Champaklal was not only a respected member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, but almost an institution in himself. His devoted and meticulous personal service to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother for over fifty years was an inspiring example of selfless service. His helpfulness to devotees who sought the Mother’s blessings and advice on personal questions made him a friend and well-wisher of all. His impressive physical features -a big head, with a flowing beard, a robust body -and a sense of purity about him, lent awe to his unique personality .The Mother called him her lion!
It is surprising that in spite of the rigorous of his constant attendance upon Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and his innumerable small but essential tasks, he could still find time to develop his artistic interests. This was only possible because of his deep urge to express himself through form and colour. Apart from dedicated service to the Master and the Mother, painting seems to have been his second love. This was an inborn capacity which grew in him and found scope for development in the Ashram.
Champaklal’ s upbringing from early days sheds light on many traits of his character, especially his simple and deeply devotional nature. He was born in Patan on 2 February 1903. His father was Chhotalal and mother Umiya. He was the second of four sons and one daughter. Theirs was a Brahmin family serving the religious requirements of the Hindu community of the town, as the surname Purani indicates: Puranis were the traditional priests engaged in reading out Puranas before Hindu audiences and conducting religious rites for families and for the community at large.
From his childhood Champaklal showed a character and temperament quite out of the ordinary .He insisted on having the best whenever he needed something, but he always took good care of it. He was conscious in all he did, so that his work was flawless and perfect. He used to paint doors and windows and even helped his mother in household work, generally a prerogative of the daughter of the house. He was not interested in studies and did not go beyond the fifth class in school. Nor did he study the Puranas and other religious scriptures as demanded by family tradition and the priestly profession. What he learnt of the ancient lore was from the stories he heard from his father in his childhood. His father was a liberal man who did not impose anything on his children. He knew that his son was a simple boy and indulged him in his childish occupations.
Even as a child Champaklal aspired to live constantly in the presence of someone like Sri Ramakrishna. He was fascinated by Ramakrishna’s life and the intensity of his devotion to Kali, the Divine Mother. Champaklal once observed: “I started my higher life after reading Sri Ramakrishna. I liked him very much and on reading him I lost all interest in ordinary life.” His aspiration to live in the presence of someone spiritually great was, of course, later fulfilled.
At the age of fifteen Champaklal met a devotee of Sri Aurobindo who asked him to follow the path of Sri Aurobindo. His desire to see Sri Aurobindo grew very strong and in 1921 he got the opportunity to visit Pondicherry . On seeing Sri Aurobindo for the first time, Champaklal prostrated himself before him arid remained in that condition for almost one hour. During his stay of eight days in Pondicherry , he met Sri Aurobindo every day. In one of their conversations, he told Sri Aurobindo that at times he felt peace and also saw light. Sri Aurobindo explained to him: “You see, the Peace which you feel shows that God is near you, and the Light shows that you can meet Him in that Peace and gradually you will be able to stay in This.”
Champaklal’s week-long stay in Pondicherry made a very favourable impression on Sri Aurobindo; lie understood the young man’s sincerity and dedication to the spiritual life. Later, when Champaklal wrote a beautiful letter to him, Sri Aurobindo instructed one of his disciples to bring Champaklal along when he visited Pondicherry again.
Champaklal’s diary of this period, written in Gujarati, shows his inner conflict and his great yearning for God. In one place he writes: “What have you done about the practice of sadhana shown to you by Arvind Babuji? Free yourself, free yourself from pride and attachment. What a shallow life! Have you come here for worldly attachments? Follow the straight path of faith. …O God, show me Thy mercy; give me Thy refuge!”
Champaklal’ s aspiration to be with Sri Aurobindo was fulfilled two years later. In 1923 he came back to Pondicherry to offer himself in the service of the Divine, never to return again to worldly life. His service of five decades to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother was one-pointed and constant. This was his supreme Sadhana. As a matter of fact, he looked upon Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as his real parents and they accepted him as their child.
Champaklal once admitted that he had not read many works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother other than Sri Aurobindo’s book, The Mother. During his first visit to Pondicherry , he had asked Sri Aurobindo what he should read. Sri Aurobindo recommended shandilya sutra and Prakriti Rahasya in Gujarati; he even told him where to get them from. Prakriti Rahasya (The Secret of Nature) deals with Apara and Para Prakriti. The higher or Para Prakriti is known as the Mother .
