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Elizabeth Brunner







Fairy Tales around

19th May 1996 

Elizabeth and her meeting Gandhiji 



Sunday, the 19th of May 1996  

            Elizabeth looked and felt well when I came that Sunday to spend, for once, the entire day with her. She wanted not even a siesta. So we had a whole day session of talking about the past.

                Mother and daughter stayed for two years in Santiniketan, a small university town in West Bengal. They had been invited by Tagore. The mother mostly meditated and painted those beautiful visionary paintings. Elizabeth was more fascinated by the people and sites of the surroundings. She painted Tagore many a times. Also the various students and people in and around Santiniketan.

                After those two years, Tagore advised mother and daughter to travel in India, which they did between 1932 and 1935. They travelled the length and the breadth of India, visited most of the holy places. They discovered and painted the enchanting natural beauty which is India, and the many varied people of the land.  

... It was the time when the 'Gulmohar' was blooming...

            Elizabeth started off that morning, "I don't know what we should talk about. The early times, the middle times, the later times?" "Any time, any time", smiled Dagmar, "but I love to hear about your past, dear Elizabeth. Where were you and your mother after the Second World War?" "In Nainital, we were prisoners of war.  -  You see, well, you have seen the Japanese paintings?" Elizabeth asked. "Yes," Dagmar answered. "That was before the war. Was it before the war?" Elizabeth asked herself, "wait, I will work it out." Dagmar confirmed silently that, yes of course, Japan was before the Second World War.

Elizabeth started off again, "should I start a bit earlier? We were travelling in the South of India and we wanted to paint. What was the name of the town? Seringapatan perhabs. Anyway, a beautiful place. It was the time when the 'Gulmohar' was blooming. My mother painted. There were too many mosquitoes, though. I got malaria. During my first bout of malaria at a place called Sravana-Belgola I was given quinine injections. By the end of about a month I was sufficiently recovered to accompany my mother to Belur and Halebid. So because of my illness we went to Bangalore and there we met Gandhiji."  


            Dagmar made sure: "Where did you meet Gandhiji?" Elizabeth said, "in Bangalore. But the South Indian trip was also very beautiful, picturesque, and my mother was in full ..." Dagmar, "action". "Yes," said Elizabeth. "But I had become ill with malaria. I had another bout of malaria in Pondicherry, and another one each in Chidambaram and Mysore. So mother decided with a sick girl it may be difficult to go anywhere. And we stopped in Bangalore where we had already some recommendation. The Theosophical Society got us a very beautiful bungalow to stay in, with a huge garden. So my mother decided to take this house and she said, 'you can rest and recuperate'. In Bangalore I had once again malaria. Three days and nights fever, the nastiest malaria I had.

            Then mother first organized me and she organized herself. Locked herself in. She thought she can start painting from memory and from her sketches. Make her painting as she would like to have done," Elizabeth continued. "As if she were in nature," put in Dagmar. "Yes," Elizabeth, "she was always sketching. And she got into a meditative phase also. She locked the doors, nobody was allowed in. Only that one person from the Theosophical Society looked in and saw that we were alright, whether we need anything. Mother also got a person who taught me English, so that was my work. I also painted a little. But she locked herself into her room where nobody was permitted to go. And I did not know what she was doing.  


            One day the news came that Gandhiji was released from jail and was making a tour of the South. So we became very excited, as his programme included Bangalore. People were permitted to receive him in a Girls School. The Girl's Schools and compounds in those days where surrounded by extremely high walls, because girls where not yet open to books. So we also went there. There was also a band to play, the same we have now in marriage times. There were some pillars outside the front veranda. So my mother said it would be better to go to the very end of this veranda and wait there and see what happens. She settled herself halfway visible halfway covered by a pillar. But I was standing outside. And, as time went by, more and more people came and the crowd grew. At the entrance of the veranda the dignitaries and officials were waiting. But the people were coming like a flood. So mother was half covering herself and I am standing in the middle of it all. Because I also wanted to see. And those coming people washed me ahead, pushed me towards the entrance. Only a little bit of space was there for the cars to arrive.  


