Ritam "The Twelve Petals of the Matrimandir"

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November 2011

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The Twelve Petals of the Matrimandir

By Chantal Gowa (Shanta)
(Translated from the original French by Shraddhavan)

With immense gratitude to Roger Anger, who offered me the opportunity to work at the Matrimandir and gave me his full trust and all the freedom needed to be creative, and with equal gratitude to his partner Jacqueline who was able to get me moving again and insisted that I continue the work on many occasions when I lost the thread of inspiration.

I thank the Mother for her subtle replies when my questions got entangled with each other ....

Chantal: Thank you for meeting me and accepting this interview. As I told you the other day on the telephone, I go regularly to the Matrimandir, to the inner chamber; and then I take the chance to meditate in the petals when they are open. The great beauty of these small rooms has touched me, and I wanted to know more ...

Shanta: Welcome to my home. Ask me your questions, and I shall try to answer you as truthfully as possible.

Chantal: Before going to the heart of the matter, please tell me a little about yourself and your coming to Auroville.

Shanta: I arrived in Auroville on February 17, 1991, with my son Coriolan, who was 8 years old. It was a turning-point in my life. I had three months ahead of me, and wanted to see something new. I had a small suitcase, a sketchbook, and a very beautiful album of photographs of my paintings and sculptures.

Chantal: What was your first impression of Auroville?

Shanta: A sense of mystery. That first evening, as my son and I were coming up the hill to Auroville in a rickshaw I heard a voice telling me ‘You are coming home’. All around was twilight and silence ....

Chantal: Do you often hear voices giving you messages?

Shanta: No – that was only the second time in my life.

Chantal: And during those three months, you were able to meet Roger Anger, the chief architect of Auroville?

Shanta: Yes, it was as if my journey was being guided from afar. In fact, I didn’t know anything about Roger Anger. But on February 21, the Mother’s birthday, I met an Aurovilian woman who had been here a long time. After seeing the photos of my paintings she literally rushed to the nearest telephone and arranged a meeting with Roger.

On February 24, between two doors at Aurofuture I met this man. He was in a hurry, he could only spare me ten minutes. He took the album I held out to him and gazed at it. When I say ‘gazed’ I am not exaggerating. I could feel his ability to plunge deeply into my work and pierce to the root of the forms and colours. From time to time he lifted his head to look at me, and then plunged back into the catalogue. At the end of 20 minutes, he said, ‘I’m in the middle of preparing an exhibition on education in Auroville for February 28th. Do you have time to help me?’ I had an hour free. ‘An hour is an hour’ he replied. That is how I came to be part of the Aurofuture team.

Chantal: And what did you do in that team?

Shanta: Everything connected with decoration, graphics, painting.

On March 17 1991, a month after her arrival in Auroville, Shanta had a dream of the Mother for the first time.

I was sitting at her feet, on the step of a magnificent sculptured chair. Mother laid her hand on the top of my head and said, ‘Oh, my child, you will have a lot of work here in Auroville. Sounds and colours ....’

Chantal: ‘Sounds and colours’ – did ‘sounds’ turn out to be true as well?

Shanta: I share my life with Heinrich, a retired doctor who dedicates his time to the piano and to music in all its dimensions. In February 2006, Ritam published an article by Heinrich on Scriabin and the relation between sounds and colours in his piece ‘Mystère’. And in our house in Auromodel we have opened ‘La Salle Auropax’, where musicians perform concerts.

Chantal: All this is very surprising, isn’t it? When did Roger speak to you about working for the Matrimandir petals?

Shanta: In 1992 Roger was working on the architectural design of the petals. I saw sketches of oval forms appearing around me one by one. Two Aurovilians had joined him to prepare models as the architectural designs developed. At that time Roger came and asked me whether I would be interested to do some research into the colours for twelve meditation rooms surrounding the Matrimandir, and to create twelve ‘mandalas’ symbolising the qualities represented by the petals.

Chantal: What did you do then?

