This is Annie Besant - one of the most remarkable, and complex, figures in the annals of British radicalism.
She was in, the first halfof her life, a renowned and outspoken freethinker, advocate of birth control, Fabian socialist and campaigner for women's rights. Then in about 1890, when she was in her forties, she came across theosophy, a spiritual movement which sought to syncretise the best of the principal global religions and which drew particularly on Hinduism and Buddhism.
Besant moved to Madras (now Chennai) in South India, the global centre of the theosophist movement, and it became her principal home for the rest of her life. She remained a radical, becoming prominent in the Indian nationalist and home rule movements, and she was an ardent supporter of women's suffrage.
This excellent portrait - which I had never seen before - is in the small but well-kept and recently refurbished museum at the theosophists' international HQ at Adyar in Chennai. You can feel the sternness in that gaze!
Adyar is where Besant died and was cremated in 1933. The theosophist HQ also has a bust of Besant.
What I hadn't realised until I visited the museum was that Besant was also a very active freemason. One of the display cases exhibits dozens of engraved plasterers' trowels presented to Besant by women masons in India.
When I said to the German theosophist who presides over the museum: 'Besant was a mason?!', he replied - very reasonably: 'What wasn't she?'
The sprawling Adyar campus, and the theosophists' headquarters building, looked serene - better cared for than on my previous visit and altogether a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours.
I was a little underwhelmed by the Giant Banyan Tree, but the roosting fruit bats were something else!
Leave a Reply.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!