Dear Friends and Well-wishers of Overman Foundation,
The third ‘Auro-Ratna Award’ ceremony took place on Sunday, 18 November 2012, at Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research (SACAR), Pondicherry. As announced earlier, the recipients of this award for the year 2012 were Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan. The ceremony which began at 5 p.m. with the Mother’s organ music was attended by Dr. Ananda Reddy (the Chief Guest), Prof. Kittu Reddy (respected member of the Advisory Board of Overman Foundation and senior inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry), Narad alias Richard Eggenberger (senior inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry), Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan (artist, poet, essayist, professor and Head of the English Department at Pondicherry University) Dr. Alok Pandey (renowned psychiatrist and inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry), Mrs. Deepshikha Reddy (Trustee, SACAR), Mr. Tekeste Berhan G. Kidan (a former Ethiopian diplomat and an Aurovilian since 1996 who helped to establish the Auroville International Africa Education Centre in Addis Ababa and initiate the Africa House project in Auroville) and Mr. Helmut (Aurovilian and architect of Savitri Bhavan) from Auroville to name a few.
Mr. Anurag Banerjee, the Founder and Chairman of Overman Foundation spoke briefly about the ‘Auro-Ratna Award’ and introduced the recipients Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan.
Prof. Kittu Reddy was then requested to say a few words about the recipients. What follows is the text of Prof. Reddy’s speech:
‘Before the awards were announced, as usual Anurag consulted me and he proposed these two names and I said: “Absolutely, totally deserving.” And I am happy that I can speak a few words. Not being in the best of my health I will just speak for two or three minutes and then I will probably move off.
‘I will first start about Shraddhavan. Well, I think sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Huta—I was very close to her—requested me to put—she had two boxes where all her paintings were kept and she asked me to put them in the Exhibition Hall because there was no place where she was able to keep them. So I gladly accepted and kept it there. A few years later—I can’t remember exactly when, maybe towards the end of the 1990s or early 2000—she told me: “I’ve now found a place—a permanent place—and Shraddhavan will contact you. Before that I had only heard her name; I had never met her. In fact, I did not know who she was. Then she rang me up and it was arranged that the whole thing goes to Savitri Bhavan. During that conversation, she requested me if I could come to Auroville and hold classes of The Human Cycle. I very gladly accepted for two reasons: because I had already heard a little bit about Savitri Bhavan and second, I wanted to act as a bridge between the Ashram and Auroville because Auroville is Mother’s creation. So I accepted and I have gone there for last 10 years or more every Sunday from 5 to approximately 6 o’clock. I will not say much about Shraddhavan’s achievements except to say this much that from the very first day till I have been going—till very recently—the presence of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo is palpably felt in Savitri Bhavan. I have seen it growing up from that one small room to the other room and now I am told that a guest house has been built up. I don’t think that there is anything more to say that Savitri Bhavan today represents very powerfully the presence of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. For that I have to say that Shraddhavan is mainly responsible. Of course everybody else who comes there—the harmony and the love of the place that is there is unbelievable. That’s all I would like to say tonight.
‘Regarding Prema Nandakumar: I have not had an intimate contact with her. But I knew her father well and I have found his biography almost the very best that I have seen on Sri Aurobindo. In fact, last week only I was reading it all over again. Great pleasure and happiness! I have come in contact with Prema because of ‘Sri Aurobindo’s Action’. She used to write articles there and I am a member of the committee… I have read almost all her books and her articles which are so totally committed to the Mother. I have also read her book on Subramania Bharati because I had to write a book called The Role of South India in the Freedom Movement. It was ordered by the Gujarat Government. Narendra Modi sent someone to ask me to write. So I wrote that book. So naturally Subramania Bharati was one of the most important persons. So found her book a treasure. And she has translated all his poems.
‘Again I have to say nothing more except to say that she is one of those whom I have very silently admired. I don’t meet her often but her commitment to Mother and Sri Aurobindo is absolute—as total as a human being can be. So with these words I would like to congratulate both of you. Thank you.’
