The Samadhi Murals, Part 2: Painting

In 1938 Baba instructed Swiss artist Helen Dahm to paint the interior of His future tomb with colorful murals. Helen was living in the ashram on the Hill along with the other women mandali from the East and West. The walls and dome of Baba’s tomb had recently been built above the crypt He had long used as a place for His seclusion work.

Another Swiss Baba lover living in Baba’s ashram, Hedi Mertens, assisted Helen in painting the murals in Baba’s tomb. Her account (from an interview in an unpublished collection compiled by Ove M. Wittstock) gets quite lively when she describes the fun they had with the painting.

There was a bamboo scaffolding constructed inside for painting the upper walls and the dome. Helen at first did not trust the safety of the scaffolding but Baba assured her it was Indian scaffolding and quite safe! But Helen refused to go up, saying she would only go up if Baba went up first! Finally Hedi had to go up first and then Helen followed. Hedi would hold the palette, paints and brushes, mix the colors and hand Helen the paint-laden brush. Helen would hold onto the bamboo structure, or Hedi’s hand, with one hand and the paintbrush with the other as she painted the figures in the dome. “I told Helen she didn’t have enough space and she should make the Apostles slimmer,” Hedi laughed.

The Dome Mural. (Photo courtesy of Homyar J. Mistry)

Helen had a bold, free-flowing, impressionistic style and the paintings we see there today glow with a mystical warmth and charm. Within are three beautiful portraits of Baba: one on the left wall, one on the right wall, and one in the ceiling dome showing Baba surrounded by the “apostles.”

Portrait of Baba from the East (right) Wall.

Portrait of Baba from the West (left) Wall.

Covering the walls and window shutters are figures of people. Mani pointed out to us that the murals are designed to show the throngs of people facing and moving towards the center point at the back window, where a painting of Baba was to rest in the window opening.

The painting that is there now is not part of Helen’s work, however. Helen Dahm did paint a portrait of Baba for that position, on a moveable piece of plywood, and it stayed there on the windowsill for some time. But Baba did not choose to use that painting for His Samadhi, and we will now never see it. In 1940, after Helen had left India, Baba had it removed from the Samadhi and indicated He didn’t care for it. He asked another of His artists, Rano Gayley, to paint His portrait and to use that board—in other words to paint right over Helen Dahm’s painting. Rano used to tell us that it was quite painful for her to paint over another artist’s work, and she pleaded with Baba to be allowed to use a fresh canvas, but He was adamant and she had to do as Baba asked. Rano’s painting was a beautiful portrait of Baba which now hangs in the museum at Meherabad.

Baba also did not choose to place Rano’s portrait in the window of His tomb. Rano asked Baba if He wanted a painting for that position and He gestured, “Not now … later.” Much later, after Baba had dropped His body, Mehera asked a Baba lover artist, Charles Morton, to create a portrait in stained glass for the center window of the Samadhi. Charlie worked for years on the project, in consultation with Mehera, Mani and Rano, first creating a painting before approaching the work in glass. In 1991 Mani decided that the completed painting should itself be installed there. Thus it is Charlie1Morton’s painting, adapted from a photograph of Baba chosen by Mehera, that now holds the place of honor.

As you enter the Samadhi, the painting of Baba is on the far wall.
(Photo courtesy of Homyar J. Mistry)

—Irene Holt for Avatar Meher Baba Trust, 1 October 2015

[Next week, in the Samadhi Murals, Part 3, we discover secrets revealed by the restoration work done in 1990-’91.]