            The government had arranged for Gandhiji and his party to stay in that beautiful government guesthouse in a park in Bangalore. But here was the public reception." Dagmar asked, "in the girls school." "Yes, continued Elizabeth, "suddenly I am being pushed, but I could not fall down because of all the people. Otherwise my nose would have been on the ground. Everybody was blindly pushing forward. Stepping on my feet, they did not see. Finally the car arrived and, lo and behold, Gandhiji was sitting up on a chair in the car. So that the people could see him. He looked our way and got down, the band was playing. The dignitaries were walking to receive him.

            But he looked at nobody and, very intensely, was only trying to push through the incredible crowd. He reached me and I was trying with outstretched arms to protect him, he was so ...

small! The crowd had not quite realised that he was in the middle of them. But somehow he managed to pass and reached my mother. He walked up to her and embraced her. Never seen before. And he said, 'I know you!' By the time I reached them, the multitude was still going, pushing to see him at the entrance of the veranda. The reception committee was not knowing what to do. On top of the veranda no public was permitted.

            So, Gandhiji and my mother looked at each other for a few minutes. Then he turned and he gave me a huge lovable slap. And then he took each of us on one side and walked to the entrance." "Towards the reception committee," smiled Dagmar. "Yes," Elizabeth. "We all went, of course all the protocol and dignitaries, went inside. By the way, that English lady was also in his party." "Annie Besant?" asked Dagmar. "No," Elizabeth and Dagmar asked Mr. Lutoria, "who was that English lady working with Gandhiji?" He mused, "Annie Besant, Mira Behn?" Elizabeth continued, "Mira Behn! (British Admiral Slade's daughter) I painted her also ... We went into inner courtyard. There was a dais for Gandhiji. The meeting was for women only and hundreds of them were seated in the compound. At the end of his speech (which we could not understand as it was in Hindi) he seemed to be making some kind of appeal, in response to which the women got up, taking off their ornaments and bringing them to him."

            "At that time you got your opportunity to paint him Elizabeth, we all know it because we have seen the beautiful paintings," Dagmar started again. "O yes," continued Elizabeth, "a very special opportunity. Now for me the real Gandhiji comes. When he finished his talk, he came down from the dais and invited my mother and me to come to his prayer meeting that evening, which was held on the lawns of the government guesthouse. So we went. And, as my mother would always do it, we would sit at the very end of the multitude so that she could do her quick sketches. Gandhiji was sitting under a huge tree in that garden, on both sides three girls were sitting, who sang. He spoke in Hindi, then prayers and then singing. When it was all finished and people were dispersing, I all of a sudden realized that this was my opportunity.

            He was going back with two escorts to the building. Suddenly I realized that this is the moment when I can request him. So I rushed through the crowd and just reached him when he was going through the door upstairs. Then I said, 'Bapuji, Bapuji?' He stopped and looked at me. I said, 'I have a request. I would like to paint you, please give me time.' He looked at me strangely smiling and said, 'why do you want to paint an ugly man like me?' I replied, 'but Bapuji, I want to paint your soul.' He said, 'how much time do you want?' I replied, 'half an hour.' He look at me doubtfully and said, 'do you little chick of a girl beg to say that you can paint my soul in half an hour?' I said, 'but Bapuji, can you prove that I can't?' So he looked at me quizzically and said, 'you will have that half an hour tomorrow afternoon'.

            This conversation was overheard by a group of eager newspaper men who were accompanying Gandhiji during the whole tour. Seeing the expression on their faces, I realised what a challenge I had undertaken. They declared that they would all be there at the end of the half hour to see the result. For a moment I felt very nervous, but then my overwhelming joy at being able to undertake the portrait gave me fresh courage.

            My mother accompanied me and when we arrived at about three o'clock we were told that this was Gandhiji's silent day. It was a Monday, the eight of January 1934. I was shown in and found him sitting on a veranda, sorting out some papers. Giving me a glance, he took out his watch and placed it in front of him. Then he returned to his papers. It was a damp, cold, grey afternoon and he was wearing a Kashmiri shawl, only. I felt chilly on the veranda and the thought of the thirty newspaper men waiting below did not make me feel any warmer. The possibilities of a good position were limited and every moment was precious. I must begin at once. As Gandhiji looked down at his papers, his face was hardly visible. Perhaps he sensed my dilemma, for he looked over his glasses at me as if to suggest that I should go ahead.  