After Prof. Kittu Reddy, Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan was invited to say a few words about Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan. The text of his speech in which he has discussed the contribution of Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan in the field of research and English language follows:
‘In English we use a phase which goes like “To carry coal to new castle” which means when one goes to new castle one does not carry coal. So when I come to SACAR and this might appear rather overburdened if I try to introduce either Prema Nandakumar or Shraddhavan because I don’t know them. I know very little about them. In fact I know so little, when I look all around you, most of you know more about them than I do because I am familiar with their work. As persons I have not had the occasion to meet either Sri Aurobindo or the Mother but I came to Sri Aurobindo through the work of Srinivasa Iyengar. Prof. Iyengar has been a kind of eye-opener for me. Then I started working on Sri Aurobindo. I am sure Prema-ji started working on Sri Aurobindo ten years before I was born even, I think, because in the 1950s, she was working on Savitri. In 1957 she started working and by around I think 1960 when she finished her book—her monumental work—I was just a kid. Eventually, when I came to do my work so many years later, her book on Savitri was a piece of revelatory sort of experience for me and that I found quite challenging in two ways because I have always felt that the work of Sri Aurobindo needs to be read in multiple dimensions at the same time. Of course we have Sri Aurobindo as the rebel; we have Sri Aurobindo as the creative writer; we have Sri Aurobindo as the political thinker, the historian, the sociologist, the person who has interpreted the Vedas and the Upanishads, a scholar extraordinary who also participated in the freedom movement of India; we have to see him and his work in a multiple sort of dimension and the kind of comparative element that both Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Shraddhavan provided, I think, were real eye-openers for me specially her work in comparing Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri with Homer’s epic which I don’t think anybody in the history of the world would have attempted because here is a work which is the longest work in the English language—Savitri with 24,000 odd lines—which happens to be the longest work available in the English language barring perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel which runs into 33,333 lines. So if you consider that as a translation, here is an original work in English which is the longest work and to compare that with another epic of multiple dimensions like Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad is something which a person with genuine intellectual and at the same time spiritual calibre can attempt. And that is what I found most intriguing in the work of Dr. Prema Nandakumar. So, it is a pleasure to talk about the work of somebody who has actually cleared the way or paved the way or made new wood in the scholarship in relating epics of two separate cultures, two separate cultural backgrounds, two separate idioms. So this is what I found most intriguing about Dr. Nandakumar’s work.
‘And of course Prof. Kittu Reddy has already mentioned Bharati’s translation. That is something which I wanted to cite also. Of course there is a big debate going on in the Tamil circle in support of Dr. Prema Nandakumar’s translation of Bharati; that apart if we were to look at the selections which she had made, it is not the entire corpus of Bharati of course. But whatever she has done with her discerning eye that, I think, is something which has come from her own reading of Sri Aurobindo’s work because Sri Aurobindo has specifically said that the critical eye that operates in poetry is almost superior to the critical eye that operates on poetry. So in that way she has been able to bring together the critical eye in separate perceptions and to be discerning to identify the kind of noteworthy work of Bharati. That, I think, is a good introduction. More than that Prema Nandakumar has done extensive work in bringing Tamil writings and bringing regional and discursive elements of a particular cultural ethos in which Sri Aurobindo himself lived. Forty odd years he lived here in Pondicherry and that is something which is amazing for us because he never left Pondicherry. He has continued to be here and he has also translated Andal; he has done some tremendous attempts in bringing together so many other works which were around him. I don’t know whether he was aware of Tamil language, whether he could speak…’
Dr. Prema Nandakumar said: ‘He knew Tamil language. It is there. And he read Panchali-Shapatham. He was the first to translate Kulasekhara Alwar into English.
Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan continued: ‘So that way Prema Nandakumar has been able to bring together a totally different cultural ethos into the study of Sri Aurobindo and she has been able to distribute, or rather, been able to bring together these elements into the discourse of Sri Aurobindo and other scholarship around Sri Aurobindo. To that extent, I think, her work is most admirable. And I am a person who loves to look at her work from a distance and I think I have great respect for Dr. Prema Nandakumar. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to honour her.
‘To talk about Shraddhavan: I know that Shraddhavan came here in early 1970s perhaps. Before that she has been a poet in the English language and I have had many occasions to sit near her and talk to her of British poetry. And I was always taken in by the astuteness and the clarity of the rhythms and eloquence of poetry that she has been able to pick up. She had told me that she had worked in the lines of Charles Tomlinson, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, W. H. Davies and I could hear the reverberations of the late Modernist and the late romantic British poetry. I consider that as a romantic poetry because Ted Hughes was somebody who revived or brought together Tomlinson, W. H. Davies and others who brought together a sort of a romantic element in the line of British poetry back into the flavor bringing together the human and the non-human elements. That, I think, Shraddhavan has brought into me new shraddha. Shraddhavan has been a kind of shraddha for me through her writings. And I have followed her English in Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri. [To Shraddhavan] That is an essay a part of which you had presented at my department when you came there—The Englishness of Savitri.
