Gāndharvikā Devī Dasī: Beautiful Windows to Vṛndāvana

Category: SRS Books Newsletter

Title: Gāndharvikā Devī Dasī: Beautiful Windows to Vṛndāvana

Upload date: 2023-07-28

Gāndharvikā Devī Dasī:

Beautiful Windows to Vṛndāvana

It is with a sad heart that I write of the passing of Gāndharvikā Devī Dasī, the wonderful artist responsible for most of the paintings in my commentary to Vilāpa-kusumāñjali, Volume One. I spoke to her on Sunday night, Māyāpur time, which was around noon in Florida, and she passed away a few hours later, entering the same spiritual realm of which she had painted pictures for me for the last four years.

It was during a conversation in Vṛndāvana, in October 2019, that Govinda Mahārāja mentioned to me that a lady had approached him saying she would like to talk to me about painting for my books.

I was sceptical, as quite a few artists would ask if they could draw or paint for the books I wrote. Most of these devotee artists were not up to the standard   of Lal Publishing, and those who had potential were generally unable to work as part of a team, to adapt to our style, and to be submissive enough to be guided by our art director, Akṛṣṇa Dāsa. Doubtful though I was, I considered a meeting harmless, and so I set a time for the following night. We met in the courtyard of Govinda Mahārāja’s house while kīrtana was going on in the back garden.

From that meeting my impression of Gāndharvikā was a positive one. I asked to see pictures of her artwork, and when I pointed out mistakes, she was not offended and was ready to be corrected or directed. That was a change from artists I had met. But the most significant thing was that she was very knowledgeable in vraja-līlā. As a Ukranian, she had read Russian translations of some of the ācāryas’ books, as well as my own. And she was enthusiastic.

At that first meeting we spoke for a long time. I wanted to write a commentary on Vilāpa-kusumāñjali, and as I had no artist for the book, she was very excited about taking it on as a project. Over the course of the next few months, we spoke regularly, and I also connected her with Akṛṣṇa, who considered her a godsend. Although not school-trained in art, she was extremely talented.

When I next met Gāndharvikā in the spring, we spent three entire evenings going over the verses and the Nava-vraja-mahimā commentaries I had written on Raghunātha Dāsa Gosvāmī’s beautiful swansong. Slowly we analysed and selected pastimes that were suitable for the paintings of a six-hundred-page book.

The most striking thing about Gāndharvikā was her co-operative mood that made her so easy to work with. She was eager to be taught, she listened well, and ultimately she produced stunning paintings. What she was not used to was working to a schedule and painting day after day, rather than only when she was inspired to do so. Meeting a deadline was a new experience.

During one conversation she wanted to know how long she could continue painting for me. By that time the structure of Vilāpa-kusumāñjali had grown to several volumes, but she wanted to know whether there was work beyond that. I informed her of my plan to write on the five chapters of the rāsa-līlā next, and if I lived beyond that, Lalitā-mādhava and Utkalikā-vallarī. She was happy and reassured that her artwork would be needed for as long as I could write. We were a team.

Over the period of three years Gāndharvikā created twenty paintings, of which she kept three that she so fell in love with. The others are all with me, and are now the last works of a great, departed artist.

When the layout deadline closed for Volume One of Vilāpa-kusumāñjali, she stopped painting with the idea of taking a well-earned break. Unfortunately, instead of resting, she started feeling ill. At first she thought it was just stress and overwork from a three-year marathon. But after a hospital check-up it was clear that she had fourth-stage cancer that had spread throughout her body.

When we talked she was optimistic, and put off doing any work for Volumes Two and Three with the hope that when she was better she could contribute to Volume Four. She remained enthusiastic about that, and about the future. Soon Volume One came out in print and I sent her a copy, and on her request, a copy to her parents in Ukraine. Sometime later she informed me that her parents had received the book, loved the artwork, and were very proud that she had “accomplished something.” She certainly had.

Wanting to avoid chemotherapy, she and her husband, Indradyumna Prabhu, travelled to a special cancer clinic in Mexico for treatment. While they were there I would call and read from newly written commentaries of Vilāpa-kusumāñjali, a practice I continued up until the day of her departure.

After a while the doctors in Mexico said they could proceed no longer without her having chemotherapy, and so Gāndharvikā and Indradyumna Prabhu returned to Florida and began a course of treatment at the local hospital.

There are many more details, memories, and anecdotes about our work together, all achieved through online communication mostly during Covid times. When paintings were complete, she would either send them with some devotees travelling to London, or DHL them direct to Budapest.

A few days ago I called Indradyumna Prabhu and he told me that the doctors had given Gāndharvikā a month to live and had discharged her. They were at home, but she was asleep. He asked, “Do you want to see her?”

I replied, “Yes, please.”

We turned on the video and I could see she was lying on her right side, wearing a hat, motionless. I spent some time with Indradyumna and asked to be informed when it was possible to speak to her, then hung up and waited. Then yesterday Niranjana Swami sent me a message saying he had just spoken to her. I wrote Indradyumna and he said I could call. Gāndharvikā could no longer speak, but she could hear.

When I got on the line I was surprised how loud and laboured Gāndharvikā’s breathing was, and I knew that she had less than a month. I spoke of our many exchanges and read for fifteen minutes from what I had just written on Verse Fourty-six. Then I asked Indradyumna, “Am I reading too much?”

He replied, “That was enough.”

We said our goodbyes. It was noon, their time. She passed away a few hours later.

It seems that Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī considered Gāndharvikā’s contribution to Volume One her last service, and that the Goddess of Vṛndāvana now wanted her devotee for some other service, in some other place. What can we do but surrender to her will!

Gāndharvikā will not be forgotten.

Her work will endure as a reminder of who she was: a painter whose contribution enhanced the introductory volume of Vilāpa-kusumāṣjali and visually awoke in readers an interest in the ultimate goal of life. We have been left behind to write about those Vṛndāvana truths and pastimes that Gāndharvikā Devī Dasī, under a new Vraja-vāsī name, will now experience as her new life.

Śivarāma Swami

20 March 2023