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Playing Hide-and-Seek with Annie Besant

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

There were a few days in March when I kept loitering in the early evening outside the Gokhale Hall in Armenian Street. The caretaker had opened the door wide, and from the street you could get just a glimpse of the space inside. I wanted to take a photo of the interior of this building - a little over a century old and so important in the histories of the nationalist and Dravidian movements in Chennai - and perhaps even set foot in it.


The caretaker was having none of it. However relaxed and friendly my demeanour, he bristled every time I approached. No, he told me repeatedly; hall closed. When he spotted me pointing my camera phone in the direction of the opening, he ostentatiously pulled the door shut. This curious outsider wasn't even going to get a peep of the inside of the hall.


Annie Besant oversaw the construction of the Gokhale Hall in 1914-15 and is said to have paid for the work herself. It was built as the home of the Young Men's Indian Association, intended to be 'a political gymnasium' - a counterblast to the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) and a contribution to the building of a vibrant nationalist movement. This is where Besant delivered her 'Wake Up, India!' lectures on behalf of the Home Rule League.


Picture 1: Gokhale Hall


Besant is much better remembered now in Chennai than in London. Her gilded statue stands overlooking the Bay of Bengal next to that most curious of architectural legacies of colonial Madras, the Ice House. There's a bust of her too of course at Adyar, where she lived and died at the international HQ of the Theosophist movement. Besant Nagar and Bessie's Beach also honour her memory.


She spent more than half of her adult life in India - most of it here in Chennai. She is among that exalted band of British men and women who took up India's cause against that of their native country (though Besant, while London-born, was Irish by background and a supporter of Ireland's freedom struggle as well as India's). I was keen to seek a sense of communion with her and understand the shadow she still throws over her adopted city.


After one final foray in Armenian Street ended in failure, I sauntered off through George Town - the most beguiling part of the city for a historian - towards Chennai Beach. I paid out my 60 rupees for an excellent bowl of atho, noodle salad, at one of the Burmese food stalls which are a reminder of the city's once strong links with the other side of the Bay. And then went for a stroll down some of the streets that I didn't know too well, hoping for the serendipity of discovery.


Picture 2: Atho


Just a few steps along Second Line Beach Street (who dreamed up these street names?), I glanced into a passage way, and looking back at me was ... Annie Besant. She was all in white, ghost-like, sepulchral. I wondered whether I was hallucinating.


I ventured down the passage - to encounter, of course, the caretaker. Rather than fending me off Gokhale-style, he was delighted by my interest in Besant. Yes, I could take a photo of Besant's statue. Yes, he would show me round the building: the gym, the library, a training room with boxing punch bags and - the only part in active use - the games room where four men were gathered round a carrom board.


Picture 3: Annie Besant


This building too belonged to the YMIA. The statue of Besant and some other busts and portraits had, it seems, been moved here from Gokhale Hall. If I couldn't get inside the building on Armenian Street, then this was the next best option.


And I would never have found Annie Besant without walking the streets of George Town and keeping an eye out for the unexpected.



About the Author:

Andrew Whitehead is a London-based historian and journalist. He spends two months every year in Chennai, teaching at the Asian College of Journalism, and regularly goes on heritage walks.



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