‘I don’t know whether many of you here are familiar with the kind of controversial work written in the late 1970s which is called The Pedigree of Savitri. I am surprised. Even at SACAR I don’t think you have that essay. It is a controversial essay which actually most counter to… Are you familiar with that by any chance? The Pedigree of Savitri? When I read that essay I was working on Sri Aurobindo in the early 1980s. I came here in 1986 and I was working in the Ashram Archives. There I found this particular reference and then I had to go to Hyderabad to dig up in the Osmania University journals and I came across that article. I found that Shraddhavan’s work on Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri and language actually brings together the lost connection between Sri Aurobindo and European early modernist poetry. At many times I always felt that Sri Aurobindo was somebody who was unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Poet and a person who lives in the present has to always have a kind of connection with what is happening outside. One cannot be a recluse all the while. Sri Aurobindo was never a recluse. You know, I have always defended this view-point. Many people have said: “Oh, here is a man who has chickened out in the phase of action, who has already moved away and who stayed at Pondicherry in the French resort.” They said that he did not want to step out in the British eye because he was afraid of action. But I also wrote a little bit in Sri Aurobindo’s Action and there I have tried to bring together this attitude of action and inaction and the kind of withdrawal that Sri Aurobindo did. So Sri Aurobindo was somebody who was all the time exposed to the multiple elements around him at manyplaces. He was open to that. He always liked to look at what was happening outside. And Shraddhavan has been able to pick up the element of the quality of language, the tonal variation and the subtle nuances of the English language which Sri Aurobindo carried with him as a remnant of his European learning. And that is something which she has been able to link with the spiritual quality of the language. I have read many other scholars trying to expound the quality of spiritual resonance in Sri Aurobindo’s poetry but Shraddhavan’s shraddha has been unwavering and steady. And I don’t think there is any other person who deserves this award in the present other than these two people.
‘So it is a great honour for me to be able to share whatever I feel about these two Masters who have led the way and opened up their way for people like us who like to see the quality of poetry and philosophy at the same time. Thank you very much.’
After Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan, Dr. Ananda Reddy, Director of SACAR as well as the Chief Guest and host of the ceremony, was invited by Mr. Anurag Banerjee to address the invitees and the recipients. In his speech—the text of which is as follows—Dr. Reddy recalled his long and intimate association with Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan:
‘See, others have spoken about their work and what they have published etc. But I have a different angle from which I look at both of them. I will begin with Shraddhavan because I have known her very personally since years—early 1970s. And, in fact, I have known her in her previous birth as Maggie. Then Mother gave her the name Shraddhavan. That was a new birth for her.
‘So, we were colleagues at Aspiration School (1971-72) and we worked, teaching the children languages. It was a lovely time—I always remember—with Rod and Shraddhavan and Deepshikha and Shantiben. So my memories really go back to the early 1970s when I speak of Shraddhavan. After that, of course, I think our work separated us; I went off to Hyderabad for some studies. But the beauty is she stayed on. And I am saying “the beauty is” because those were very rough times in Auroville, very difficult times. And that was perhaps the real test for Shraddhavan’s shraddha: how she hung on, clutched to Mother and Sri Aurobindo and her faith. Well, I am not here to narrate those difficult times but I can admire because I was always in touch with whatever’s happening in Auroville and she was one of the forefronts where there was a real trust in the Mother. And she said: “I’m here. Nobody can move me from here.” So we had lost some time when we were not in contact. But when I came back and started with SACAR, a little before she had started with Savitri Bhavan. So again somewhere our vibrations met. She was founding a centre of Sri Aurobindo’s consciousness at Auroville and I was trying to found a centre of Sri Aurobindo’s consciousness in and around Pondicherry not as an Ashram of course but a research centre, an academic centre. So we met again on the platform of research work in Sri Aurobindo and since then we re-connected. And of course now we are very closely connected. Whenever there is a function we go to Savitri Bhavan. I even take classes. Since years I have been taking classes.’
Shraddhavan said: ‘You are the first to take the classes. You started the first regular classes before we had the building. You were teaching The Life Divine.’
Dr. Ananda Reddy continued: ‘Thank you. Yes, I remember. First the hut was made. There was no building. Albert had not yet come into the picture. He had given us a hut so we started our classes in the hut and that was the classes of The Life Divine. And so, as she says, thankfully, that I was the first one. I was really very happy to be there taking The Life Divine classes. From the hut we move to the building and, of course, the rest is history.
‘Well, what Savitri Bhavan that she has created in Auroville represent—Kittu-da has already spelt it out for me—and I feel in this apparently chaotic life in Auroville, the only pillar of Mother’s and Sri Aurobindo’s consciousness is Savitri Bhavan. Of course, I am not counting Matrimandir and all that caters in the functional level. So that’s why I am always eager to connect myself with Savitri Bhavan that here is a place where we can go to and say: “Yeah, we are connected with the Mother.” In between I was a bit busy, I disconnected but again there was an invitation. I jumped at the opportunity because I feel if you strengthen the hands of Savitri Bhavan somewhere you are strengthening the work of Auroville itself because Auroville is a lot of external activities—this activity, meeting and all that but somewhere there has got to be this underground consciousness of the Mother. And that’s what Shraddhavan is providing at Savitri Bhavan. We don’t meet very often but I know the work she is doing. So when Anurag told me: “This time we would like to give this ‘Auro-Ratna’ to Shraddhavan”, I said: “Bravo, you have made the right selection.” Because, you see, we can admire first of all the work they have done—like Dr. Murali said—for the language, the Savitri classes, what comes out in Invocation. But I think I admire the human being, the Shraddhavan herself, because I have known her as a person. It’s only later that I have started reading what she has written so I should congratulate Anurag for choosing the person. Normally we go by the work they have done but I admire the person—Shraddhavan, real Shraddhavan. Congratulations. And of course, this award—as Anurag said—is to recognize the work but I would put in the word that we also see the person behind because in our yoga the person is more important than the work that he produce which is good for the world but we have to see the person behind and that is where Shraddhavan is really in my eyes the person and the work comes later.
