The girl who painted Gandhi

Updated: Sep 25, 2014, 17:06 PM IST

Akrita Reyar In what makes a remarkable story, in the year 1934, a European artist Elizabeth Sass Bruner and her daughter Elizabeth Bruner (Lizi), who was an aspiring painter, were travelling across India on the advice of their Gurudev, Ranbindranath Tagore. At a government school in Bangalore, a multitude had gathered, waiting with bated breath for a glimpse of the Mahatma, who was due for a visit. Somewhere squashed and hidden were the mother-daughter duo among the teeming sea. As the clock ticked away, Elizabeth grew more anxious, she tugged her daughter along to the verandah, where they stood near a pillar.

The first encounter At last the moment came, when Gandhiji arrived. But to the surprise of so many, he squeezed through the crowd and walked straight to where Elizabeth stood half-hidden and said, “I know you”, before taking her into a warm embrace. They looked at each other mystically and then Gandhiji turned to a startled Lizi, who was well aware that the two were meeting for the first time. A spiritual bond had obviously established. Taking them both by the hand, Gandhiji then introduced them to his party, before proceeding towards the reception committee and then the inner courtyard. A fascinated Lizi watched this carousel of events. Gandhi ji went and sat on the dais addressing this all-women`s gathering. As it was spoken in Hindi, she understood very little, but observed that women started removing their ornaments and submitted them before him as a contribution towards the freedom movement. After the fortuitous meeting, Gandhiji invited the two of them to attend his prayer meeting in the evening. As the gloaming painted the sky in orange hues, Gandhi ji sat under a big tree in garden singing a medley of bhajans. Lizi sat behind the crowd as her mother feverishly drew her sketches, capturing the mood of the magical evening. Just as Gandhiji got up to leave and the crowd began to scatter, Lizi saw her moment. She rushed ahead saying, “Bapu ji, Bapu ji”. Bapu turned around and looked quizically at her. What followed was witty repartee. Bapu: Yes Lizi: I have a request. I would like to paint you, please give me time. Bapu: Why do you want to paint an ugly man like me? Lizi: Bapu ji, I want to paint your soul. Bapu: How much time do you want? Lizi: Half an hour. Bapu: Do you little chick of a girl beg to say that you can paint my soul in half an hour? Lizi: Bapuji, can you prove that I can’t? Bapu: Okay, you will have that half an hour tomorrow afternoon.

The unforgettable protrait Next day, a damp grey afternoon of wintery January 08, Gandhi ji, clad only in a Kashmiri shawl and dhoti, sat on a verandah, busy doing some paper work. It was his day of Maun (silence). Looking up at Lizi, he took out his watch and placed it in front of him. Lizi was both cold and nervous and the thought of 30 odd cameramen waiting below only added to her unease. There was a lack of space for the set-up. Gandhiji signalled to Lizi that she must start. But soon after 30 minutes, he sent her a slip saying her time was up. Ms Brunner communicated that 10 minutes were used up in placing her easel and paints. And by that standard she had 10 minutes left. Gandhi ji agreed. At the end of given time, Lizi placed the portrait in front of him. Bapu’s face lit up with joy and he promptly autographed it with a paintbrush. The young Elizabeth was grateful, beyond words. She did not know how this incident would help her burst on the Indian national scene as a recognized artist. The shutterbugs had captured this beautiful moment, and newspapers next day screamed about how a Hungarian artist had painted Gandhi ji in 30 minutes. Elizabeth had got her break. An intimate friendship The painting, more impotantlty, won little Elizabeth Gandhiji’s affection. He invited her and her mother to travel with him to Conoor where he was to stay for two weeks. By the time they arrived, Lizi was suffering from malaria and the chill of the hills only aggravated her condition. Hearing about her illness, Gandhiji came to her room and asked after her health. He then asked an attendant to get him a glass warm milk. Lizi was taking vegetarian diet then, avoiding even milk products. Gandhiji held her pale face in his hands and requested, “Have it for my sake” and then fed her with his hands. In what young Elizabeth continued to believe as a miracle, her fever disappeared the next morning. While Elizabeth continued to hold a treasure trove of stories of how Gandhiji, worked, lived, prayed and read, the above incidents clearly reveal Gandhi to be more than just a nationalist leader who fought for the freedom of our country. She perhaps through her encounters portrayed him to be a very humane, sensitive and a spirtiual person; and in doing so she, in one way, painted to us his soul, a promise that she had made to Bapu. (The piece is an adaptation of the encounter as described by the artist Elizabeth Brunner)

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