Shanta: I agreed and set to work. Roger’s partner Jacqueline gave me a plan of the Matrimandir seen from above, with the twelve qualities and the four entrances shown on it. And I received a printed sheet from 1976, with the names of the qualities and the colours given to them by the Mother.

For months I painted samples of colours: hundreds and hundreds of small rectangles, classified

in order from the palest tones to the purest hues. Mix a minute drop of colour with another drop of a different tone, and a new colour would appear ... to identify with the colour, enter into the colour itself, to feel wonder and delight; a complicity with matter that was like a nameless smile. Lola, an Aurovilian who loves painting, came to join me and we shared that approach and that silence.

Chantal: How did you begin creating the ‘mandalas’?

Shanta: I tried to soak myself in the qualities. What do the words ‘Sincerity’ ‘Humility’ ‘Gratitude’ ‘Perseverance’ ‘Aspiration’ ‘Receptivity’ ‘Progress’ ‘Courage’ ‘Goodness’ ‘Generosity’ ‘Equality’ ‘Peace’ mean according to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother? This study drove me to the Ashram archives in search of every document related to these qualities. I read a lot, took notes, and discovered in the writings of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo more and more subtle levels of each quality. A first veil was opening ....

The Aurofuture team had a small studio built inside the architecture office for me to work in. I had good light there, it felt good.

Then I started drawing a circle for each of the qualities, and sketching forms: no preconceived idea: a totally empty space; and in that space I searched, drew, erased, worked, concentrated and in silence. I set off as an explorer, an adventurer, but into a space where peace rules, accompanied only by some definitions of the twelve qualities. First hints of sculptures emerge. I am surprised to find myself working on all the qualities together, despite their apparently different meanings. Creation touches something beyond time.

Chantal: Why do you say, ‘their apparently different meanings’? Why do you use the word ‘Apparently’?

Shanta: If you take the names of the qualities, they are twelve completely different qualities. I shall give you an example: ‘Simple sincerity is the beginning of all progress.’ You realise that progress is involved within sincerity. ‘Peace in the cells, the indispensable condition for the body to progress.’

I go on, ‘To become perfectly sincere, one must not have any preference, any desire, any attraction, any revulsion, any sympathy, any antipathy, any attachment, any repulsion.’ Take the time to soak yourself for a few moments in this quotation from the Mother.

This quotation overwhelmed me, and still does as I speak it now. Through this high level of consciousness you touch peace, courage, humility, all the other qualities. We enter into a vast canvas where each of the qualities will meet each of the others.

Chantal: You are making me feel giddy ... I’m beginning to get an idea of your way of working and moving ahead.

I have read that these meditation chambers were opened for the first time in February 2007 – so you must have worked for fifteen years to complete this task. Is that right?

Shanta: The work took fifteen years, but I did not work visually for fifteen years.

Chantal: Can you make that clearer to me?

Shanta: A fortnight after my first meeting with Roger Anger in 1991 he called me into his office and told me, ‘I’ve seen you at work Shanta. It has been seventeen years since I came to Auroville. I’ve always wanted to open an ‘Art Training Centre’ for young people. I am not here all the time. Would you like to do that in my place?’

Chantal: What a responsibility! I don’t know anything about you. What did you do? What was your reaction?

Shanta: First of all I was extremely surprised. Then I felt above my head a luminous spiral turning around and around. Not knowing what to reply, I asked Roger to give me three days to think.

Chantal: You are becoming more and more mysterious – a luminous spiral?

Shanta: Yes. I knew that this spiral was showing me that I had come to a key moment in my life. I listened to the voice of my heart ... then I saw the chief architect of Auroville again. ‘Roger, it is YES for the Art Training Centre. I will do it. First I must go home, change my visa and sell my things.’

In 1993, Shanta left Aurofuture and followed the Call of the Pyramids, the place where she was to concentrate her energy to open this school of Art and give it a soul. The years passed ... The ‘Art Training Centre’ took off, new artists entered on the scene .... The research into colours for the petals, and the first gropings for forms for the mandalas had fallen into total oblivion.