It is very difficult to summarise Champaklal’s long service, which passed through all the phases of the developing life of the Ashram, reflecting many aspects of the life of the community and the workings of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. When he came in 1923, the Ashram was a group of only ten to fifteen persons; when the Mother left her body in 1973, it had become a community of nearly two thousand, humming like a beehive with activity. The Mother’s one or two serious illnesses in the 1930s, the leg accident that Sri Aurobindo met with in 1938 and the last days of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, were all traumatic experiences for Champaklal; at the same time they greatly added to his duties and resulted in a constant rescheduling of his other programmes. But though the physical strain greatly increased over the years, there was never any laxity in his work nor any sagging of devotion. He had to cope with the frequent change of the Mother’s activities, especially after the Ashram School was started in 1943, the Department of Physical Education in 1945 and the Centre of Education in 1952.
In 1950, when Sri Aurobindo left his body, Champaklal suffered a tremendous emotional shock, but he never wavered in his work. The Mother depended on him for innumerable small services; he alone was able to do them because he alone knew what the Mother needed at any particular time. Whatever came under his charge, he had to keep in order, because the Mother was an exacting master as far as order was concerned; and she expected that material things would be cared for well. All this gave Champaklal a strict discipline, but also the rewarding joy of faithful and sincere service. Nobody except the Mother knew what this demanded in terms of vigilance of spirit and tireless self-offering. The following tribute she paid to him is perhaps the highest one could think of for one whose whole aim was to serve Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as Hanuman served Sri Rama:
Nirod says: “Champaklal was not a bhakta of the traditional type, but one who has chosen service as the means of self- expression and fundamental realisation. ..that is exactly the spirit he maintained unflinchingly throughout the long decade that we lived and worked together. ”
After the Mother left her body in 1973, Champaklal had to reorganise his life. He put in order everything he had so far looked after and passed on many things to the departments concerned. We now find that in his diaries, he maintained voluminous records of Sri Aurobindo’s life, his daily engagements and activities, numbering more than five thousand pages. Of those who served the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, the two who kept such records were Dyuman and Champaklal. Dyuman dealt with the physical life of the Ashram, Champaklal with the personal life of the Master and the Mother .
After a time Champaklal freed himself from most of his duties, took the vow of silence and went out to see the world, visiting various centres of Sri Aurobindo’s disciples. The vast natural beauty of God’s wonderful world now opened wide before him, particularly the snow covered mountain ranges of the Himalayas with their floral and faunal grandeurs, for which he had cherished -, a subconscious attraction for long. He was received with love and respect by all in the United States, France, Germany, England, Singapore and many other parts of the world and India in particular .” Around 1988 his health began to deteriorate seriously and no treatment could give him relief. In 1992, while he was convalescing at a health clinic in Jantral, near Baroda, Gujarat State, he passed away; his departure occurred on May 9 at 8.15 p.m.
Champaklal had a rare capacity for visions and dreams. This line of spiritual development began to flower from 1929. These dreams and visions reveal the cardinal principles of the sadhana that he followed. They have been collected in the book Visions of Champaklal, published in 1990, with significances explained by his discerning friends.
Champaklal’s two books, Champaklal Speaks and Champaklal’s Treasures, are valuable contributions to the literature on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. With Nirodbaran’s Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo and Memorable Contacts with the Mother, they give us an inside view of the daily life of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, a view which would have otherwise remained unknown to us.
Champaklal had absolute trust in Divine Grace as reflected in his “Prayers and Utterances” (Gujarati). These utterances spring from authentic experiences and total dedication. There is a constant flow of pure and true feelings of a devoted heart and the fragrance of Sat-Chit-Ananda.
Champaklal once showed the Mother one of his early attempts at drawing and asked: “How is it? Will I be able to learn?” The Mother replied, “To learn means months and months of study before any picture can be done; studies from nature, drawing first for a long time, painting only after .”
Champaklal again asked her after some months, “Is there any possibility in me of doing something creative or original in drawing? If so, what should I do?” “Go on doing,” the Mother said, “and it will come of itself at its own time. You are progressing rapidly.”
Sri Aurobindo also wrote of him once, “Champaklal has a natural talent already developed to an unusual degree. ” Another time he wrote, “You have the capacity .You have only to be steady in your endeavour.”
All this was back in the 1930s when the Ashram was a small community and there was leisure for sadhaks to practise painting, poetry and music. This was the period when Champaklal achieved all he could with the encouragement of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. He was aided by the supportive atmosphere created by artists like Sanjiban and Krishnalal, who continued their artistic activities after joining the Ashram; he benefited much from their company. Then came 1938 when Sri Aurobindo fractured his leg. This brought a big change and kept Champaklal very busy with personal service to Sri Aurobindo for the next twelve years.
