Light that sparked my heart, it is her Light that has sustained its glow, it is her Light that I seek through my music. If this music brings some comfort, some delight or some message to someone, I have achieved that for which she has placed her trust in me.”
[Some comments made by the Mother on Sunil’s music:
“Your music is, according to me, the music of the future and it opens the way to the New World.” (13.8.65)
Again later she wrote:
“My child, yesterday at a quarter past twelve and again today, at the same time, I have heard your music with deep emotion and I can tell you that I have never heard anything more beautiful, in music, of aspiration and spiritual invocation.”
Sunil passed away on April 30, 1999]
Tell me about your years as a teacher in the Center of Education.
When I was nine years old, the Mother told me she wanted me to be a teacher and at age eleven she said, “You will be a teacher.” I started teaching French at age twenty to students age sixteen at the Centre of Education. I was teaching part time while I was still in school. The Mother said, “I am there to help you” and she did. She would suggest books on how to develop observation and understanding. Mother was continually giving me helpful guidelines. I could always write to her. Often when I would ask Mother a question she would say to me, “Do you want me to say yes, or do you want my opinion.” I soon was teaching full-time. I taught
French and English literature. Then I gradually moved on to teaching Sri Aurobindo’s works. Savitri, Life Divine and Mother’s Entretiens.
Tell me about what teaching is like for you in Knowledge, the higher course of the Ashram School.
As a teacher in Knowledge, we are somewhat at the mercy of the students. They are free to learn whatever they want and that is what we must teach. It is a form of the Free Progress system. If they want to read Essays on the Gita or Synthesis, then we, as teachers, must be adequately informed. Reading Sri Aurobindo’s works at age thirty is different from reading him at age sixty. I have been teaching for forty years and it is never the same. There is always more to be learned. I am always changing my way of viewing things.
How have the students changed through the years?
The children are definitely changing. By the age of nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, they have finished their higher courses. Thirty years ago age eighteen was simpler and yet somewhat more mature. Simpler in the sense that there was less outside influence and exposure. The world’s values of today and its habits, customs, were not available to them then. Today’s teens have access to outside influences. When I was young fifty years ago we were in a cocoon — more innocent. However, with Mother’s presence there was a deeper development. The values of today’s children are colored by what they see, read, feel. There is so much exposure to outside media and then they go home to Bombay and elsewhere for holidays. I am very grateful that my roots are based in the Ashram. Today most of the students leave the Ashram, whereas in past years they stayed on and became Ashramites. But mentally they are clearer. They know exactly what they want. Mostly they are taken up with external things. The inner life has to be encouraged. They feel shy about inner things. They are so much more mental and of course technology has produced this. They all want to go out of the Ashram and obtain MBAs, go into business, computers, mass communications media and to make money. But Mother said that all the students are connected by a “Golden Chain” and even though they go out there is a tremendous bond between them and they always return for visits.
Can you offer a brief assessment of your sixty years of life in the Ashram and what it has meant for you?
I truly do not feel a sense of age. Also, I do not feel I have done anything myself except to open to the Mother and allow her to do everything for me as best I could. I just let her take charge at every step of the way with what had to be done for my sadhana. If there is something I have to transform i.e. ego problems, attachments and the like, I would visualize the image of Krishna and the Charioteer. I would just allow myself to be led and then my personal formula of “Remember and Offer” is always there. If the ego comes up one has to be persistent and say, “Let her decide. Let her decide.”