In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.
“She is a born actress,” ridiculed fellow Londoner Bernard Shaw. Back in Tamil Nadu, Bharati described her as a fox with a golden tail. But legendary lyricist Papanasam Sivam wrote a prayer with her as the protagonist “Devi Vasanthe” – the Sanskritised version of Besant that the Theosophists came up with.
Annie Besant was arguably one of the most important voices of the 20th century. From atheist to women’s rights activist to socialist to Marxist, she changed her political stands almost every decade of her rather long public life. Finally, when her interest in Theosophy deepened, she allowed her links with the Marxists to lapse.
Though born in London, Annie Wood had Irish blood and its associated fieriness throughout her life. She was married and separated from Frank Besant, a clergyman who perpetually set a detective on her tracks to find out if she was having any affair.
In the late 1870s, she was jailed and sued for obscenity for republishing Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, a book on birth control (then a taboo topic). The trial did very well for her popularity and print rerun of the book (it sold 1,25,000 copies). But the scandal also came at a great personal cost: using the controversy, her husband managed to convince the court that she was unfit to look after their two children.
A decade later, Annie, by then a staunch socialist who believed in the causes of the working class, wrote an article about the poor conditions of the girls working in matchstick factories, which led to the famous London matchstick girl strike of 1888. Interestingly, it is said that, Annie did not know of the strike till both sides came to her for a compromise.
It was Theosophy that brought her to Madras, where the society had its headquarters, in 1893. She won admiration from the thinkers here for her appreciation of the Indian culture. She stuck a great balance between supporting “the jewels of Western learning” while still acknowledging “the diamonds of the Eastern faith”.
In the famous Chicago Parliament of Religions meeting, made famous in India by the speech that Swami Vivekananda gave, Annie represented Theosophy. She noticed and wrote about him: “A striking figure, clad in yellow and orange, shining like the sun of India in the midst of the heavy atmosphere of Chicago, a lion head, piercing eyes...”
After joining the Indian National Congress, Annie helped launch the Home Rule League to campaign for dominion status for India within the British Empire. In 1917, she became the first woman president of the organisation.
She was an outstanding speaker. In Benares, Gandhi himself acknowledged her “matchless eloquence” when he was asked to speak after her. It was a memorable meeting because Gandhi – not yet termed Mahatma – spoke something objectionable and the princes seated around walked off the stage.
Many historians point to this meeting as a turning point in the freedom struggle. The mantle of freedom struggle changed hands. The rise of the local demand for freedom pushed to the edge European leaders like Besant who had been seeking better treatment of the colonies. “All these 40 years, my white body has been an asset. It is no longer so,” Annie would later lament. But the Congress’ loss was the Theosophical society’s gain. Annie moved her life and soul into the Theosophical Society, which she headed for 26 years. But controversy followed her closely.
CW Leadbeater, who had been kicked out of the society for molesting young boys, was readmitted as soon as Besant became president. Together with him, she identified a young boy, Jiddu Krishnamurthy, as the vehicle for the next ‘world teacher’. Consequently, she would fight a nasty legal tussle with Jiddu’s father claiming to be the spiritual mother of the boy, who had now become a cash cow for the society. Bharati’s satirical comment about her (in English) was following this scandal.
Later, Jiddu himself told the world that Annie’s assertion that he was a messiah were blatant lies; he was just a normal mortal, he maintained. This broke Annie’s will, and she died soon thereafter and was laid to rest in Adyar.
As fate would have it, the lawyer who appeared against her in the legal battle with Krishnamurthy’s father, CP Ramasamy Iyer, would later unveil the first statue for her on the Marina.
The writer is a historian and author