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The making of Mirabehn


For writer and publisher RUKUN ADVANI, Madeleine Slade came to life quite by coincidence. It was in 1990, sitting in his publishing office ... Would he be interested in an unpublished manuscript, asked the sender of the message ....

IDLY channel-surfing some months ago, I chanced upon a documentary film about a young Punjabi woman, born to pedigreed bhangra-dancing Sikh agriculturists, who happened to fall at an impressionable age among the Parsis of Bombay. From the time she was 10, she went to school and college with Parsis and, showing an aptitude for Western classical music, learnt to play the piano until she became exceptionally good at the instrument. Soon the rustic odours of her native soil wafted entirely away. It was not the sea breeze of Chowpatti Beach that did it. The more she learnt the piano and the more she enjoyed hearing the pieces she was playing, the more necessary it became for her to breathe the air of a world far-removed from the world into which she had been born. The melodic structures which she was imbibing were more compelling than anything she had ever known in her life as a Punjabi. In the course of learning the piano for a decade, during which the music became more and more like chicken-soup for her soul, she fell in love with Beethoven.

This made me remember the story of another Indian woman of sorts, very different from the first, who also fell in love with Beethoven. This was Mirabehn, once a well-known public figure, who is remembered mainly as the woman who devoted half her life to the service of Mahatma Gandhi. It is almost unknown that, in fact, the first and last love of Mirabehn's life was Ludwig van Beethoven.

Mirabehn was born Madeleine Slade, daughter of a British admiral, and it was her early love of Beethoven's music that made her want to meet one of his biographers, Romain Rolland. Perhaps Rolland sensed she was a woman whose emotions possessed the depth and passion that make people spiritual. At any rate, when she met Rolland, he told her that the only living being worthy of the sort of veneration she had felt for Beethoven was Mahatma Gandhi. The rest followed. Madeleine Slade came to India and, in a way, transferred her musical passions into bhakti for a living saint. Metaphorically - or as Ashis Nandy might put it - she assassinated Beethoven in order to become "Mirabehn". Gandhiji is supposed to have given her that name and, though I am not learned enough to be sure, it would seem too much of a coincidence for him to have named her after the medieval Mira without knowing of the spiritual value she placed on music.

Mirabehn remained in India, "married" to Gandhiji in the celibate way in which women were wedded to Gandhiji, and only his death did them part. There were no recordings of Beethoven that could have sustained her over this period, even if one presumes she craved such sustenance. In effect, therefore, the music of her youth was assassinated by nationalism. Or perhaps Mirabehn's new- found frenzy for the Indian struggle and its leader made her extirpate music from her body much as Gandhiji sought to excise sex from his. People of iron will are often fanatically driven to cauterise from their own psychological make-up those passions they consider "immature", those elements that social philosophies persuade them to see as the superstructural excesses of bourgeois life. Over the early nationalist period, lethal amalgams of Victorian morality, colonial repression, puritanical Christianity and Leninist Marxism - Lenin, incidentally, worshipped and then exorcised Beethoven's sonatas from his mind - seem to have made a lot of famous people feel they would become worthwhile human beings only if they were engaged in some variety of austerity or self-abnegation, such as banishing sex and music from their lives. To people today, not subject to such pressures, such self- repression looks like a form of ennobling insanity. For, as every passionate lover of music knows, the lines with which Keats really intended to conclude his "Ode on a Grecian Urn" were:

Music is sex, sex music -

That's all we know on earth

And all we need to know.

In nationalist history, Mirabehn more or less dies with Gandhiji. She hangs around independent India after her hero is assassinated and then, for all that any historian knows or cares, she disappears into the thickets of Europe. In actual fact, Mirabehn left India to seek her personal resurrection as a lover of Beethoven. Accompanied by a humble Indian serving companion, she lived on the outskirts of Vienna, around the countryside where Beethoven had drawn inspiration for his masterworks. The last third of her life was spent there, in spiritual communion with the man who was, once again, more important to her than Mahatma Gandhi, more important than she herself had guessed. Mirabehn becomes, in short, Aurobindess - a latter-day Aurobindo in woman's garb, the female nationalist turned mystic. For lovers of music, the form her mysticism takes is much more comprehensible than Aurobindo's. For such people, Mirabehn's life is lived before and after nationalism, before she met Gandhiji and after Gandhiji dies.

For me personally, Mirabehn came to life quite by coincidence.

In the year 1990, sitting in my publishing office, I was trying to banish the tunes in my head and become properly something else, somebody focussed on a grand project, somebody driven by a social cause, somebody grand like T. S. Eliot at Faber & Faber. In my mind I wrote a passionate couplet as homage to that poet- publisher, describing life in my office:

And in my room the academics come and go

Talking of Michelfoucault.

It summed up my diurnal round.

Fortunately, the first thing that came into my room that day was not a Foucauldian but a fax. The message was from a woman in Vienna. It said she was writing to me as the trustee of the estate of Mirabehn. Mirabehn had died in Austria a few years earlier, leaving behind some meagre belongings. These included an unpublished manuscript on the Spirit Of Beethoven. Apparently Mirabehn had written this short treatise in her last years, but had not bothered to seek a publisher for it. Would I be interested in publishing the script as a book, asked the Austrian woman who had written the fax? If yes, she would ask Yehudi Menuhin to write a preface to the book. She was writing to me because (a) I was Indian and Mirabehn had loved India; (b) she had heard I was interested in Beethoven; (c) I was a publisher and she had an unpublished script by a friend dear to her on a subject dear to me and her dead friend. The coincidences linking me to Beethoven's spirit were awesome. I badly wanted to publish a script which was not about effing Foucault.

My return fax to Vienna yielded Mirabehn's script within a week. I began reading it at once, bursting at the seams with excitement. Within the hour, I was a pricked balloon. There was very little in the script beyond the ardour of a consummate devotee. Mirabehn had lived in the woods and wandered them in search of Beethoven's spirit. In some senses, she had found fulfilment, she had heard his music afresh after years spent without it, and her joy in having found a god who could not be assassinated, not even within her or by her own self, was apparent. But the script said practically nothing that was not already known about Beethoven and his music. With the deepest regret, I returned the script to its sender.

Both these stories - of the Punjabi-Parsi girl in contemporary Bombay and the English-Indian woman in colonial India and then Austria - say something about the unfathomable power of music. They say, first, that individuals of any race or class can be specially, or perhaps "genetically", predisposed towards highly complex auditory structures, even if there is nothing in their social background to suggest such a predisposition, and even if the structures belong to an alien cultural tradition. The analogy that comes to mind here is of the mathematician Ramanujan, who provides the most brilliant example of a natural predilection for numerical structures. Second, that such a person's exposure to a musical tradition which may be radically dissimilar to his own can yet emotionally and intellectually erase the cultural boundaries within which we generally confine a classical musical tradition. And finally that, once a musical tradition has entered a listener's or a practitioner's bloodstream, it is an infection as impossible to shake off as the AIDS virus.

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