Today we are publishing an article titled ‘My Darshan of Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry’ penned by Mukul Chandra Dey.
Mukul Chandra Dey (23.7.1895—1.3.1989) was a noted artist who is considered to be the pioneer of dry-point etching in India. Having received his initial training at Santiniketan, he travelled to Japan, the United States of America and London to learn painting, etching and engraving. He is remembered for his portraits of famous personalities which he turned into etchings. He was a life-long member of Chicago Society of Etchers and was appointed the first Indian Principal of the Government School of Art at Kolkata in 1928.
This article was first published in the Bengali magazine Bharatabarsha and it was translated into English by Smt. Suprabha Nahar of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry.
With warm regards,
My Darshan of Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry
Mukul Chandra Dey
It was 1919. I was in Madras at that time. After my book Twelve Portraits of Bengal had been published in 1917 I toured Bombay and South India and arrived at Madras. My aim was to see my country well before going to England and to earn for my passage. At that time there weren’t any famous men of South India whose portrait I did not draw in pencil and whose special company and affection I did not enjoy.
The head of the publicity department of Theosophical Society at Adyar was Mr. B. P. Wadia. Mrs. Annie Besant and he were very happy and enthusiastic on seeing all my things and said, “Mukul Dey, we too will bring out a similar book from Madras, if only you can do a portrait of Sri Aurobindo and bring it back from Pondicherry. For, without a portrait of Sri Aurobindo, South Indian portraits will be incomplete.” I agreed immediately—surely I’ll paint and bring it. And in fact I succeeded. I received something greater.
I told them—surely I’ll bring it, but on returning home I started worrying, how shall I go? Won’t the police get suspicious and cancel my passport for England? About my going to England I had taken a firm decision. Anyway, after much hesitation I dressed in a peculiar mixed-up dress so that no one recognised me for a Bengali. Socks, shoes, trousers, tie, a long coat, and over that my special cap which I had brought from Japan—which resembles a bit the present day Gandhi-cap—it can be folded and kept in the pocket and when necessary can be used to cover the head. On seeing my gait, my dress, etc. some took me for a Goanese, some a Madrasi, or even an Anglo-Indian, but nobody took me for a Bengali. Whatever few words I spoke were all in English with Madrasi intonation. Thus safely I passed in the train and reached Pondicherry station at about 10-11 p.m. On reaching the station I got worried. I have arrived but where shall I put up? If someone makes out from my behaviour that I am a foreigner, a stranger, a new person, a Bengali,— then I would be in the soup. Again, I may be arrested by the police. I did not have any letter of introduction, of commendation or even of permission. There was no time to think even. Immediately I hit upon a plan, looked smart—as if I have visited the place many times—and in this way proceeded towards the horse-drawn cart. I asked the coachman—“Take me to the Grand Hotel, European French Hotel”—in the hope that there must be at least one “grand hotel.”
After some time, crossing a sandy road covered with thorny plants, the coachman stopped in front of a European hotel. After paying the fare, I approached the manager of the hotel for the cheapest room. I entered the cheapest room with a rent of Rs. 6/- or 7/- per day. It was a room on the ground floor with a low ceiling—the terrace almost knocking the head! It was as dark as it was damp, as if water was seeping from the floor,— the walls were in equally bad shape. Only one opening in the room—the sort of window through which light and breeze could enter—from that some sea breeze came and one could see the sea too. The room was a bit like a store room of our museums here. But at that time, on entering that room, I heaved a sigh of relief. At least a shelter had been found.
But so long as the real object of coming, that is, the painting of Sri Aurobindo was not accomplished, I could not be free from worries. Therefore I did not sleep well that night. The next morning I woke up early, got ready hurriedly and after somehow eating a little went out into the streets. I moved about a little and got familiar with the streets. Most of the time I walked along the seaside—as if I had come to enjoy the breeze. I kept my ears open to hear if there was any talk of Sri Aurobindo, and my eyes open in case he came for a promenade on the sea-shore. But I neither saw nor heard any of this that I wanted. I was afraid to ask anyone—in case thereby everything got spoilt. In this way I moved about along the thoroughfares—got acquainted with the streets. Three days passed by.
