MEHRU JAFFER | 24 JANUARY, 2020
How Beethoven Introduced Mira Behn to Gandhi...
Gandhi’s first letter to Mira Behn
It is the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven, German composer and pianist this year and Mumbai born Marialena Fernandez is trumpeting news from rooftops that a statue of Beethoven has been found in Goa.
Many decades ago Marialena came to Vienna to study western classical music and made a fabulous career as professor of Chamber Music at the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts.
After having made much of Gustav Mahler and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Marialena is now engrossed in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. After all Beethoven is responsible for introducing Mohan Karamchand Gandhi to Mira Behn, the Mahatma’s most devoted disciple. Marialena plans to spend the rest of this year talking about Beethoven, Mira Behn and Gandhi and how the love of these human beings for each other has brought people of different cultures closer.
Mira Behn was born Madeleine Slade, daughter of an English Admiral. She left city life to spend her childhood with her maternal grandfather in the countryside. She found the music of Beethoven spiritual. And later in the company of Gandhi she experienced deep spirituality. She read the biography of Beethoven by the French intellectual Romain Rolland who won the Nobel Prize in 1915. When Madeleine met Rolland in Switzerland he gave her a copy of his biography of Gandhi, saying that Gandhi is a modern day Christ.
Madeleine got excited after reading about Gandhi’s view of the world. She sold a piece of diamond jewelry and sent Gandhi the money to further his cause in India. In a letter she wrote to Gandhi introducing herself and to her great joy he replied on a postcard:
I must apologize to you for not writing to you earlier. I have been continuously traveling. I thank you for the 20 sent by you. The amount will be used for popularizing the spinning wheel. I am glad that instead of obeying your is impuse you decided to fit yourself for the life here and to take time. if a year’s test still imels you to come, you will probaly be right incoming to India.
MK Gandhi on the train 31.12.24
This was the first letter Gandhi wrote to Madeleine followed by 650 for the next 24 years.
Madeleine was now a vegetarian. She had learnt to spin and to weave raw cotton fibre into white khadi cloth. In 1924, Madeleine offered thanksgiving after the frail Gandhi survived a 21 day fast for Hindu Muslim unity.
Once she had learnt Urdu she traveled to India to finally meet Gandhi and to serve the Indian people, in 1925. She had already exchanged many letters with Gandhi. After he welcomed her, he gave her the name of Mira Behn. He raised her up from the floor where she had knelt on seeing him and said, “You shall be my daughter”.
She lived in the Sabarmati Ashram and continued to spin cotton and to study Hindustani. She appreciated the simple way of life, waking up at 4 am. She cleaned the toilets at the ashram and watched Gandhi experiment with the most lofty concepts of moral, physical and economic reforms. She sensed that Gandhi’s non violent battle for Indian independence was not simpy to get the British out of India. His was a dream for a united India. He had crusaded for the unification of all Indians, in particular he wanted to see the end of enemity between Hindus and Muslims.
Mira Behn concluded that Gandhi was not a mystical man. She found him a practical man who did his best to express his spirituality by doing the best he could do for himself, and for human society.
Mira Behn remained Gandhi’s closest aid for 23 years till the Mahatma’s murder in 1948.
Along with Gandhi, Mira Behn was imprisoned during the freedom struggle in 1942, and later she lived in the Himalayas. In 1959, Mira Behn returned to England. She felt lost in India without Gandhi, and yearned for a higher purpose in life.
Her restless soul returned to the music of Beethoven. In the 1960s she found a home in the Vienna Woods where she lived till her death in July 1982, listening to the works of Beethoven. This is the same place where Beethoven had made music in early 19th century and Mira Behn’s hut in the Vienna Woods was the closest she could get to her beloved Himalayas while in Europe.
Marialena was in Vienna when Mira Behn died here. She has been living in Vienna since the 1970s and is engaged in many projects involving the youth and music in India. During one of her routine trips to Goa, Marialena came across a statue of Beethoven at the entrance of a house in Siolim, a picturesque village in Goa. When she found out more she was told that Pinta Shapai owner of the house was a great fan of Beethoven’s music. Years later his descendants decided to install a statue of Beethoven in the house in memory of Pinta.
All these connections between music, India and Europe have got Marialena very excited and she is wondering how she can use the information to bring more human beings closer to each other.
Any ideas dear readers on how Marialena can take these humane thoughts forward?