Li Gotami: The Woman Who Dedicated Her Life to the Arts
NOV 6, 2017 Biography
Born into a wealthy Parsi family on 22 April 1906 in Mumbai, Ratti Petit, more commonly known as Li Gotami, was a talented painter, photographer and writer. Her family owned the Bomanjee Dinshaw Petit Parsee General Hospital located in Cumbala Hill, Mumbai. She attended a school in Harrow on the Hill (an area northwest of London) in England and later studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1924.
Li Gotami was a passionate traveller and journeyed all over Europe before returning to India in the 1930s. She was regarded as someone very unusual during her time and was one of the very few women from traditional Indian society who took the extraordinary step of breaking away from the norms of how Indian women, or women in general, should live their lives. According to her niece, Dr. Sylla Malvi, Li Gotami “was her own person.” She also spoke of Li Gotami’s resolve,
“Unlike my obedient mother, my aunt was head-strong, and nobody could tell her what to do.
“Also, Li Gotami was part of a larger cultural movement of seekers discovering Eastern spirituality, long before the Beatles in the 1950s and the hippies in the 1960s.”
Later in India, she worked with artist Manishi Dey who introduced her to the Bengal School of Art, an influential art movement and a style of Indian painting that originated in Bengal, Shantiniketan and Kolkata. This genre would eventually have a significant influence on her life and works.
In the 1930s, Li Gotami married art collector Karl Khandalavala but their marriage was brief. In 1934, she travelled to Rabindranath Tagore’s ashram in Shantiniketan to study under the artist Nandalal Bose and to learn the art of Manipuri dance. According to Dr Malvi,
“Her parents were not happy about her going away. In fact, my grandfather even sent her brother [Maneckji Petit] to check on her.”
Dr Malvi also fondly recollected a time when all the children in the neighbourhood in Juhu were playing.
“She was like a magician. And she told us to bring her any object — twigs, stones, paper — and she would make something out of it. To challenge her, I took a raw coconut that had fallen down. I knew she wouldn’t be able to make anything out of it. But she turned it around, drew two eyes and made a little mouse. She was like that; so imaginative. She could see things in the ordinary.”
Li Gotami spent a total of 12 years at Shantiniketan, where she excelled in her studies and received a number of diplomas from the various Arts and Music Schools there. Later she met Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, a significant painter of that time who also taught at the arts school. Abanindranath Tagore was very impressed by Li Gotami’s work and would later become her mentor. According to Malvi,
“She absolutely worshipped Abanindranath Tagore. It was he who told her that she would excel in religious and children’s paintings.”
During her time at Shantiniketan, Li Gotami also met Lama Anagarika Govinda for the first time. The encounter took place when she was making her way to the hostel where Lama Govinda was staying at the time. The encounter is described as follows:
“A door opened and out strolled this handsome, smiling foreigner dressed in the burgundy robes of a monk. She recalled asking herself who this “bright merry person” might be, and in retrospect (at least on her part) remembered the incident as very romantic.”
Source: Kovács, Iván. Lama Govinda’s Quest for the Truth: A Summary of His Life – Part I; The Esoteric Quarterly. 2015
She proceeded to study under Lama Govinda, a Bolivian-German Professor of Vishwa Bharati University and a prominent teacher to notable students such as Indira Nehru, who would later become the first female Prime Minister of India. Under his guidance, Li Gotami’s interest in Buddhism grew very quickly.
He also brought her to meet his teacher, Domo Geshe Rinpoche. Lama Govinda’s book, “The Way of the White Clouds”, records how Domo Geshe Rinpoche had predicted that Li Gotami would become Lama Govinda’s wife. However, Domo Geshe Rinpoche had kept that information secret until the day of their marriage.
Li Gotami married Lama Govinda in four separate ceremonies in 1947. Lama Govinda performed one of the ceremonies himself, in the role of a lama. Two other ceremonies were held in Darjeeling and Mumbai, and the fourth was held in Tse-Choling Monastery in the Chumbi Valley, presided over Tibet by Ajorepa Rinpoche.
Prior to meeting Ajorepa Rinpoche, Lama Govinda had been working very hard to obtain permits to enter Tsaparang, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Guge in the Garuda Valley, and the newly married couple were full of anticipation at the prospect of visiting the beautiful city. When they arrived at Tse-Choling Monastery, then under the leadership of Ajorepa Rinpoche, the incarnation of the 8th century Mahasiddha Dombi-Heruka, Ajorepa Rinpoche inducted both Lama Govinda and Li Gotami into the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
After spending some time in Tse-Choling Monastery, they continued their journey to the city of Gyantse. During their four-month stay in Gyantse, they explored various monasteries and retreat places, attended festivals and religious ceremonies, and Li Gotami took many pictures of everything that grabbed her fancy. Finally, they received the necessary permits in January 1948 and Li Gotami and Lama Govinda returned to India to prepare for their expedition to Tsaparang.