On the fourth day, 20th April, with a pencil and a pad under my arm I started moving about near the seaside and got acquainted with a local gentleman. I asked him—“Aurobindo is quite a good man, isn’t he? Of cool temperament. What do you say?” He replied, “Yes, surely, he is a very good person, at least to me he seems to be so. Gentle—but he never comes out of the house, he remains day and night in that old house.” I asked, “The house is somewhere on that side, isn’t it?” He said, “No, not this side, it is that side, the house is on that street.” Without asking him anything more or giving him a chance to ask me anything, I took the road opposite to his. Then, remembering God with full concentration I took the road to Sri Aurobindo’s house. There was fear, anxiety, trepidation. Who knows if I’ll be able to see him—if there won’t be any obstruction on the way?
It was a noon of April, the sun was burning bright, the streets almost deserted. With palpitating heart, enquiring from a person or two, I managed to find the right house. It was an old two-storey dilapidated house. The walls were perhaps once yellow—now there were patches, green with moss—and the lime plaster had fallen off at places, exposing the red bricks. The doors and windows were wide open. Slowly, with a trembling heart and fearful eyes, I entered it. There was a banana tree in the courtyard, its leaves all torn. Grass and weeds made the courtyard look like a knee-deep jungle. At one place there was a heap of charcoal, at another fire wood—as if the things were left pellmell. Two or three cats were sleeping near the banana tree. In fact on all sides of the ash heap there were cats, as though it was a cats’ hostel.
A Bengali gentleman, thin in appearance—perhaps he was cooking or doing something similar—came out and asked me “What do you want??” I enquired—“Does Sri Aurobindo stay here?” He replied—“Yes, he stays here.”
“I would like to meet him once. Will it be possible to see him?” I asked.
“Who are you? You seem to be a Bengali!” he observed.
“Yes, I am a Bengali, my name is Mukul Dey.”
He led me upstairs.
He made me sit in the verandah on a wooden chair and said, “Please take your seat, I am informing him.” The chair also was ancient; like the house it was also in an old and shaky condition. There was no trace of colour or polish; as if everything had been washed away, eaten away. I sat with a mixed feeling of happiness and anxiety.
I looked on all sides. There were some three or four pictures hanging on the wall, pictures published in monthly magazines, cut out and framed. At this I saw a glimmer of hope and cheer. So, he loves pictures! Suddenly I noticed, among these there was one painted by me; it had come out in a monthly—Sri Radha with a pitcher on her waist going to fetch water—and underneath the picture there was inscribed my name. I was very happy to see it. What a lovely coincidence! I felt some assurance and courage. This would do the work of an introduction letter; I had come, completely unknown, with no letter of introduction from anyone.
In the meantime he was slowly coming out of the room. He was wearing a small size red-bordered rather soiled dhoti which hung up to the knees; there were no pleats; one end was placed around the neck; bare feet; bare body; long hair; bearded, a thin, austere body. Immediately on seeing him I understood that he was Sri Aurobindo—exactly like the rishis of yore or as if I was seeing a living Christ.
He asked, “What do you want?”
“My name is Mukul Dey, I am a Bengali, I have come to draw your picture. I know you are fond of paintings.” I said this and showed him the pictures on the wall and added—“There, one of them is painted by me.”
He smiled a little and said, “Yes, I like it quite. I know.” Then he said as if pleased, “Well, what have I to do?” I replied, “You won’t have to do anything, it will be sufficient if you would just sit quietly.”
“How long do I have to sit?”
“About half an hour, one hour—”
“Can you draw if I sit now?”
As if the heavens had fallen into my hands, I was so overwhelmed with joy! “Yes, I can,” I said and took out a sheet of paper and a pencil and sat down. He too sat on an old wooden chair.