‘And many people or most people know Prema-ji—as Dr. Murali said—by the work. Well, I too was introduced to her through her work because when I was doing my thesis at my studies in Sri Aurobindo, the first thing was A Study in Savitri. So, I think, when Anurag said Prema-ji is the person again to get the “Auro-Ratna” I said she has already got the prize—the award—from the Mother’s own hands. When she submitted the Savitri to Her, She touched it. And I said: “That’s the greatest award.” Today’s award in front of that hardly has any dimension in it because she has narrated it many a time how Srinivasa Iyengar-ji and she worked on the work and she submitted the work to the Mother and the Mother appreciated them. So I would say that’s the greatest blessings. After all that, as they say in Hindi, everything fika par jata hai. But still I think it is a very good choice that you have made she has brought Sri Aurobindo to the world on many levels. She had the great advantage—as Kittu-da was telling he wanted to be a bridge between the Ashram and Auroville by coming to Savitri Bhavan—she has been one of the biggest, greatest and most solid bridges between Sri Aurobindo and the outside world. And the greatest advantage she has is she has four mother-tongues—Telegu, Tamil, Hindi, English. So she just speaks to any of the audiences—North or South or East or West—in their mother-tongue. And then her prolific width of knowledge…’
At this point somebody suggested that Dr. Prema Nandakumar’s mother-tongues included Sanskrit as well. Dr. Ananda Reddy continued:
‘In Sanskrit the audience is not there much. Knowledge is there but the audience… I’m saying there are the four audiences. And very frankly I don’t think among the Aurobindonian circles there is anyone who has got that width of knowledge as she. So she can compare Sri Aurobindo with a Tamil poet, a Telegu poet, a Hindi kavi. And then I have been reading her essays here and there, her books and articles and I feel even her publishers are not being able to cope up with her writings. She writes so many things on so many aspects—take Savitri, take this episode, that The Life Divine—take Ananda Brahman—she goes to Nainital to charm the people there. I mean, I don’t know where she is. But I know she is only in the Mother’s consciousness. So again, Anurag, the work is one thing but the being which stations in the Mother’s consciousness. So I admire Prema-ji for that because without being stationed fully in the Mother’s consciousness, one cannot pen out things like that because I tried. I am not like Alok [Pandey]—he would sit in front of the computer and he would spur out ten pages of writing. It does not come to me. But I know those who are stationed in Her consciousness can express and write things. He is one of those guys. I would tell him later but this is not the occasion to talk about you but Prema-ji.
‘And the most beautiful thing: I have been to her house. Again a very personal contact. And I think if you go to her house, you will not ever forget what it is. I mean she has no furniture in her house, maybe she barely has somewhere a cot which I did not see because everywhere the house is strewn with books. I mean, you have to wriggle through some little passages to reach her place, her little computer, her internet; her almirahs full of books, her tables are full of… we don’t see tables we see only books and books and books. So here is one person who really lives it. She is not a scholar to sit down and say: “Now what do I write?” She is constantly breathing Aurobindonian consciousness. So now her writings are now breathing out of the same consciousness. And then somebody said silent admiration. I would say I have open admiration for her. All the time Prema-ji—yeah, I know her well. Of course, my father and her father were great friends. They knew very well and from there I came to know about Prema-ji. But since then I have got my own personal contact but I know her in one aspect. But I am quite jealous of her because she knows my wife in a different aspect. They are closer friends and whenever we meet, first she goes to Deepshikha and her relation with her is so intimate that it is again a lovely aspect of Prema-ji how she connects with everyone: be it a scholar, be it a friend, be it younger, be it older. Once we had called her to Hyderabad to speak on the Mother in Telegu and people said: “What’s her mother-tongue?” I mean, it’s so poetic, her language is so beautiful! So she has got a little reflection from the Lord: a poet, a social worker, a scholar, a beautiful being, a philosopher, a psychologist, all in a single word—PREMA. So ‘ji-s’ are extra things but Prema that love. So she shares her love for Mother and Sri Aurobindo with everyone she meets. Her works are there for scholars to read but for me she is Prema. Thank you very much Didi. There is no question of congratulating the persons. Thank you.’
