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January 2004

Ventures on a solitary quest

- In conversation with Carel
Canadian artist Robert Lorrain scouts Auroville to start a small development fund

 

Robert LorrainAnd there he was, peeping from under the hood of the raincoat covering his stetson as we shook hands in the heavy downpour: Robert Lorrain, Canadian painter, sculptor, and, more than that, long-time sadhak of Sri Aurobindo's integral yoga. We had shared an email contact many years ago, but little had I expected ever to meet Robert in Auroville – let alone during the lashing monsoon rains. For he had not visited Auroville for many years.

His first visit was when Auroville had just been born. Then he was 28 years old, drawn to India because of his deep interest in spirituality. “Since my adolescence I have been reading books on Indian saints like Sri Ramakrishna and Ram Dass. In particular Ramakrishna used to speak about The Mother and it evoked in me the desire to see The Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. In 1968 I went to Pondicherry. The Mother accepted me to stay in the Ashram for a few days and I started to read Her books in the Ashram library. I never met Her, but the ‘contact' was profound and it changed my outlook on life.” Auroville was just born, but the bare earth and the harsh climate did not encourage Robert to stay. He returned to Montreal from where he wrote to The Mother asking her if he could open a restaurant as he was very interested in food research – though he lacked any culinary skills. She replied in the affirmative, and so began ‘Petite Oiseau', a vegetarian, more or less macrobiotic eatery, a very novel concept at that time. “It attracted many young people and prospered. Some of them had been, like me, travellers to India and Auroville because of their interest in spirituality. With some of the regulars we made Petite Oiseau into a cooperative, but as everywhere else, problems gradually developed. Food research became a minor issue. Drugs, living together ‘in a new way' and the refusal to accept any authority became the new trends. In due course, I left.”

About that time, in the early seventies, Robert and a few other people had started the Centre Créatif d'Elan Inc.. Quebec province was facing problems with youth, and the Canadian Government wished to help young people to start their own ventures and create jobs. The Centre received a government grant to do this work. “As I was inspired by the ideals of Auroville, we tried to develop a kind of communal living along the lines of what Mother outlined for Auroville, providing people with their basic needs and some pocket money. It created a good feeling in the beginning, but later proved to be unsustainable, and the Centre too ceased to be operational.”

Apart from these collective entrepreneurial ventures, Robert also opened a shop that sold products from the Ashram and Auroville, in particularly clothing. The shop flourished and it allowed him to donate a lot of money to Auroville. “In fact,” he reminisces, “I had made the mistake of giving too much. Being a summer shop, it didn't earn any revenue in winter. One particular winter it was a bit tough for me to make ends meet.” When asked what Auroville projects he supported, he replies “The Matrimandir, but only because Mother had underlined its importance. For in all honesty, its aesthetics never appealed to me. The architecture is too modern, the discs seem somehow a French Baroque influence, such as you find in the frames of paintings of that time period.”

The conversation moves to art, which is Robert's essential vocation. He is largely a self-taught artist, describing technique as “only a necessity.” “ What truly marks high art,” he says “is when you sense that beauty has been expressed through intensity of dedication.” Reminiscing about the time he studied at the École des Beaux Arts in Montreal, he says, “There was only one teacher there whom I inwardly recognised as an artist, someone with a burning dedication which infused all his teaching.” And passionately: “When you make a piece of art, you concentrate, you give the utmost of what you can. You ask a lot of yourself because you know that that is the only circumstance under which true beauty will manifest. It all depends on what the artist puts into the work.” He believes that many artists don't go deep enough and and avoid questioning themselves. “They should be asking themselves ‘Is this work really beautiful?' There should be a burning need for continuous self-improvement. For only then does one get towards the spiritual aspect of art.”

Robert emphasizes how essential it is for every artist to visit museums and study masterpieces ‘with an inner eye.' “What I mean to say is that paintings should be evaluated not only on the basic of technique, but more importantly, with a spiritual knowledge and insight. True art evaluation is spiritual; the aesthetic appreciation is in a way secondary. It would be interesting to re-evaluate all the paintings of the past with a spiritual knowledge. Take for example the late-Gothic painting “The Adoration of the Magi” by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. I consider this one of the best paintings of the world. The play of light in that painting is fantastic; there is imagination, quality, and technique, each at its highest level. But the painting expresses much, much more.”

Asked for his opinion on Auroville art, Robert is a bit hesitant. He admits not having seen too much of it. “But of what I have seen,” he says, “gives the impression that the artists haven't asked very much of themselves. It is too much like art everywhere else in the world. They have to go deeper to discover the true way to express themselves and not get hung up on the ordinary level of consciousness.”

Why has he come to Auroville? “To see how it has developed during this time, and also because I would like to make a donation to Auroville to start a revolving loan fund to help small entrepreneurs find their way. My life experience has taught me how important it is that young people in particular have access to small amounts of money to develop themselves. The type of ventures such a fund supports could be in any field, ranging from commerce to agriculture, food research and art. I intend to start with a small donation. If it works out to my satisfaction, I will be happy to donate more later.”

 

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