Art & Soul

Alice Boner, Krishna’s Swiss devotee, companion

Alice Boner, Krishna’s  Swiss devotee, companion

A folio from the Sur Sagara series, in praise of Krishna’s auspicious feet. Mewar, Rajasthan, c. 1710.

BN Goswamy

“…in the intersections and tangents… is more substantial meaning pictorially than in the details of facial expressions.” — Alice Boner

“If it is true that culture is a vehicle of international understanding and those promoting it are its ambassadors, then Alice Boner, indeed, deserves to be called an Ambassador of Indian culture!” — Alfred Wuerfel

There are various ways of ‘describing’ — if describing is the appropriate word — Alice Boner. One can say, on the one hand, as has, in fact, been said: “Alice Boner (1889-1981) was a Swiss painter and sculptor, art historian, and an Indologist. In her drawings, she used pencil, charcoal, sepia, red chalk, ink, and sometimes pastel. Her early works focused on drawings, sculptures, portrait, full body studies, landscapes and nature observations...” Or one can approach a description of her through her many books in which she engaged with her own thought, and the thought of those who had made art in the past.

Alice Boner — a portrait.

However, to put her in a clear, sharp-edged category is truly hard. She was large and contained ‘multitudes’, as Walt Whitman said in his ‘Song of Myself’ once. Starting from Switzerland, for 40 years she lived in Benares, making that ancient and impossible-to-know city her home; she travelled the world; she knew and worked with the likes of Uday Shankar, Shanta Rao and Ravi Shankar on the one hand, and CG Jung and Alain Danielou on the other. Jawaharlal Nehru, Stella Kramrisch, Sir CV Raman, Rabindranath Tagore, Lala Bhagwan Das, the Lama Anagarika Govinda, were the kind of people she interacted with and who interacted with her. But when it was all done, she returned to Switzerland, to die there, in 1981.

Women on the ghats of Benares, painting by Alice Boner

That, Zurich in Switzerland, is where I got to know her. A little. I had met her in India, of course, and had several conversations with her about art, for the most part in Benares in her much-loved home at the Assi Ghat overlooking the Ganga, where she felt, in her own words, “fulfilled, happy, settled, and supported, like on a gentle stream”. But Zurich is where she had time, and was accessible, living as she did just one street away from the one in which I had my apartment. She was gentle and frail by this time. And yet when she spoke, especially about a theme that was close to her heart — the way the painters of the past looked not at what was around themselves but at what was beyond, for instance — she did it with bell-like clarity. But all this while, many meetings notwithstanding, I had very little idea of an aspect of her life that she had kept entirely to herself: her attachment to Krishna.

She saw herself, as it turns out, as his companion and devotee at the same time. How she felt about it all comes out in her diaries, written in German, which were not accessible to everyone. But one now knows about some of it through a publication in the ‘Alice Boner Dialogue Series’, that Johannes Beltz, chief curator of the collections at the Museum Rietberg and its deputy director, and Harsha Vinay, director of the Alice Boner Institute in Benares — true ‘Bonerites’, if I may add — kindly sent me the other day. The main text in this publication is by John Stratton Hawley, a noted scholar who teaches at the Barnard College of the Columbia University, resides from time to time in Vrindavan and has written extensively on the Surdas and Krishna theme. This ‘companionship’ seems to have begun in March 1940, or thereabouts, when ‘He’ arrived at Alice’s home in Benares. The circumstance of her having acquired this image of Krishna — small black marble, large eyed, playing upon his flute, standing legs crossed, looking at nothing, and everything, at the same time — is interesting in itself. One reads that one day, not far from her own house on the Ganga ghat, she saw a woman, recently widowed, bearing this image, which belonged to her devout husband. She was walking with hurried steps, heading towards the sacred waters in which she wanted to immerse the image. But, a bit boldly perhaps, Alice stopped the woman and begged her to give it to her instead of consigning it to the waters. Surprisingly, the woman agreed. That is how Krishna entered Alice’s home.

Alice’s Krishna

One recalls that these were disturbing times, the World War having just broken out. As a European, far from her home, Alice was greatly distracted by the news, and kept worrying for the future of her home, in fact, for that of the whole world. “A nameless despair overcame me,” she wrote in her diary. “Life lost every meaning…” And then suddenly she turned to Krishna, finding in him “the pure, deep, uncorrupted seriousness of adolescence, and I saw that he too was concerned with the war (the Mahabharata, obviously), and the horrible disruption of the world... It was a consolation to know that there was someone so great to share my distress and in whom I might in future take refuge.” She says at one place she heard “the sobbing of a flute breaking forth from the lips of pain, from the piercing extremity of pain… beyond earth-bound life, released in bliss… This was Krishna’s flute.”

There are other passages in her diaries about her relationship with ‘Krishna-ji’: moving in themselves, but not easy to understand for those unacquainted with the human condition, and with the channels through which feelings elect to flow. There are descriptions of the times when she saw Krishna pouting in mock anger for having been neglected, or smiling when he is reconciled with his devotee-companion. Surdas might have written about this, or Mirabai perhaps? We can only get a whiff of it as we gaze at Alice’s favoured image: bathed and dried every day, fragrant tilak on the forehead, sporting the pure white cotton yajnopavita-sacred thread draped across his body as he stands under an arch made of two sparse peacock-tail feathers.

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