Arni Narendran – India
The International Theosophical Youth Centre ( ITYC) Adyar
A Rainbow in the Sky
In the early seventies I was living in an apartment by the sea on Elliots Beach at Adyar in the city of Madras, now known as Chennai. The Beach was famous in my day as a parking Bay for motorized caravans travelling by road from Scandinavia and the hinterland of Europe to Australia via Port Kelang in Malaya.
A famous landmark at Elliot Beach
These caravan Serais were bartering spots for emerging “New Age” music that was not available in the city. On the far end of Elliot Beach was a huge sylvan stretch of land within an enclosure, which was the International Headquarters of the Theosophical Society, standing on the southern banks of the Adyar River meeting the Bay of Bengal on the Coramandel coast. For years I would pass by the gates of the Theosophical Society on my way to college downtown, oblivious of its existence until a chance meeting with an Australian writer and music composer, Bro. Peter Glasson.
Dear Peter, who sadly passed away in Brisbane in 2020, opened a new pathway in my life which to this day continues to illumine my world: the Light of Ancient Wisdom. He introduced me to the fascinating world of Theosophy through a book that he presented to me – The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett- on 6th November 1974.
I was at a crossroads in my life, not unlike many other youth of the early seventies. During this turbulent time in history, the young were confused and disillusioned by war, poverty and global inequality and were seeking empowerment. The era was well defined in Stephen Spender’s book The Year of the Young Rebels (incidentally an autographed copy of the book was presented to me by the late International President of the Theosophical Society, Bro. John Coats) on the student uprisings in Prague, Sorbonne and Berkeley during the 1960s. Tom Hayden and Regis Debray were the new avatars and the protest poems of Allen Ginsberg were read at college squares. The student movement crystallized from antiwar protests and a new community of enquirers and seekers emerged: this has been variously described as “flower children” and “The Woodstock Generation.”
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez
For the first time in recorded history the young broke away from rigid system of authority and became independent enquirers and seekers, with California becoming the hotbed of this counter culture movement. This was articulated in their music and lyrics by the icons of the age, led by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez , Jimi Hendrix, and the many other stars that spangled in the skies. At the same time, another segment of youth romanticized armed resistance for social change inspired by Marxist philosophy and Mao’s Little Red Book. Their heroes were Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
Although most of the happenings were in the West, the fallout of this new social revolution was felt the world over and Madras was no exception. At college, a few of us produced a magazine called “Assymetric,” which reflected the happenings and mood of the times. It was at this juncture that Theosophy came into my life as a whiff of fresh air, clearing my mind of the smokescreen and quagmire of Maya and illusion.
Bro. Peter introduced me to the President Of the Theosophical Society, Bro. John B.S. Coats, who was a magnet to the young wherever in the world he visited.
Two theosophical giants, John Coats and Joy Mills who served as his vice-president in 1975
He was a larger than life Scotsman in his physical frame, and hailed from a family which had distinguished itself in the global textile industry. He became attracted to Theosophy at a very young age and served as a President of the World Federation of Young Theosophists. The organization was renamed the World Theosophical Youth Federation in 1979, with Bro. John Coats as Honorary President and Bro. Arnaldo Sisson Filho, a native of Porto Alegre in Brazil, as the Coordinator. Incidentally. I was made the first member of this reconstituted entity. Bro. John was endearingly called “Papa John” in South America where he was hugely popular.
Joy Mills and John Coats on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, with Brazilian theosophists
Bro. John was one big reason why many joined the Society, as he was affable and would converse with novices with equal seriousness as he would with veteran students of Theosophy. He was instrumental in bringing a lot of young people to visit or work in Adyar and many of them remain till this day to serve the Society. Sister Isis Resende, Bro. Nathaniel Altman and Bro. Arend Heijbroek are some of the Theosophists that come to mind.
Arend Heijbroek from the Netherlands was an active Young Theosophist, now, a few moons later, he is still working hard for Theosophy as Chairman of the well-known International Theosphical Centre in Naarden
Bro. John was a great host and together with his wife Betsan always would find an excuse to invite the young for a gathering at his seaside home, Olcott Bungalow (formerly a hunting residence of the Nawab of Arcot).
