Mira Behn: A friend of nature

The urge to be close to nature guided Madeleine Slade, who came to be known as Mira Behn, throughout her life

Published: Sunday 15 August 1993

Mira Behn on her release after THERE'S a maxim in Sanskrit that states peacocks in the forest are happy to see clouds in the sky. It's a pointer to the irrefutable fact of life that one cannot keep away from what is dear to one.

Something similar happened to Madeleine Slade, popularly known as Mira Behn, for whom nature was always a source of inspiration. Sometimes it was the song of a bird and at other times, the wind rustling through the trees.

Mira Behn lived in England with her maternal grandfather until she came to India. The main reason for this was her desire to live surrounded by nature and at her grandfather's farm, there were lots of animals, birds and flowers and plants. She revelled in these surroundings because unlike other children who were eager to play with dolls, Mira Behn disliked them. She preferred instead to ride one of her grandfather's horses, to wander in forests and to climb mountains, to stroll along the banks of rivers and along the seashore.

As she bid farewell to childhood and became a youth, she broke away from her social milieu, which encouraged the pursuit of a life of excitement.
Joining Gandhiji Inspired by the rhythm of nature, Mira Behn adored Beethoven and his music. About this time, she met the French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland, who introduced her to Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy and activities and described Gandhiji to her as another Christ.

Romain Rolland's remarks convinced Mira Behn she had at last discovered the "Unknown" for which her soul had yearned from childhood. She decided to go to Gandhiji and join him in serving the Indian people, who were suffering the worst form of exploitation.

Mira Behn played a prominent part in India's freedom struggle and was imprisoned three times. From August 1942 to May 1944, Mira Behn was detained along with Gandhiji in the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. After her release, she yearned to live close to nature in the Himalaya. After consulting Gandhiji, she set up Kisan Ashram on a 5-ha site between Roorkee and Haridwar. The land was donated to her by the local villagers. Two factors persuaded her to accept that particular site. First, it gave her a constant view of the Himalayan peaks and, second, it was suitable for khadi work and other Gandhian activities.

In 1946, Mira Behn was appointed special honorary adviser to the UP government, and the following year the government placed at her disposal about 1,000 ha of forest land in the Virbhadra block near Rishikesh, to enable her to start cattle development schemes. She established the Pashulok Ashram there and also a village, Bapugram, for the rehabilitation of poor, landless people.

These natural surroundings inspired Madeleine Slade to become Mira Behn and without these there would have been a void in her life. In 1959, she returned to England, but soon she began feeling a compelling urge to settle in the midst of nature. After a long search, she built a small hut for herself in the mountain forests outside Vienna in Austria. An additional reason for her fondness for the site was that Beethoven used to rehearse his music there. For Mira Behn, this was to be her last home, although what she had aspired to all along was to settle down somewhere in her beloved Himalaya.

Krishna Murti Gupta is secretary of the Mira Behn birth centenary committee.

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