Chantal: But how is it possible to forget such a big project so totally?

Shanta: The twelve meditation chambers in the petals were not considered a priority at the Matrimandir. The construction of them had not started yet. Those conditions encouraged the forgetfulness – a complete blank. This ‘forgetfulness’ allowed me a deeper concentration for the realisation of each of the projects.

In 1997, Jacqueline telephones Shanta and tells her that the petals are being built, that some of them will soon be ready, and that it is high time for her creation – even urgent. Jacqueline was persistent and confident, calling her several times, and reawoke in her what had fallen asleep in the heart of another realisation.

Shanta: At last I woke up, visited the petals, entered into this inner realm. Then I took up my portfolio again, rediscovered my earlier research, and plunged back into the texts on the twelve qualities.

Chantal: Did you again start working on all the twelve mandalas at the same time?

Shanta: No, not really.

Chantal: What constraints did the architect set for you?

Shanta: I received from Roger the mandala form, which is an ellipse, calculated in proportion to that of Matrimandir itself. On a visit to the incomplete construction of these future small meditation rooms, Roger showed me that the ellipse was to be placed in front of a long thin source of natural light – the only visible source of light in the room. The lighting was to be artificial and invisible.

Chantal: Did these constraints focus your work in a particular direction?

Shanta: Very definitely. I excluded all pictorial ideas for the mandalas and turned towards sculpture, towards the notions of transparancy and then of translucence.

Chantal: How did your first model come into existence?

Shanta: It came thanks to the words of Mother and Sri Aurobindo about the twelve qualities, which I kept always close to me.

Once again I set off on an ‘unplanned journey’. I kept alert for sounds, chance happenings, signs. I began to discover a path by cutting and folding sheets of paper, following the ellipse. The idea of a central point became imperative: a small ellipse at the heart of the mandala: the psychic being awakening?

‘Gives and gives itself without bargaining’ writes Mother about Generosity. Some openings of different sizes in proportion to the Matrimandir created a play of light and shadows. Gradually a first model emerged for the mandala of Generosity, which I enlarged on paper to the original dimension.

Chantal: What material did you want to use for implementing that first model?

Shanta: I didn’t want anything. I make suggestions, and the materials respond.

According to the conditions mentioned before, I first thought of glass. I consulted Michael Bonke who is a specialist in this material. He came to see the model in the petal itself, and after some reflection advised me against using glass, because of the final weight and the complexity of the design.

Chantal: I’m not following you – Matter replies to you?

Shanta: Yes, it is a different way of working. I search, I listen, and I make suggestions.

Chantal: That’s beyond me for the moment. So, what happened?

Shanta: Bhagawandas, an Aurovilian from the early days, offered to prepare for me a fibreglass shell, based on a mould. This ellipse becomes convex and harmonises better with the architectural ensemble.

First I fixed the first model of ‘Generosity’ onto this fibreglass shell, and very soon noticed that the effect was much more interesting if I fixed the model behind the shell. The material is there, you just have to listen to it. And in order to listen to it, I have to be free from preconceived ideas. We set up the whole thing in the Generosity petal. Roger was very enthusiastic.

Chantal: Yes, I think I’m beginning to get the thread of what you are trying to make me understand.

Shanta: A Spanish visitor, a painter of frescos in natural shades, suggested trying out the colour violet in the Generosity petal. A few Aurovilians gathered round him and learned the technique of making frescos. Red and blue, superimposed on each other, gave a shimmering vivid effect. Chittou left me some documents on this technique and on the available colours.

This petal No. 10 became our test meditation room.

Chantal: What was your next model?

Shanta: You are going too quickly. Before moving on to the next model, more years were to pass. Internal disagreements arose at Matrimandir and delayed the work. There were no more workers in the petals. Carlos, an Aurovilian painter for constructions, took charge of this part of the site. He discovered unimaginable mistakes in the proportions of these rooms. It took many years to remove, reconstruct and build afresh.

Chantal: How did you experience these constant interruptions in the work at Matrimandir?

Shanta: I very quickly realised the advantage of these interruptions. A kind of time-magic was happening. In 1991, pastel colours were much appreciated in Auroville. Teachers often mixed colours for children to use, deliberately avoiding all pure colours: red, for example was thought to be too ‘vital’, black had disappeared from the colour circle.

Shanta was dividing her time between the students at the Pyramids and her own work as a painter. In 1998 she withdrew from the Art School to respond again to the call of Roger and Jacqueline.

Shanta: Roger and Jacqueline phoned me – the rebuilding of the petals was going well. We went to take a look together on the site. On this visit I discovered that the colour of Generosity had aged and become greyish – no luminosity left, only sadness. The masonry of the Peace petal was fully finished. I asked Roger to allow me to paint this petal acccording to my feeling. ‘Carte blanche’ he replied.

Chantal: Roger must have had very great trust in you to reply like that?

Shanta: Yes, I think so – and trust allows you to bring out the best of yourself.

So, encouraged by this reply of Roger, I ordered from Germany the most beautiful blue pigment that I know. Carlos and I mixed this pigment by hand with a medium and dynamised water charged with the Mother’s Mantra. A team of seven Aurovilians, all lovers of colour, would hand paint this petal, in a deep Peace, Joy and Silence.

Chantal: What was the reaction from Roger, Jacqueline and others who came to see the result?

Shanta: Everyone was dazzled by this colour – Roger was convinced.

So petal No. 12 was to determine the tonality value of each of the other eleven rooms.

Chantal: I am not an expert in colour – could you explain more?

Shanta: The twelve chambers are inseparable. If you use a pure colour in one petal, all the other chambers must agree with the intensity of this tone. Imagine that the structure of the tweve petals is transparent, and you move from one chamber to the next – you will be in contact with the whole range of colours – so there must be harmony in tone values.

At Matrimandir Shanta shared part of the workshop where people were working on the golden disks. Again she takes up her portfolio and her earlier models of mandalas, and plunges back into her research. The important thing is to work – little by little something descends. The work itself shows the direction.

Chantal: Could you explain this ‘something that descends’?

Shanta: I became aware that these twelve qualities all converge towards the Divine at the most subtle level of their development. This sudden awareness helped me immediately. I started from twelve rays for Peace, rays which join a central ellipse. The geometry became obvious. Each small ellipse, formed in proportion to the Matrimandir itself, will be part of a larger ellipse on different levels: the number twelve will appear at each level.

I felt certain that this Mandala contained within it all the eleven others ... I started searching. I took the Peace mandala, removed ten rays and left the central vertical line visible. No concessions: a line from above, a central nucleus: the number 1 meets the number 12 – and the “symbol” of Sincerity emerges.

Chantal: Do you think that any of the qualities is more important than the others?

Shanta: Yes, Sincerity. Mother said that the yoga of Sri Aurobindo begins with Sincerity. Without sincerity, no yoga is possible. That is why the symbol of Sincerity would be there in all the other eleven mandalas, more or less visibly.

Chantal: I hadn’t noticed that. Very interesting. Did I understand you to say that the Peace mandala contains the eleven others?

Shanta: Yes, that’s right. I was very sincere in this conviction. I managed to discover five more of them (Sincerity, Humility Receptivity, Goodness, Equality). Then I began to feel, really in my body, a taste of boredom. In creative work, boredom is fatal. I’m very alert to this sign, which is trying to tell me: ‘Renew yourself. You have entered on the path of facility. You have found a ‘trick’ and you are playing with it. Find another creative clue.’ I paid attention, and the joy of the research gradually came back.

Chantal: With this taste of renewal, which petals came next?

Shanta: Generosity.

Chantal: But hadn’t you already completed that?

Shanta: Yes, but I was not satisfied. I couldn’t feel any generosity in that first proposal. It was as I walked around in Auroville that I rediscovered the illimitable generosity of nature: the long seed-pods of that magnificent tree the flamboyant, for example. If you open one you will be amazed by the internal arrangement, so velvety, so magically organised. Hundreds of seeds are sleeping there in this perfect cradle. It was from the core of that beauty that I drew the inspiration for the tenth petal.