A Long Awaited Journey
From Kasar Devi, the couple embarked on a number of expeditions to central and western Tibet between 1947 and 1949. The two-year expedition was fully sponsored by the “Illustrated Weekly of India” in exchange for a written account of the trip. The pictures taken during this particular expedition would later be featured in their books, “The Way of the White Clouds”, “Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism” and “Tibet in Pictures”.
During the expedition, Li Gotami and Lama Govinda often had to endure harsh and dangerous living conditions in the arid landscape. They also had to put up with extreme cold weather, and their diet mostly consisted of porridge and chapatis, cooked slowly over a brushwood and yak dung fire. Temperatures were so low that they literally had to drink their tea immediately after boiling, otherwise it would freeze inside their cups! Li Gotami recalled,
“A storm then broke. The rain nearly froze us while the wind howled like hungry wolves around us. Oh, those winds! They are Tibet’s worst enemy, and if I were ever asked to picture them, I would draw a hundred thousand ice-bound daggers with the head of a howling wolf for every hilt.”
Kovács, Iván. Lama Govinda’s Quest for the Truth: A Summary of His Life – Part II; The Esoteric Quarterly. 2015
As part of the expedition, Li Gotami and Lama Govinda also visited the beautiful Mount Kailash and spent a few days circumambulating the sacred mountain.
When they finally arrived in Tsaparang, Li Gotami and Lama Govinda lived in a hut in front of a cave, where a shepherd named Wangdu lived with his family. Wangdu would bring them the basic necessities – brushwood, water and milk – as there were no other families living in the area.
The couple always began their day with prayers and pujas, and then would work from morning to evening, tracing, sketching and photographing the remains of frescoes, statues, temples and other surviving artworks in the area.
Their stay in Tsaparang was marked by many challenges, including difficulties caused by the local Tibetans and authorities who were suspicious of their work. Although conditions were difficult, they did not give up and remained buoyant in the face of these obstacles.
After completing their work, the couple planned to return to India but found that the Himalayan passes were closed for three months until spring time. While waiting for the passes to reopen, they lived in a rest-house run by a kind Nyingma Lama named Namgyal. Around this period, they also met the Nyingma Abbot of Phiyang Monastery, an extremely learned master who taught them the method of yoga practices and Tantric sadhana.
When the passes were finally accessible, Li Gotami and Lama Govinda returned to northern India where they stayed in a house rented from the famed writer Walter Evans-Wentz at Kasar Devi. Otherwise known as “Crank’s Ridge”, Kasar Devi was a bohemian home to various artists, writers and spiritual seekers such as John Blofeld, Earl Brewster, Alfred Sorensen and many others. Li Gotami busied herself with the practical matters of running the household and sketching, while Lama Govinda occupied himself by writing.
Dr Malvi, whose home is dotted with several of Li Gotami’s paintings, says,
“My aunt travelled extensively with him, but never really earned a reputation as an artist.”
In 1955, Li Gotami and Lama Govinda moved to a 40-acre estate in Almora, located in north-west India. They maintained an ashram there and studied painting, Buddhist philosophy and meditation. Although their living conditions were ‘difficult’ – the area was completely barren and they had no access to running water and electricity – they enjoyed themselves very much as it was exactly the kind of life they were looking for – one that was simple, peaceful and quiet.
Li Gotami’s niece Roshan Cooper says,
“It was absolutely in the wilderness. There was no electricity, no running water. And our mother would take us two youngsters to spend time with them. She would always say her happiest years were in Almora. Her happiness was in the soul.”
Dr Malvi adds,
“She would also play the piano wonderfully and we would all sing.”
Towards the end of her life, Li Gotami and Lama Govinda were invited to live in the United States. Initially, they lived in California and later settled down in the San Francisco Bay Area due to health issues they were both facing at that time. She had Parkinson’s disease while Lama Govinda had suffered from several strokes.
A Zen centre that belonged to Alan Watts and Suzuki Roshi provided them with comfortable lodging in Mill Valley, California. In return for their assistance and care, Lama Govinda gave lectures in the centre. They later became permanent residents of the United States and were eligible for government health benefits.
Lama Govinda suffered a sudden heart attack and passed away peacefully on 14 January 1985 while having a conversation with Li Gotami. His ashes were interred in the Nirvana Stupa in Samten Choeling Monastery in Darjeeling, India. A few months after her husband’s death, Li Gotami returned to India and lived with her family. She passed away on 18 August 1988 in Pune, Maharashtra.
Numerous pieces of Li Gotami’s art and fresco tracings from Tibet are still kept in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, which hosted an exhibition showcasing her work on 2 February 2008 titled “Tibet through the eyes of Li Gotami”. Her books including “Tibet in Pictures” and “Tibetan Fantasies: Paintings, Poems, and Music” have become some of the most sought-after today and her life-long contribution to the arts has left a strong imprint in the modern world. Her incredible life and works will not be forgotten any time soon.