The portrait of the Mahatma, Elizabeth and her mother in 1934

            This glance encouraged me and I began to work feverishly. At the end of the half hour, he wrote on a slip of paper, 'the thirty minutes are over!' I explained to him that I was due to paint another ten minutes, as the first ten minutes had been taken up with necessary preparations (the setting up of my easel, etc.). So he nodded in agreement and I continued to paint. When after the ten minutes the portrait was finished and I handed it over to him, his face lit up with approval, and he willingly wrote his signature. I was grateful beyond words and went down to face the newspaper men with confidence. So all over India the news was flashed, 'Hungarian artist paints the Mahatma in half an hour'."

                Gandhiji was one of those uniquely special men of our century. He was born on 02.10.1869 in Kathiawar as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and killed on 30.01.1948 in New Delhi as The Mahatma (Great Soul).

                As a lawyer in South Africa, he called for the resistance of discrimination against black men. 1914 he came back to India and went, at the top of the National Congress Party, against the British rule in India.

                He was an extremely religious and ascetic man, who, all his life, went by the ideas of 'ahimsa' (no killing) and 'satjagraha' (fight without weapons). He succeeded in the abolition of the so-called 'untouchables' cast. In defiance against the British

                textile industry he advocated spinning and home spun textiles in India. He broke the British monopoly on salt production and walked through India on his famous 'salt march'.

                He died in the attempt to leave a united motherland (which is now Pakistan, Bangladesh and India).

            Elizabeth continued with her story, "We met Gandhiji again the next day. And then he invited us to stay with him when he should be in Koonoor, as he would be staying there for two weeks and the change would be good for me. By the time we arrived in Koonoor, I was in the throes of another spell of malaria, which the chilly hills seemed to have aggravated. He himself came to our room to see whether we had all we needed, and was very concerned to see how ill I was. At his request, we were describing the course of the illness to him. Then suddenly he turned to one of his attendants and asked for a glass of hot milk. When this came, he took it in his hand and held it to my mouth. With feverish eyes I looked at him and asked to be excused from drinking it, as for eight years my mother and I had not partaken on any food or drink derived from animal sources.

Taking my face between his hands he said, 'please drink it for my sake', and I could not refuse. Within less than an hour my fever had left me. When he visited me later, he pressed me to continue drinking milk while I was in India, as he believed it was a necessity for my health.

            Our fortnight at Koonoor with Gandhiji was extremely pleasant. We spent the days taking part in his daily routine and painting. Gandhiji worked practically all day, writing, reading, interviewing, and attending meetings. The morning and evening prayer meetings were attended by large crowds of people. Besides the singing of simple hymns, he would arrange for readings to be given from the Gita, the Bible, the Koran, and other holy books of different religions."

            After Mary's lunch, which Lutoria Sahib, Elizabeth and her animals and I enjoyed, we talked about the name Brunner and she told me that, as it was a German name, her father changed it into Sass.

            Elizabeth started, "you see it was not fashionable in Hungary to call yourself Brunner at that time because of the negative German influence all over Europe. So he took up an artist name. That was quite common at the time. He loved the birds in the sky that are 'sas', but he put the name with a double 's' Sass." Dagmar asked, "which bird?" And Elizabeth answered, "the eagle". "O, 'sas' means eagle in Hungarian?" Dagmar repeated. "Hm," Elizabeth, "and he became Ferenc Sass. But not by law. It was an artist name. And they called me 'Shash Baba' [Elizabeth's pronounciation]. Even when I grew up I was 'Shash Baba'.

            We kept quiet for some time. But then Elizabeth carried on: "And at a party, or the place were mother learned conventional dancing, one of her friends mentioned, now you need not go to Budapest, there is a school of painting opened in Nagykanizsa [Elizabeth pronounced it Nochkonisha] and this is the artists' name and address.

            My mother could not wait two minutes and registered herself in the school. Her family was debating and debating, and finally allowed her to join my father's studio. And she was so excited," Elizabeth's voice was quivering more then usual.



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Copyright Dagmar Barua 1997 Sass Brunner East West Trust, 75, Rabindra Nagar, New Delhi - 110 003