As a boy in Patan Champaklal often copied from copy books – perhaps from the Foster Series, which was common in those days. His copies of animal drawings from such books are still with us. At the age of twelve he passed a drawing examination conducted by the Government which even older boys failed; this confirms his interest and ability in drawing. Of his early copies, the most interesting is one of Sri Ramakrishna with the image of Mother Kali in the background. The entire drawing is very well executed, though after starting to colour it, he did not finish, perhaps for want of time. After coming to Pondicherry also, he made copies of some Japanese prints in black lines. It is only in the early thirties that he started painting from nature. He began with flower studies and everyday painted a new flower and offered it to the Mother. These studies together with the significances given by the Mother were gathered into three albums and referred to for a long time. He later did still-life and even attempted figure drawings. As we have already mentioned, Champaklal’ s best artistic period was in the 1930s. During this decade he made great progress in art. His beautiful paintings of lotuses and his fine still- life drawings and paintings were done at this time. His drawing of an earthen water jug and his painting of the interior of the Library-room (reproduced here in the album) are perhaps the best examples of this period. The break that came in 1938 more or less put a stop to his painting work. But he still kept his interest in art alive. We find from his diaries that he used to show reproductions of the Bengal School to the Mother and note down her comments on them. During the 1938-50 period, many paintings by eminent artists were shown to Sri Aurobindo for his comments; Champaklal was present at these dialogues on art and other subjects which became a veritable training ground in culture for those who had the privilege of serving Sri Aurobindo.
The second and final phase of Champaklal’ s artistic work began in the 1950s. He saw an exhibition in the Ashram of paintings made with bright colours by a foreign visitor. They struck him as representing subtle realities behind the world we know. He thought to himself, “This is the type of pictures I have always wanted to paint. I have been waiting for an opportunity to paint them.” Champaklal had attempted once before with some free brush-work to realise his dream, but he had not succeeded. Then, long after this exhibition of boldly coloured paintings, he witnessed the technique of “marbling”. Here, he felt, was the method he had been waiting for, the medium he had not found so far. He set about experimenting with the technique by himself. After some trials on small bits of paper he saw the possibility of expressing his feelings and intuitions through marbling.
In this technique, one generally uses three or four colours, either oil paints or varnish paints. The colours are poured on water in a tray and while they float on the surface, the water is gently stirred so that the colours break up into different forms and movements. When a piece of paper is placed over this surface and then carefully lifted up, the colours sticking to it make a surprising and fascinating design, an unexpected pattern of colours and forms. One has very little control over the shape and structure of the design, but this is what gives it a character of its own.
Champaklal used this challenging technique not with any fixed idea or superficial notion, but as a way of expressing the emotions and intimations which sprang from a deeper consciousness in him. He may not always have been conscious of what he was trying to achieve, but in some works at least he deliberately attempted to produce something which corresponded to his feelings or inner perceptions. In such cases he got the result only after many trials. Choosing colours, mixing them and giving movement to the water-surface was prompted mainly by his consciousness at the time.
The Mother gave titles to many of these paintings after looking into the movement of forces they suggested; these revelatory captions focus on the hidden meaning they represent. To those who are sensitive in their imagination and can feel the inner impact of these pictures, they bring a strong sense of the wondrous – an outburst of light and delight taking mystic and dynamic colour-shapes through the inspiration of an artist who has striven to lose himself in the Unknown.
We may say that in one sense there is nothing in life or art like accident, chance or fluke, even when the result is most unexpected. Marbling is a fine field of experimentation in which unpredictable, unimaginable forces play through what is apparently accidental. It is a new line of creative work far removed from the traditional. Like surrealism and painting in trance or a half-conscious condition, marbling can be a field for the expression of hidden influences and occult movements and realities. Certainly this should not be made a fetish; to go beyond its suggestive limits would be to turn it into a pseudo art-form, a decorative jugglery of some sort.
At one stage Champaklal also did a number of graphic designs with colour pencils or felt-pens. These interesting designs have a spontaneity about them and are far from being conventional patterns or mere decorative motifs. There are also a few paintings in which Champaklal has attempted to translate his visions into form and colour. These have a boldness of colour and originality of conception so natural to him.
There was one special artistic duty which Champaklal had to perform, often on an urgent basis. On birthdays and other occasions, the Mother used to send to sadhaks and devotees , pictorial cards with her blessings and sometimes a personal message. It was Champaklal’s duty to prepare these cards. It was his originality and artistic skill which made them very often unique in design. It became indeed a craft of skill in his hands and the Mother complimented him on a number of occasions. She even wrote, “Champaklal is an artist.” This work was not as simple as it may appear. It took hours of labour and ingenuity . At times, he had to make eight or ten such cards in one day. Can one imagine that he did this work, besides other things, for thirty years or more? On Champaklal’s birthday in 1964, the Mother wrote:
The great doer of cards
This card is to tell him my appreciation of all what he has done and my expectation for still better things to come .
Again, the next year the Mother asked: 2.2.1965
Champaklal, master of the ” cards ” , how to prepare a card for you ?