More than three decades before Iyengar yoga captured the imagination of the world, a distinctive form of yoga was being demonstrated in the US, Europe and Japan by two adventurous Bengali men from Calcutta. Sometime in the 1930s, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, the father of physical culture in India, and his friend, son-in-law and first disciple Buddha Bose, had developed a system of yogic postures that drew from ancient wisdom, and were customised for a contemporary world. They were therapeutic postures meant “for all”.
Ghosh, who was the younger brother of Yogananda (of Autobiography of a Yogi fame) was also a showman, travelling around the world with his team of young women and men pulling off seemingly impossible stunts thanks to their muscle control. One of the tallest icons of the era, he trained, among others, Monotosh Roy, the first Asian to win the Mr Universe title, and countless other stars of body building and postural yoga.
Bose, who was half British and half Bengali, was known for his quiet brilliance and his lifelong commitment towards bringing Indian therapeutic yoga from the realm of the yogis in obscure monasteries to every householder’s life. History however, has not been kind to these men, especially Bose, whose contribution to the democratisation of yoga has been eclipsed by more glamorous and media-friendly narratives written by younger, more commerce-savvy yoga exponents and showmen. A lot of their personal trajectory was also tied to the rise and fall of the second city of the British Empire.
It took Jerome Armstrong, a political analyst and media entrepreneur with an interest in yoga, three years to put together a massive book that resurrects the legend of Bose, his mentor Bishnu Charan Ghosh and the lost chapters of from the history of a form of yoga that traversed the world from a modest north Calcutta home. A chance discovery of a photograph of the charismatic Bose inspired Armstrong, who is based in Los Angeles, to journey across continents and cultures to put together Calcutta Yoga. The book features rare, archival photographs and tells a compelling story spanning three generations, world war, famine, political unrest, scandals, communal riots and personal tragedies.
In a conversation with Scroll.in, Armstrong talked about the making of a book that he believes is made for the big screen. Excerpts from the interview:
How and when did you stumble upon the story of Buddha Bose and what was it about this man that struck you the most?
At first, it was just a photograph (shot in a London studio, it shows Buddha Bose performing a series of hatha yoga postures). What struck me was something I didn’t know, but wanted to learn. I had a vague sense of knowing something, but not in factual detail – it was more visceral. This happened in 2014, when I first thought about it, having seen some photos of Buddha Bose. Then, as I describe in the preface, as I pursued it, I quickly found information, way more than I thought I could, and that continued throughout the experience. What struck me was how he’d been forgotten, and I wanted to know this different kind of yoga practice, which was also not known outside of Kolkata. A year later, I was in Kolkata beginning the work.
What is it about the Bose-Ghosh story that resonated with you the most – was it the yoga thread, the generational story, the social-cultural angle or simply the story of Bose and Ghosh?
It was the friendship, and the obligation, between Bishnu [Ghosh] and Buddha [Bose]. It was so personal that I barely found out information of it on the fringes, where they would express themselves, or come at it from others. Bishnu believed in Buddha, and that belief took Buddha out of the poor family he was in under the Bose house. He moved into the Ghosh house at 4 Garpar Road in Calcutta. It was a tangled friendship, one with obligation mixed in, like any relationship between guru and student.
Buddha became a huge success but he didn’t stay in the US, as Yogananda asked him to in 1939. Buddha would have become something like BKS Iyengar, but thirty years earlier. Did he ever regret it? I wonder, as he planned to go back in 1947, when he was in a plane crash (that crippled him to a great extent).
This became generational as well, with things falling apart in the family. Once that core relationship was gone after Bishnu died in 1970, the hurt of obligation remained. Without that relationship between Bishnu and Buddha, the yoga practice wouldn’t have happened. After all, it was Buddha who took it up in 1932, and rekindled the hatha yoga training Bishnu had in Dihika while at his brother’s school in 1916, and in Ranchi for a few years.
I think secondly the Calcutta setting of the story, and how I felt like I was stepping back in time, and able to do it too, one hundred years later. That feature completely surprised me as a writer – to have access to the history in such an intimate manner. I attempt to describe it in the book, but it is only when I bring people there and show them that they get the feel of how special a place it is to still exist today.
How did you weave the various threads of your narrative together? The family history, the socio-cultural backdrop, the personal histories and the more public events?
