Four years after publishing a book with selected photos of the Mother, we are happy to present the companion book with pictures of Sri Aurobindo. The basic concept of both publications is the same. We aim at giving access to the depth of spiritual vibration which radiates from Sri Aurobindo's photos. We are not trying to provide a pictorial biography or satisfy intellectual curiosity. Therefore we have purposely refrained from using a chronological sequence to the pictures.
Many of Sri Aurobindo's photos, now being sold, have somehow been touched up or restored from the material that was available. Sometimes the expression of Sri Aurobindo thereby is distorted and not much is left from his original aura, which is the thing we are hunting for in this book. We have avoided as much as possible to repair or improve on the old negatives that we had as the base for this book. Whenever we had several versions of an old picture, we have chosen the less altered one.
There are four categories of pictures. The "historical" pictures of Sri Aurobindo's youth in England and of his political period before his imprisonment; pictures of his prison-time in Alipore and his early stay in Pondicherry; the pictures taken by Cartier-Bresson within a period of just three days in April 1950; and pictures of his Maha samadhi. We had the great good fortune to receive a full set of negatives (there exist three or four such sets) of the Cartier-Bresson photographs; scanned them in Germany; and used them as one of the main materials for this publication. During his short stay in Pondicherry, Cartier-Bresson had not only taken pictures of Sri Aurobindo, but also of the daily Ashram life. Some of those pictures we have reproduced in this book, to let Sri Aurobindo appear in the context of the environment he lived in at that time.
A hint of the timeless planes in which Sri Aurobindo lived inwardly transpires from his physical expression. To capture this hint from beyond, and the message it carries, is what we are aiming at. We have had the courage to subordinate all other aspects and compose the material available in such a manner that it gives this element full freedom to manifest itself.
Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) was one of the remarkable spiritual and literary figures to emerge in the 20th century. After studying for 14 years in England he returned to India in 1893 and took up service under Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda. Although outwardly his life seemed to be uneventful, inwardly he pursued two of his main obsessions - the spiritual quest and India's freedom. He was in close touch with so-called 'extremist' group of the Indian National Congress headed by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. In 1905, the imperious Viceroy Lord Curzon decided to partition Bengal, and that triggered a massive revolt in Bengal which brought the freedom movement out of the conference rooms of the Congress Party on to the streets. Sri Aurobindo resigned his post in Baroda and plunged into the anti-partition movement in Kolkata.
His inspiring editorials in the Karam Yogin and Bande Mataram inspired the whole generation of Bengali youth. In 1908 he was arrested and tried in what came to be known as the historic Alipore Bomb Conspiracy case. To everyone's surprise he was found not guilty by Justice Beechcroft who, by a curious co-incidence, was with Sri Aurobindo in King's College, Cambridge. It was during his incarceration that he had a major epiphany in which he saw the All Pervasive Divine in everything around him. It was in his final peroration that the eminent lawyer Deshbandhu C.R. Das made the famous peroration:-
'My appeal to you is this, that long after the controversy will be hushed in silence, long after this turmoil and agitation will have ceased, long after he is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone, his words will have echoed and re-echoed, not only in India but across distant seas and lands. Therefore I say that the man in his position is not only standing before the bar of this court, but before the bar of the High Court of History'.
It is unusual for an album of photographs to be published without text and not even in chronological order. This is what Michael Bonke did with photographs of The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and has now done for Sri Aurobindo himself Highly evolved spiritual personalities do have a spiritual aura, and this comes through in many of their photographs. Apart from the well-known ones taken by Cartier-Bresson, Sri Aurobindo has numerous photographs taken right from his childhood. My favourite, which we used for the Sri Aurobindo Centenary Celebrations in 1972, is the one that, at my request, he has put at the beginning of the photo-series.
This book will, of course, be treasured by devotees and admirers of Sri Aurobindo in India and around the world. Even for others, the multiple portraits of one of the most remarkable personalities to emerge in India in the 20th century alongwith Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Ramana Maharishi will fascinate spiritual seekers.
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