After Dr. Ananda Reddy, Mr. Richard Eggenberger alias Narad was requested to come and speak a few words about the recipients. The text of his brief speech follows:
‘And the operative term is a few words and it would be a very few. When I first began my deep studies of Savitri as a young man there were only two books that I referred to. Prema’s and Purani’s. These were the books that helped me the most. And though I have not known her so well personally, we have exchanged some wonderful emails, letters and I know her very much through her daughter. And I think that receiving the newest copy of your Savitri work that stands on a shelf next to Purani’s was one of the great blessings I have had.
‘I could talk to you for three hours on Shraddhavan. And I won’t do it. I have said: “Few words.” I promised a few words and it would be few. Because we have known each other for more than forty years and in that time I have shared so much and Savitri Bhavan for me along with the Matrimandir is the great light of Auroville. And what radiates from Savitri Bhavan touches all the earth and Shraddhavan has given us the great blessing of having the OM choirs every week in Savitri Bhavan. And I know that those vibrations also transmit to all the world. Thank you both.’
After Narad-ji, Dr. Alok Pandey was invited to address the recipients. The text of his speech follows:
‘Frankly, when I received Anurag’s mail, I was of course happy but at the same time I found myself in a little strange situation and the reason is that all my life I have been wary of awards and rewards. I always found them superfluous to that extent that when I was awarded a gold medal for psychiatry I didn’t go to pick it up for I did not believe in it. They had to literally ship it. But it was very different. First the name of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother—recognition for doing service to Them and there was a little funny side to it because in yoga we are not supposed to speak about ourselves but we can always speak good about others. So it was a good opportunity. But yet I was wondering what shall I say when Anurag asked me because I don’t have that kind of long intimate contact either with Shraddhavan-ji or Prema Nandakumar-ji. At the same time something in me does recognize that they are beautiful beings. Now what is that something it does not go by any kind of rational reminiscence because I have read frankly very little. I read something which comes out in Invocation and I have read some of the beautiful stories of Prema-ji because I am a child at heart and I love stories—Krishna legends—when they come out in Mother India I really enjoy. And of course I read the latest one on Savitri which you have brought out—a kind of summary—and this much I know what I feel instinctively about Prema-ji that she is a Vaishnava to the core. I maybe mistaken but it exudes in her personality: the bhakti, the love, the knowledge that comes integrating the heart and the head which, I feel, is a great quality because this is a kind of knowledge which only starts here in the brain but I see that in all her work whatever little I have read, this is the heart which comes and joins with the head. That makes it really exceptional.
‘I heard her for the first time in the U.S. and it was a kind of funny, strange thing. Because before she spoke, I think, in one of my talks I had passingly mentioned that people do Ph.D in Savitri [Laughter] and it does not make sense to me because Savitri is infinite… in my ignorance and pride I would add which… that time I was not an Ashram inmate but a typical attitude that some people have towards intellectual stuff that it is something inferior and you know spirituality is something far beyond. So I was in that same stupid ignorance till I heard Prema Nandakumar-ji.’
Dr. Prema Nandakumar remarked: ‘Arindam-da set it right.’
Dr. Alok Pandey continued: ‘He set it right but there, you know, I came to know that she has done her Ph.D. It was very beautiful to know that a person can be intellectual and at the same time deeply spiritual and his intellect can become an instrument to express the spirit. Now we all read it but still we forget it, forget it too often. I do recognize that when people say this, there is an element of spiritual pride which is very dangerous and at that point of time she came as a very living real example. And I was so happy! And what I love other than that is her beautiful smile. Her face has such an angelic charm that it speaks a lot more perhaps…’
Dr. Prema Nandakumar said: ‘I will definitely tell my husband about it. He thinks I am very old.’
Dr. Alok Pandey said: ‘I am sure he knows. But you know what happens, husbands and wives always get in touch with the other side of human personalities. But definitely it is something which speaks so much about you. One has to just look at your face to know what is that beautiful stream that is flowing in your heart. And that is where we are all connected, that stream is something so beautiful, something so sweet and definitely more than the reward or the recognition which surely someone like you doesn’t really seek but the fact that you are connected to Sri Aurobindo in one more way is something very beautiful.
‘Of course, Shraddhavan-ji—I have always looked up to her as a kind of inspiration and if I was in my teens I would have looked upon you as a role model. But I didn’t know you then and there were reasons for it. One was apart from your lovely countenance, your soft voice—you know, I am a person who just gets carried away by voice, the quality of the voice means a lot to me. And I remember, whenever you speak with such a softness, with such a dedicateness, a refineness which I feel in you being and that refineness is something which really touches me very deeply. It comes in your words, it comes in your actions, it comes in the way Savitri Bhavan is been brought up. That refineness, something very subtle and maybe I am not able to pin-point it; it is something which I really admire and appreciate. Of course Savitri Bhavan is there for all to see and it is really a marvellous creation. If other than Matrimandir there is something which one could speak about in Auroville at least to my little understanding, I feel it is Savitri Bhavan. I am sure. Whether people know you or not but generations will be grateful for the kind of groundwork that you have done. Yes, Helmut is there, there are many, many persons who have gone into its making. There is no doubt about it. And above all, they grace. But sometimes you know what happens, there are people who are like key elements which the Force uses because they become beautiful mediums and instruments. Ultimately I do believe in what Nolini-da [Nolini Kanta Gupta] has written that the greatness of the individual is the greatness of the Divine in him so in the last analysis it is the Divine who has worked so beautifully in her and so beautifully in Prema-ji but equally the fact that they have been such beautiful instruments. I feel the very fact at another dimension. I am told one should never ask the age of ladies but they are not ladies but souls. But how much would be your age Shraddhavan-ji?’
