The Samadhi Murals, Part 1: Helen Dahm
In the 1930s, among the Europeans who came into Meher Baba’s orbit was the Swiss artist Helen Dahm. Helen was first introduced to Baba in Zurich in 1932 and she came, at Baba’s invitation, to live in the Meherabad ashram in 1938. At first Baba did not allow Helen to paint at all, but later he instructed her to paint the interior of His future tomb. It is her work there that we are so familiar with today.
Mani used to tell us her impressions of Helen in 1938. She was recognized in the ashram as an accomplished artist and she had an air of mystery and eccentricity about her. Helen didn’t speak English so communication was quite limited, Mani recalled. Mani had a lasting impression of Helen’s bold style of walking around on the Hill in a rather manly manner, wielding a fist full of paintbrushes, a cigarette dangling from her lips. Mani was 20 years old at the time; Helen was 60.
Hedi Mertens, another of Baba’s lovers from Switzerland, also recalled Helen’s time in the ashram (from an interview appearing in an unpublished collection compiled by Ove M. Wittstock). She said Helen had a difficult time adjusting to the ashram life. “Helen Dahm couldn’t fit in with Baba. That is the story of her life—she never was able to fit in.”
Helen Dahm was from Oetwil, a village in Switzerland where she spent most of her life and where she died in 1968 at the age of 90. She was troubled emotionally for years, particularly in the 1930s following her separation from her life partner of 20 years, art historian Else Strantz. When she came to Baba it was after a period of serious depression. In preparing to come to India Helen insisted on selling her house in Oetwil and giving the money to Baba, to pay for her stay. Hedi Mertens recalls a touching interchange at Meherabad. Baba was discussing the need for financial support for Helen, suggesting that 120 Swiss francs per month would be needed. Helen did not like the idea of accepting support. Baba replied, “Why are you so proud? I accepted your gift of your house.” Helen said, “But why are we having this discussion? I came to stay here for life.”
But Helen Dahm did not stay in Baba’s ashram for life. She traveled on the early Blue Bus tours around India with Baba. She fell ill and had to be hospitalized in Bhopal in 1939. Baba sent her home to Switzerland after this, along with Hedi Mertens, and she never went back to India.
Helen did meet Baba again in July 1956 in Switzerland, when Baba stopped there for one day to meet His lovers. Hedi recalled a spirited conversation with Helen prior to this meeting. Thinking Helen was drifting away from Baba, she said to her, “You know Baba is with you all the time.” And Helen replied, “Do you want to say that Baba painted my pictures? I endured them through my loneliness and I painted them.”
After returning from India, Helen lived again in Oetwil and continued to paint throughout the rest of her life. She employed many spiritual themes in her work and was known as a mystic. Helen received recognition for her body of work by the City of Zurich and a museum of her work exists in the village Oetwil.
“In my life I have passed near the quicksands. It is grace that I did not sink. And grace if, through my pictures, I can give something of lasting worth.” (Helen Dahm)
—Irene Holt for Avatar Meher Baba Trust, 24 September 2015