1975, the Centenary Year of the Society, John Coats, Joy Mills and many locals, taking part in a celebration parade seated on a special car
1975 was an eventful year for the Theosophical Society and more so for the Adyar Headquarters: it was the Centenary Year of the Society, and Adyar attracted the largest gathering of Theosophists from all over the world. It gave me a wonderful opportunity to meet spiritual seekers from all over- from Colombia to New Zealand; Echo warriors, yoga practitioners , pacifists, Sufis, sub-altern poets, psychedelic pop artists, philosophers and intellectuals of all hues and followings. The Dalai Lama happened to be the Guest of Honour and he talked extensively on love and compassion. I had a chance to walk the talk with this great soul along with a few others as His Holiness walked to his lodgings.
1975, the Centenary Year of the Society, the Dalai Lama was the Guest of Honour, behind him John Coats
After the centenary convention, many young people remained at and near Adyar, having made such a long journey. Some of them wanted to visit the Ramana Ashram at Thiruvannamalai and Auroville at Pondicherry.
The Ramana Ashram at Thiruvannamala
Sri Aurobindo's Auroville at Pondicherry.
Other than the occasional talks that were arranged at the Adyar campus and the Vasanta Youth Lodge meetings, they hardly had a chance to interact with each other. It was against this backdrop a decision was made to set up an International Theosophical Youth Centre (ITYC) at Adyar , a brainchild of Bro. John Coats with Nathanial Altman (who was at that time was writing a book on Ahimsa) at the helm and a driving force. I was entrusted the role of Manager of the Centre and Christina Clough, the President’s secretary, offered her valuable time and advice. My letters were translated into Portuguese and Spanish by a Brazilian of Lebanese descent who was in Chennai for academic pursuits. The Youth Centre was entrusted with the task of creating a directory of Young Theosophists both within India and all over the world. Airmail- presently classified as “snail mail”- was the only means of communication because telephone calls were prohibitively expensive. The effort was a rewarding endeavour, and the ITYC soon became a single contact point for the young. Within six months, invitations to address the young members of the T.S. came from various part of the country and I visited the Calicut Lodge as well as the Bangalore Lodge, where a large number of young people interacted. Queries from abroad would be passed on to the President who addressed these young members during his overseas tours.
To facilitate personal interaction within the Adyar campus, a coffee house was started which was housed on the premises of the World Federation of Young Theosophists opposite the music hall, were Sister Norma Shastri would invite anyone interested to listen to classical Western music. The coffee house became a gradual incubator of activity and attracted both residents and non-residents of Adyar. We had started the Society’s first yoga workshop under Bro. Marc Ablon, who is now teaching somewhere in France. An English professor gave lessons in T’ai Chi, and Christina Clough gave classes in acupressure. There were talks from theosophists and non-theosophists on Theosophy and related subjects. Asko Suttinen, a Finnish member, displayed his artwork; there were also concerts on Zen flute and Ray Angona’s lectures on the Kanchi Shankaracharya- he was a researcher with a Swiss grant- were memorable. There were also readings from the Old Diary Leaves by H.S. Olcott, along with readings from other books on Theosophy as well as poetry readings. I cannot forget the patronage of Bro. Finn Stall, a travel agent from Crete in Greece: he would make it a point to visit us during his India tours. Bro. Paul Boesson from Denmark spoke on the Christiania commune experience in Copenhagen. He also played recorded talks on a sleek tape recorder by the Danish philosopher Rasmus Neilson. Jean and Dominique Vallon (a theatre artist who has since married a theatre director at a company at Anesse, France) from Lausanne, Switzerland spoke to us about their emotional impact of westerners who visit India: they stayed at the Taj in Mumbai and during their evening promenades would be appalled by the sight of children living on the streets by the side of the hotel.
An early photo of Dick Balfour Clarke, who came to Adyar in 1909 invited by Annie Besant
On some days, my task was to take Bro. Dick Balfour Clarke, a private tutor of Bro. Jiddu Krishnamurti, by bicycle to his beach house after his story hour at the coffee house. Bro. Dick often talked about JK’s experience at the Penathur Subramania Iyer High School where he started his initial education before being taken to Europe by Dr. Annie Besant. He also talked about Krishnamurti’s breakaway from the Theosophical Society in 1929. JK may have walked away from the Theosophical Society, but the Society never walked away from him. After a hiatus of forty years JK paid a visit to Adyar , some say at Radhaji”s (International President Radha Burnier’s) behest, while others say it was to assuage his own pain of separation from the TS.