Shraddhavan-ji replied: ‘I have just passed 70.’
Dr. Alok Pandey to Dr. Prema Nandakumar: ‘And you?’
Prema-ji answered: ‘I am 72.’
Dr. Alok Pandey continued: ‘So I feel a person who has crossed 65 in earthly existence deserves salutation in any ways because he has passed through this life, endured all that it means to lead an earthly life. You know, there is always an unsaid story, a stream which runs as an undercurrent and nobody talks about it, nobody knows about it but if at 70 one can be smiling, I think, any award is worth it. This is at least my simple criteria which I often use in my clinical practice. One test if one has to do is that everything is well, all right, no halter or treadmill and all these things—they are outdated and they are very expensive and they tell you about only one dimension of your being. All that I see is that is the person smiling? If the person is smiling then regardless of whatever is happening to the body, everything is fine. Overall health is good. Anurag, that is how I recognized you. You know, your smile is so lovely, you were introducing yourself and I said: “I know you.” Because on your pictures, on your photographs… his is such a smiling face. I wish I could have one. In my photographs I always look so grim and serious that everybody wonders… But looking at you I feel here is someone so pleasant, so lovely.
‘So Shraddhavan-ji, of course, everyone has spoken so much and there is no end to speaking about you as a person but as I said that it is truly the greatness of the Divine in both of them. And I am nobody to say about deserving the award or not but definitely I for one have great regard for both Shraddhavan-ji and Prema Nandakumar-ji. One more incident I remember which I must [share] with your permission. When I sent a mail that I want to withdraw from Savitri Bhavan during all the crisis which was going on within the Ashram community, forces of division were very much strong, then I was very much touched by Shraddhavan-ji’s letter. It was a letter which spoke of on one side an unflinching loyalty towards Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; on the other side she recognized the need of harmony, unity which is today the prime concern for the sake of work. And how she balanced it in just a few lines and her aspiration to bridge, to become a force of unity despite the forces of division, I feel hat’s off to that because when the forces of division are raging so strong, at the same time one is called upon to be faithful to Truth, here was someone who was at once faithful to Truth at the same time who had a deeper need for unity and harmony. At least to me it was really a very revealing letter. Thank you for that. So thank you Anurag for this wonderful opportunity.’
After Dr. Alok Pandey’s speech, Mr. Anurag Banerjee read out messages sent for Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan by Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee from Paris, Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty from Hyderabad and Dr. Larry Seidlitz from Auroville.
In his message to Dr. Nandakumar titled ‘An Open Letter Prema Didi”, Dr. Prithwindra Mukherjee wrote:
‘It was in the mid 50s. Glowing with the morning sun after the Mother’s Darshan under her balcony, there walked by the side of my father a brilliant man: both of them seemed to be of the same age (fortyish). Behind the man a sharp young girl stepped forward while the man greeted me : “Hello, Prithwindra!” as if we had known each other down the centuries.
‘You were there, Prema-didi, with your illustrious father, Professor K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar. I was hardly twenty; you looked much younger than your physical age, but you had already undertaken your Ph.D. thesis on Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, which you were to defend summa cum laude in 1961, even before you were 22 ! It was a great achievement. But your scholarly activities did not prevent you from becoming an accomplished housewife. Once while washing the utensils you complained to Professor Iyenger in an irritating voice, “You told me to do Ph. D. on Savitri just to wash the utensils all my life?” Your learned father answered it in the typical humorous way of a Tamil Brahmin (like our respected Amrita-da), “No, I told you to do Ph. D. on Savitri to learn to wash the utensils with the right kind of consciousness that God is present everywhere and while washing the utensils you should feel that you are washing the feet of the Lord.”
‘This great lesson seems to have helped you to find out the real essence of each and every activity, leading you to the stature of an eminent scholar – member of several national Academic councils—whose intelligence has never been a stranger to humility and devotion. Proud of your heritage as a disciple of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, your numerous publications in English and Tamil cover pages of philosophy, history, Vedic, Buddhist, Hindu and—through Dante—Christian literature, mythology, poetry, criticism, biography, autobiography, translation. Thanks to your initiative, the poems of Subramania Bharati are known all over India and abroad. You have so well explored the evolution of the Aurobindonian heroine.
