THE LIVES OF FREDA: THE BLOG
If you look for parallels with Freda Bedi's life - her immersion in India, her political radicalism, her championing of India's national cause and her embrace of an Eastern religion - then the commanding example is Annie Besant. Indeed the similarities in their lives are striking. Both were English women who, during the era of Empire, became unequivocally Indian.
There are differences too - Freda married an Indian while Annie left an unhappy marriage with an English vicar, and Freda was ordained as a Buddhist nun while Annie was a Theosophist. But their lives have so much in common that you wonder whether Freda regarded Annie as a role model.
I am currently in Chennai, the city which Annie Besant made her home for the latter part of her life. She died here - at Adyar, which remains the global headquarters of the Theosophy movement. A nearby area of the city remains known as Besant Nagar. Her gilded statue still looks out over Marina beach.
Annie Besant is much more actively remembered in India than in her home country, in spite of her influential role as a young woman in promoting freethought and birth control, and supporting the rights of unskilled women workers.
Annie Besant and Freda Bedi never met. Annie - Freda's senior by more than sixty years - died in September 1933, a few months before Freda first set foot on Indian soil. There's nothing in Freda's writing and reminscences to suggest that she modelled herself on Annie - and anyway, that's not how life happens. But there are threads of connection between the two women.
One link is Norah Richards, an Irish woman who also made her life in India, becoming an exponent of Punjabi folk theatre and establishing the artists' colony at Andretta in what is now Himachal Pradesh. The Bedis visited Andretta often and built a simple cottage there with Norah's blessing. It's still standing. Norah and Freda became good friends, and Norah had been greatly influenced by Annie Besant (whose family were of Irish origin) and by Theosophy.
There's another even more direct link. Freda's husband-to-be, B.P.L. Bedi - before he headed off to Europe to study - made a journey around India. He recounted that he made a particular point of going to Adyar where he sought out Annie Besant and received her blessing.
'I had revered Annie Besant for years since I heard her at Lahore giving a speech on the essence of living. I met her in a big hall and only on special request as it was a day on which she wasn’t meeting anyone', B.P.L. Bedi recalled. 'She was sitting looking so beautiful, her hair white and her white flowing garment. I just went and literally kept my promise; touched her feet, and she said “Well, I bless you”.’
By this time Besant was a moderate within Indian nationalism while B.P.L. Bedi was increasingly attracted to the militant wing of the movement. Nevertheless, he felt great affection for the elderly woman. ‘I respected her for what and who she was and what she had done.'
The Lives of Freda
- a blog about my biography of Freda Bedi