I have drawn portraits of so many people in my life but I haven’t seen any one giving such a wonderful sitting. I drew for one full hour, during which he did not move even a bit, nor did I see him bat an eyelid even once. He was going on gazing one way, at one side, with fixed eyes. Overwhelmed with surprise and joy I touched his feet and showed him what I had sketched. He was obviously happy. He looked at it from different angles. On my request he autographed it in English and Bengali and wrote the date. Telling him that I would come again the next day, I returned to the hotel. What happiness, what surprise and fullness in my mind that day! It cannot be expressed in words.
Next day, 21st of April, I got up early in the morning, had my bath, ate something, and taking my paper, pencil, etc. went out to see Sri Aurobindo. No more struggles for finding the way. Taking the known path I went easily to his house and straight upstairs. The doors were wide open—as if everything was easy and known—I sat down on that same chair in the verandah. A short while later he came out of his room and sat on his chair—in the same way, like a stone statue, immobile, quiet, with fixed regard. In one hour I completed my second portrait. He saw and autographed it and put the date on it. I took leave of him by saying that I would come once again in the evening. I was filled with happiness. I would make three portraits from three sides and take them with me; surely people will like at least one of these.
I started again in the afternoon, with my portfolio under the arms. Myriad thoughts passed through my mind. He is that Sri Aurobindo. How wonderful, how strange he is! England-returned I.C.S.—Revolutionary leader—How many stories have I heard about him! Are they all true? Who knows!
Again straight away I entered the house, sat down on the same chair in the upstairs verandah. He too came out just a little later. In the same way, bare feet, a corner of the dhoti around his neck, with a smile on his face. I did my pranams and started immediately. Drew for over an hour, but how strange, did not see him bat his eyelids even once! After the drawing was over I took it to him. On the third also he signed his name. As soon as he lifted his head and looked at me smilingly, I said, “Can I ask you a few questions? I have heard many stories about you, I am very eager to know. You won’t mind I hope?”
Smilingly he said, “No. Tell me what you want to ask, put your question.”
“When you were in England, and studied there, how did you like the British at that time? What was your attitude towards them?” I asked.
“My outlook at that time was friendly and cordial. I mixed with a good number of them. I had many friends in London.”
“But I have heard that you were the leader of the revolutionary party of Bengal. Extremely anti-British. What is your present stand towards the British?”
“Yes, what you have heard is correct. I was in the revolutionary party. While in England I used to think a lot about my own country. Then on return to the country, I became hostile to the British rule. But now I have no animosity against the British or for that matter against anyone else—no spite or anger, now I am in peace.”
“How did spite and anger disappear and how did this inner change and peace come?”
“When I was working with the revolutionaries in Bengal, at that time I got acquainted with a great yogi. It was from him that I learnt pranayama yoga and practised it. After that I came here and my anger and spite against all have disappeared, now I am in peace here.”
“If you do not have any anger or spite against anybody why don’t you come to Bengal? I have heard that your wife is living. I have seen her photo, she seems very beautiful, why are you here all alone, why don’t you return home? Won’t you return to your native place? When will you return to your homeland?”
He remained silent for a while, then replied slowly, “Yes, I’ll return. When the country becomes free from the British rule.”
After that there was no talk. On being able to hear such luminous words of his and having been able to draw three pictures, when I took my leave after giving my heartfelt thanks and grateful pranams, he said,
“I liked very much your work and your conversation. I bless you, I wish you well.”
Placing the sacred dust of his feet and his blessings on my head, I felt overwhelmed with a sense of fulfilment. With the joy and pride as if I had conquered an empire, the same day I left Pondicherry for Madras.
When I had gone there and had the meeting, I encountered no noise, no crowd, no rules and regulations, devout priests, or guards, there was nothing of the kind,— there was then no need for a letter of introduction or a pass. Everything was easy and simple. My questions were very simple, the answers too equally simple, true.
That day I did not have to prostrate myself before any priestly agent in order to have Darshan of the deity. I saw a Yogi living in Truth and Beauty. I saw an image of a great Rishi of our ancient Bharat. His smile and the benign look has never dimmed in my memory.
[Courtesy: The Heritage, August 1988.]