‘Though by age I be your senior, out of respect for your mature spiritual wayfaring, accept that I salute you as my dear Prema-didi.’
In his felicitation message for Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan, Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty wrote:
‘We are all delighted that two of the leading lights of the circle of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are being bestowed the Auro Ratna Award by the Overman Foundation, Kolkata for this year. Awards and recognitions are judged in terms of the caliber of the recipients, and the impartial and deserving manner in which such recognitions are endowed. Clearly, over the years, the Overman Foundation has distinguished itself by the awards it has given to some of the most eminent of the Aurobindonean scholars and writers.
‘Who can deny the fact that two of the individuals that are receiving the awards this year are perhaps the very best in the category we have in mind!
‘Daughter of one of the most illustrious of the Aurobindonean Professors, Dr Prema Nandakumar is an acclaimed and pioneering scholar not only of Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, indeed she has excelled in the entire gamut of Indic studies. Her writings are informed by a close knowledge of and empathy with the Indic point of view. Her essays on the Mahabharata and the Tamil Bhakti traditions, are some of the most illuminating that we have come across in recent times. She is unfailingly balanced and insightful in all her views and observations. She employs a style that is poetic and she is always futuristic in her literary cultural explorations.
‘She and I have had many fruitful exchanges, and I must say that I have marveled at Dr. Prema Nandakumar’s spirit of modesty, her gentle sense of humor, her closeness to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, not to mention her deep scholarship of the western and Indian traditions.
‘I congratulate Dr Prema Nandakumar, and wish her many more years of productive and creative work.
‘I came to know Ms Shraddhavan very closely when I approached her during 1992 to contribute an essay on the eminent Sadhak Kishore Gandhi. She readily responded to my request, and her essay stood out as one of the best in the anthology. It is only at the time of the centenary of Amal Kiran that I could meet her for the first time. By then of course, I had been thoroughly acquainted with all her writings marked by insight and illumination.
‘Who among the Sri Aurobindoneans does not know the single handed manner and complete dedication with which Shraddhavan has promoted Savitri Studies in Auroville and elsewhere! One often hear of the magnum opus Savitri, and yet how many of us, barring scholars of the repute like late Professor M.V. Nadkarni, Rohit Bhai Mehta or M.P. Pandit have dedicated their lives to the study of this grand epic of the future? I am therefore most delighted that Ms Shraddhavan is going to be given this year’s Auro Ratna Award. I congratulate Shraddhavan most sincerely and pray to the Mother to give her many more years of fruitful labor in the service of the Divine.
‘Finally I thank our dear Anurag for the indefatigable and selfless manner in which he has been carrying out the work of the Overman Foundation. I thank him for asking me to offer this garland of tributes, and I also thank Dr Ananda Reddy of SACAR, for hosting this year’s award ceremony.’
The last message read out was from Dr. Larry Seidlitz who could not attend the award ceremony due to ill health:
‘I’d like to thank Anurag for inviting me to speak a few words about the two newest recipients of the Auro-Ratna Award, Prema Nandakumar and Shraddhavan, two of the most outstanding women in the Sri Aurobindo community. And I apologise to all for not feeling well enough to personally attend this happy occasion. The unpleasantness of this virus I have caught perhaps may help me win your forgiveness for maintaining a safe physical distance.
‘Prema Nandakumar is one of India’s outstanding scholars and writers in English and Tamil. It seems to me that from her doctoral thesis on Savitri in 1962 at the young age of 22, to her abundant and continuous outflow of books, chapters, journal and press articles, translations, book reviews, commentaries, conference presentations, and invited talks since that time, despite their variations, has been mainly focused on one central theme. Prospective scholars take note. How is it possible to base so many diverse writings on a single underlying theme and thereby create an area of special expertise and authority while continuing to be expansive, original and creative? The theme, of course, must be carefully selected, it must be profound and central and capable of being variously formulated in different contexts.
‘I stumbled upon the following from Ms. Nandakumar from an article called “Indian Youth in Search of Icons,” which I think reflects this unifying theme. The article speaks to the need of Indian youth for icons, role models, and inspiring values.
‘“If our Vedas, Upanishads, epics and Puranas have survived all these centuries, it is because they have carried the power of knowledge in them, the powers of Savitra (the Sun deity, symbolizing creation) whom we continue to evoke for gathering inspiration through the Gayatri mantra…”
‘The article continues with Indian people’s faith in God and how for Indians this faith has also meant faith in the sanatana dharma which in turn means a faith in the goodness and glory of man.
‘“With this firm faith secured, we have to find out how best to make of ourselves invincible warriors by getting trained in sanatana dharma. But I can hear my young readers protesting: Where are the leaders to inspire us with such faith that brings in its wake selflessness and courage? That is why we place before the youth of India this ancient heritage, the sanatana dharma. Interestingly enough, in this the centre is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”
‘So I believe this is the thread that has woven together Ms. Nandakumar’s prodigious work: to place before not only the youth but all Indians—women as well as men—and the world as whole this great ancient tradition with its innumerable heroes, role models, and inspiring values that we may secure our faith in God and in ourselves and become invincible warriors striving towards, fighting for and realizing our highest possibilities as human beings.
‘This theme seems to underlie her elucidation of a wide range of Sanskrit and Tamil literatures that are replete with stories of heroism and greatness and noble character. It seems to underlie her books on and translations of the poetry of Subramania Bharati. It also appears to characterize her own creative writing in prose and poetry. Constantly she puts before the greatness of what we might become, if only we would emulate the great personalities of India’s ancient literary tradition.
‘While Shraddhavan has also done a good deal of writing, for the last 17 years she has been mainly devoted to the development and stewardship of Savitri Bhavan, a centre for learning and study in Auroville focused principally on Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem. Since 1995 when the idea for Savitri Bhavan took root among a group who had started to gather to read Savitri, Shraddhavan together with Helmut has taken the lead in coalescing this dream of creating a place dedicated to Savitri. This was certainly a dream that was planted by the Divine, for it has grown into such a beautiful and essential center in Auroville.
‘It seems that construction is nearing completion (she may want to correct me) with the recent inauguration of the residential Hostel for people working and studying at the center. The art gallery which has on permanent display Huta’s paintings was recently completed before that, and the other components of the campus have been completed one by one. It is a very impressive and beautiful building with classrooms and offices and spacious halls and surely Helmut deserves our appreciation for that.
‘Savitri Bhavan is one of the few spaces in Auroville in which one can learn about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s vision and works, and that speaks to its importance. There are classes not only on Savitri, but also on other major works by Sri Aurobindo, for example, currently there is a class on The Life Divine led by Shraddhavan, and a class on the book The Mother led by Ananda Reddy. There are meditation classes and a weekly session of the Om choir. Periodically there are presentations by speakers, and of films and video recordings of interesting and inspiring talks by various speakers. There are individuals who are engaged in various kinds of research and study, and there is an excellent library of both hard copy and digital materials.
‘I have had the good fortune to be in Auroville for the past 8 months and have been attending Shraddhavan’s classes on Savitri each Sunday morning (except today!). These classes are quite popular, with about 40 people in attendance. It is not so much an intellectual study, but more a meditation and contemplation of the poem. These classes are so remarkable that I think it is worthwhile describing how she does them.
‘She generally begins each session by briefly reviewing what we have read previously, providing a broader context for the current section. When starting a new canto, we first read it through once without interruption, taking turns, each person reading about a page. After finishing, we read it again, this time in short passages, each passage followed by a few minutes of silence to allow it to sink in deeply, and to contemplate its meaning. This silence is followed by an explanation of the passage by Shraddhavan, often in response to questions from the participants. These explanations help participants with limited mastery of English understand the basic meaning of words and lines, but Shraddhavan also has a subtle ability to convey the deeper meanings and profound messages of the poem and bring its powerful atmosphere and presence into the room. She finds ways to respond to even superficial questions in expansive and penetrating ways which reveal something more about the poem. Each class closes with a recording of the Mother reading some passages we have just heard. After we have gone through the entire canto with these detailed explanations, which may take several weeks, we have a special session in which we watch a film of Huta’s paintings of the canto set to Sunil’s music.
‘I am very grateful to have been able to participate in these classes and have been deeply touched by them, as I am sure many, many others have been over the years. While there is no doubt that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have supported the work of both Shraddhavan and Ms. Nandakumar, we are grateful for their being such talented and effective instruments for their work.’
After the messages were read out, Mr. Anurag Banerjee invited Dr. Ananda Reddy and Mr. Narad to felicitate Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Ms. Shraddhavan. Dr. Ananda Reddy and Mr. Narad presented Ms. Shraddhavan and Dr. Prema Nandakumar respectively with the angavasram, trophy and certificate.
[From left to right: Dr. Ananda Reddy, Ms. Shraddhavan, Mr. Anurag Banerjee, Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Mr. Richard Eggenberger alias Narad.]
[From left to right: Mr. Anurag Banerjee, Ms. Shraddhavan, Dr. Ananda Reddy, Mr. Helmut, Dr. Prema Nandakumar and Mr. Narad.]
The ceremony ended with a note of thanks to the recipients, invitees and all the members of SACAR especially Dr. Ananda Reddy, Mrs. Deepshika Reddy and Mr. Miresh for their kind help and assistance. We were also immensely thankful to Prof. Kittu Reddy who graced the ceremony despite his ill health.
With warm regards,
[From left to right: Mr. Narad, Mr. Helmut and Prof. Kittu Reddy.]
Dr. Ananda Reddy with Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan and Mr. Narad.
Dr. Alok Pandey with Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan.
Mr. Narad with Mr. Tekeste Berhan G. Kidan.