Those living at the Adyar campus those days included Sister Joy Mills, the International Vice President, whose lectures were considered erudite. I also remember Sister Jean Raymond, a Singaporean of Australian descent who was the affable and endearing Recoding Secretary of the T.S. and ardent dog lover. Tragically, she was bitten by her pet dog and passed away on account of rabies. The Secretary of the T.S. at that time was retired Army Colonel Gopalaratnam, who tirelessly worked for the Society; one could see him the whole day inspecting all the departments at all hours of the day. Bro. Rajkumar, a student of pharmacology, was steering the Theosophical Order of Service (TOS) activities at the Kuppams; he left for Ireland having married a co- worker from that country. An enterprising Sinhala family from Colombo gave their best as well: the father was in charge of horticulture, the mother was the Manager of Leadbeater Chambers and the daughter, Vinodhini, was a piano teacher. I can’t forget the Stillingers from Oregon: Michael and Kathy were a great help in running the coffee house. Dick Powell, a South African living in Alberta, was another great support.
Mr. Ranjan, who worked at the Sri Lankan embassy in London, was also regular at the coffee House whenever he was in Madras. Uwe Wagnor from Essen, a student of mridangam (percussion), was a cheerful frequenter. He lived in a beach house, and was a neighbor of Bro. Colussi, an Italian language instructor who taught at Alitalia on Mount Road in the City and authored an Italian book on reincarnation. An Icelander called Rudolf often spoke about his inspiration from Adyar for his fantasy novel in Icelandic. A native of Hawaii was writing about his experience of meeting a nomadic sadhu at Thiruvannamalai: as if by prophecy, the sadhu became popular in the name of Yogi Ram Sarath Kumar years later. Bro. John de Giri , a French planter from Vietnam was also a regular.
Another important event during this time was witnessing a very historic moment at the Adyar campus, when emissaries from the Janata Government in Delhi visited Sister Rukmini Devi Arundale seeking her candidature for President of India, which she politely declined in all humility. It was Sister Pupul Jayakar who they say proposed her name.
A magazine known as “Phoenix Rising” was started at the ITYC. The Coffee House was a place to meet with like-minded brethren from within the campus of the International Headquarters and the neighbouring districts outside our gates. The irony about the coffee house was that no coffee was served - only herbal tea (predominantly mint tea) with cookies from the Adyar Bakery.
Unfortunately I could not continue my work at ITYC as allowances from my father had dried up. As the President put it in his testimony “in seeking a secure future” that indeed was true. I had to leave an oasis of spiritual abundance and descend into an embattled world of the corporate jungle. After I left my post at the ITYC, Ms Tomi Stewart from Australia took over. Several years later, it was closed forever.
The Golden Stairs ... a tough climb for all
My attempt to climb the Golden Stairs might have struck a roadblock, but being exposed to Theosophy gave me a cnfident kickstart in my life. I began looking at the Bigger Picture instead of the petty benefits, to work in sync and become proficient in conflict resolution. I also learned to build up a positive mental framework that enabled me to excel within my own capacity in whatever I did. The lessons learned by my Theosophical experience- which I call the Adyar Experience – is that a spiritual seeker is always creative and uses his resources for the benefit of others, pushing self-interest to the rear of his goals while putting his best foot forward unmindful of rewards or accolades. He also enjoys the journey as he moves forward in executing his mission- be it personal or professional. Now, as I look back at having been exposed to Theosophy at the age of twenty-two, my experience certainly enriched my life and gave me the wisdom to live a life of contentment. I am grateful for the Adyar Experience. The International Theosophical Youth Centre may have appeared and disappeared like a “rainbow in the sky,” yet it remains part of Adyar’s indelible history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Arni Narendran was a manager of the ITYC at the International Headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Madras during 1976, and is presently the Honorary Treasurer of the Blavatsky Lodge, Mumbai. He began his career as a radio and print journalist but moved on to the banking industry where he served for four decades, his last assignment being Head of NRI Business Operations for India and the Middle East.
The editor wishes to thank Jaishree Kannan, Janet Kerschner and Elaine Gemme for making photos available.
Link to Spanish version: