Alice Boner, Swiss devotee of Krishna, companion: The Tribune India

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BN Goswamy

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

“If it is true that culture is a vector of international understanding and that those who promote it are its ambassadors, then Alice Boner indeed deserves to be called ambassador of Indian culture! —Alfred Wuerfel

There are different ways of “describing” – if describing is the right word – Alice Boner. We can say, on the one hand, as has been said: “Alice Boner (1889-1981) was a Swiss painter and sculptor, art historian and indologist. In her drawings, she uses pencil, charcoal, sepia, red chalk, ink and sometimes pastel. His early works focus on drawings, sculptures, portraits, studies of whole bodies, landscapes and observations of nature … ”had made art in the past.

Alice Boner – a portrait.

However, to put it in a clear and precise category is really difficult. It was large and contained “multitudes” as Walt Whitman once said in his “Song of Myself”. Originally from Switzerland, she lived for 40 years in Benares, making this old and impossible to know city her home; she has traveled the world; she knew and worked with 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, Lama Anagarika Govinda, were the kind of people she interacted with and who interacted with her. But when it was all over, she returned to Switzerland, to die there, in 1981.

Women on the Ghats of Benares, painting by Alice Boner

It was in Zurich in Switzerland that I met him. A little. I had met her in India, of course, and had had several conversations with her about art, most of them in Benares at her beloved home in Assi Ghat overlooking the Ganges, where she felt, according to her own words, “fulfilled, happy, calm and supported, as on a gentle stream”. But Zurich is where she had the time and was accessible, living as she did a block from where I had my apartment. She was sweet and frail at the time. And yet, when she spoke, especially about a theme close to her heart – the way painters of the past looked not at what was around them but what was beyond, for example – she did. with bell clarity. But all this time, despite many meetings, I had very little idea of ​​one aspect of her life that she had kept entirely to herself: her attachment to Krishna.

It turned out that she saw herself as his companion and his devotee at the same time. What she felt about it is reflected in her diaries, written in German, which were not accessible to everyone. But we now know a part of it thanks to a publication in the ‘Alice Boner Dialogue Series’, which Johannes Beltz, chief curator of the collections of the Rietberg Museum and its deputy director, and Harsha Vinay, director of the Alice Boner Institute in Benares – real “Bonerites”, if I may add – kindly sent me the other day. The main text of this publication is by John Stratton Hawley, a distinguished scholar who teaches at Barnard College, Columbia University, resides occasionally in Vrindavan and has written extensively on the subject of Surdas and Krishna. This “company” seems to have started in March 1940, or thereabouts, when “He” arrived at Alice’s house in Benares. The fact that she acquired this image of Krishna – little black marble, big eyes, playing her flute, crossed legs standing, not looking at anything and everything, at the same time – is interesting in itself. We read that one day, not far from her own house on the Ganga ghat, she saw a recently widowed woman wearing this image, which belonged to her devout husband. She walked with rushing steps, heading towards the sacred waters in which she wanted to immerse the image. But, a little boldly perhaps, Alice stopped the woman and begged her to give it to him instead of throwing it in the water. Surprisingly, the woman agreed. This is how Krishna entered Alice’s house.

Alice Krishna

We remember that it was a troubling time, the world war had just broken out. As a European, far from home, Alice was very distracted by the news and never ceased to worry about the future of her home, in fact, that of the whole world. “A nameless despair comes over me,” she wrote in her diary. “Life has lost all 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 upheaval of the world … It was a consolation to know that there was someone so great to share my distress and whom I could in the future refuge. She says that in one place she heard “the sob of a flute springing from the lips of pain, from the piercing end of pain … beyond earthly life, released into bliss .. . It was Krishna’s flute “.

There are other passages in his diaries about his relationship with “Krishna-ji”: moving in themselves, but not easy to understand for those unfamiliar with the human condition and the channels through which feelings choose to go. circulate. There are descriptions of times when she saw Krishna pout in false anger for being neglected, or smile when he is reconciled with his devout companion. Surdas could have written about it, or Mirabai maybe? We can only smell a whiff as we gaze at Alice’s favorite image: bathed and dried daily, fragrant tilak on his forehead, sporting the sacred yarn of pure white Yajnopavita cotton draped over his body as he leans back. stands under an arch made of two sparse peacock tail feathers.


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