Baba’s Portrait

Baba would spend much of his time in the mosque sitting in front of the dhuni, often with his arm leaning on a little wooden balustrade. A large portrait of Baba, sitting in the same posture, is now to be found here. The picture is kept on a throne-like platform and is the focus of worship, just as Baba himself was when he sat here. Baba sits relaxed and calm, looking out at us with a warm, welcoming, almost amused expression; at the same time the gaze is both penetrating and searching. On seeing the finished work, Baba is reported to have said, “This picture will live after me.”

Something of that freshness is evident when we look at the portrait here. No matter how many times we take its darshan, we feel that Baba is greeting us a new. For that, we are indebted to the artist, S. R. Jaikar, from Bombay. The original picture was painted under commission from a close devotee (M. W. Pradhan). At first, Baba did not give permission for the work, claiming that he was just a simple beggar and fakir and what was the point of painting such a person. It would be better for Shama (who relayed the request to Baba) to get his own portrait done, suggested Baba. Luckily for future generations though, Baba later relented and Jaikar actually painted four pictures, one of which was touched by Baba.

The picture was installed in Dwarkamai after Baba’s mahasamadhi. The painting that we see now is a recent copy of Jaikar’s original, which has been moved to a Sansthan office to preserve it from the drying effects of the dhuni.

In front of the portrait is a pair of silver padukas which was installed later. Here it may be worth adding a note about the significance of padukas. They are used throughout India, but particularly in the Datta cult in Maharashtra. Padukas may be a pair of carved “footprints” or a pair of shoes used by the saint. It is the former which we mostly see in Shirdi. Padukas signify the presence of the saint – wherever the feet are, the rest of the body will be ! – and thus they are revered.

In Dwarkamai alone, there are five sets of padukas, symbolizing Baba’s presence and giving us the opportunity for remembrance and worship. Taking the lowest part of the saint’s body, we touch it with the highest part of our own (the head) as a gesture of obeisance and respect, in an act of namaskar. When we bow down we are adoring our Beloved, affirming our hallowed connection, and in this way, asking for continued blessings.

Baba has told his devotees, “I am a slave of those who always remember me in their thoughts and actions and do not eat anything before offering it to me.” If you are in Dwarkamai around midday, you may see people offering food to the portrait. After being offered, the food is then taken back to the person’s house and shared as prasad or distributed among those in the mosque. The Sansthan also offers food to Baba here (as well as at Gurusthan and the Samadhi Mandir). Afternoon arati, it is given out to all those present in Dwarkamai.

In the context of offering food to Baba’s portrait, we may recall the story in the Sri Sai Satcharitra of the Tarkhad family. Mrs. Tarkhad and her son were planning to visit Shirdi, but the son was reluctant to go, as he was afraid his father would not properly carry out the daily worship to the large picture of Baba he lovingly kept at their house in Bandra. His father assured him that he would, and mother and son left for Shirdi. For three days all went well, but on the fourth day, although Mr. Tarkhad performed the puja, he forgot to offer the customary few pieces of lump sugar. As soon as he remembered his omission, he postrated before the shrine, asked for forgiveness and wrote a letter to Shirdi. Meanwhile, around the same time in Shirdi, Baba turned to Mrs. Tarkhad and said, “Mother, I went to your house in Bandra to get something to eat, but the door was locked. I managed to get in somehow, but found that Bhau [Mr. Tarkhad] had left nothing for me to eat so I have returned unsatisfied.” Mrs. Tarkhad did not understand what Baba was talking about, but the son immediately realized and asked Baba if he could go home, Baba refused, but let him do his puja in the mosque. The son wrote to his father imploring him not to neglect the puja and the two letters crossed in the post and were delivered the next day. This shows that in a mysterious and inexplicable way, when we offer something to a picture of Baba, it is not merely symbolic, but we are offering it to Baba himself.