Then Perseverance ... ‘Face all difficulties with a smile ...’ ‘We continue the work that has been begun for as long as necessary ...’ The central ellipse, the vertical line of Sincerity, and many small cells, very regularly cut out horizontally.

Chantal: So far you have always been using the word ‘model’. How did you implement these symbols?

Shanta: I met Joël at Matrimandir, and through him I met Zamir, who has a fibreglass workshop at Bangalore. This workshop is only a few metres away from Joël’s aircraft factory. Zamir and his workers had never done the kind of work I brought him, but he was ready to try.

As soon as I had completed the models, I went to Bangalore with Joël and his partner Sneha, stayed with them, and went to the factory every morning. In this way I followed the making of the twelve Mandalas.

Chantal: Was it absolutely necessary for you to follow the work so closely?

Shanta: I would say it was indispensable. Zamir would supply me with a convex shell on which I would very carefully draw the relevant model. Then I worked with the employees, cutting, sanding, glueing. We made a very good team – the eye of the perfectionist was at work.

Chantal: And what were the last mandalas to be carried out in Bangalore?

Shanta: Aspiration, Courage and Gratitude. These last three were technically difficult to make, especially Gratitude. For this one, I had to make two fresh starts. It was as if Gratitude was not managing to come down. After a lot of reflection and a good night’s sleep I started work the next day in a different way. We completed the manufacture in Joël’s factory with one of his specialists.

Chantal: How did you experience these times of working in the factory or workshop?

Shanta: Physically it was quite challenging, the almost constant noise, the sometimes nauseating smells – but I knew that I had to follow these unique creations through to the end. In another way, these long days with the workers were very enriching. I was a worker of the divine through matter, and always connected with Auroville. Joël and Sneha were wonderful in their way of looking after me. We wove golden threads of friendship.

Chantal: I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but would you mind sharing more of your most significant experiences in connection with the colours? How could you tell that a particular colour corresponded exactly with a petal quality?

Shanta: I tried to put myself in harmony with the sound and the colour – the sound of the petal quality, its vibration, and the same for the colour. It is a new world to be perceived, a sensitivity to be rediscovered. The choice becomes clear, beyond our personal taste. But how often I had to call the Mother to help me!

After painting the Peace petal, I again started preparing colour samples, but this time based on high quality pigments that cannot be found in India.

In the course of this work, I learned that the cadmium colours (yellow and red pigments) become harmful on large surfaces. So my aim was to find non-toxic colours. I consulted many Indian paint suppliers, but each time the colour trials gave an effect of plastic which seemed to have no radiance. I remember exactly the day when I was sitting on the ground in my own studio at Auromodel and saying to the the Mother, ‘Listen Mother, I am working for you; you are not in your body and I can’t simply go and ask your advice. I don’t know what you are visualising for the petals, I’m willing to go on being an instrument of yours for the work, but then give me a sign, show me what I should do, what I must use, I have no idea any more.’

That very day, in the late afternoon, my eyes were drawn to one of the shelves where I had kept Indian powder colours used in 1991! I rushed there and brought out this decaying treasure. In my whole body I felt a complicit delight – Mother was replying to me.

In the end, we unanimously chose this quality of colours whose mat velvetiness now shines from the walls.

Chantal: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Shanta: I would have a lot more things to add, but it feels as if part of the essential has been said. I am happy that Roger Anger was able to see the Matrimandir completed, he who was called to build the City of Auroville, the Galaxy. I had the joy of showing him all the finished petals. A few days after that visit, I passed by his studio and he told me ‘I surprised myself by letting you work freely as I did ... You should take the time to prepare a publication about these twelve meditation chambers.’

Work once completed belongs to no one in particular. If Nature generously bestows some gifts on us, let us develop them to progress further and spread them anew.

To close, would you agree, Chantal, to share a moment of Silence?