It was not deliberate in the beginning, but as I wrote, as I developed the narrative, it took shape. The parts which were memoir-related were the most difficult to work with. I didn’t want it to overwhelm the story, but I wanted to provide an auto-ethnographic perspective to the reader. I wanted to be transparent as to my own situation, because I knew, from talking with others, that it was important to answer the question of how I became involved in writing this story.
Now, usually, an author will divulge this in the preface, and then no more. But I couldn’t leave it there, so I continued, interjecting pieces of my own journey into the telling of the other threads of the narrative. I started with it personally, as a means of telling this multi-generational biography, but I found it impossible unless I understood the socio-cultural context, and explained that to the reader.
How could I explain how Bishnu was arrested in 1950 for inciting violence if I didn’t explain how his family lost a child to communal fighting? At the same time, the entire collapse of Calcutta in the 1940s resonated with what happened to the family. Yogananda’s temple falling into the Pacific ocean, Bishnu losing his son, and Buddha being in the plane crash. Could the pieces be put together again in the family, and for Calcutta?
Things are intertwined, and, realising this, I worked the important historical facts of Calcutta into the story. There is also such a huge discrepancy in the literature written to date on the source of yoga, which I needed to explain. That is, not all yoga which reached the West came from Mysore. The city of Calcutta played a major, and earlier role, in taking the practice of yoga outside India.
At the time you started out with your research, did you foresee this project attaining the form that it does today? Did you start with the intention of doing a book? Or were you simply curious? At which point did you realise that you had enough material to put into a book?
The intention at the beginning was to publish, with the family, Buddha’s unpublished manuscript and photo album from 1939. On the very first trip I made to Calcutta, in March 2015, I started to realise very strongly that I was going to be involved with this project a lot more than just editing and publishing the 1939 book. And it felt so right, not at all an obligation. It was something that I loved doing immediately. The people I met were so heart-warming, that I felt a part of it all right away.
But I never lost the outsider perspective either. I had to balance telling the personal parts with how much I thought I was exposing others, particularly as the book neared the current generation, still alive. I wrestled quite a bit with just ending the book in 1948, after Buddha was healed on a pilgrimage to Kedarnath. I even made a draft of the book ending at that point.
I remember asking, at one point, for some guidance. I felt, throughout the book, I had a connection with the main figures, and I would leave it up to them. I asked to be shown the narrative script, which Buddha used for his film Holy Kailash, throughout the 1950s and ’60s, as that was the main part of his later life I could not find. I didn’t just want to tell the story of the resurgence of interest in yoga, and the characters going to Japan, with Bikram’s emergence, but also the latter part of Buddha’s life, which no one in Calcutta knew about or could tell me.
At that point, I met Mataji, the 93-year-old Swamini in the Himalayas, who was a disciple of Buddha’s. Her immediate trust in me, and her sharing the narrative that Buddha would provide during the film, which she recorded, compelled me to complete the entire story.
You are a political strategist and a media entrepreneur as well. How did you balance your professional commitments and this book?
And a father of two children. I do it by making the best use of the limited time I have. I had to view the writing of this story as a daily practice. The research, done in India and many other places where Bishnu, Buddha and Yogananda went, allowed me to move into an environment where I was immersed in the story, and could entirely focus on finding sources, places and doing conceptual work. The context of writing, done back in the States, did not allow that type of withdrawal.
I managed by writing in an attic room of our house, having a carpet where I would take spells from the writing to do yoga and meditation, and viewing the writing as a sustained practice. Each day, no matter what, I would write for at least one hour, editing or compiling new material. It was so overwhelming to view the entire endeavour that I only kept to a maintenance of the daily commitment, and shut out any other complaints. And over time, things took shape. I am a copy and paste type of writer, meaning I sometimes don’t get to the point until I am three paragraphs in. Luckily, I was able transcend personal attachment to the writing, and recognise when to delete as well.
Considering it took you three years to complete this book, how did you keep yourself motivated? What were some of the highs and lows along the way?
The only motivation was to keep going, putting one foot in front of another. This is one of the main mantras of this yoga lineage (even from Mahasaya Lahiri who said: “doing, doing, one day done”). The only low I had, surprisingly, was from my own motivation of whether or not I wanted to share the story.
The publication of Buddha’s 1939 manuscript was something I wanted to share, but learning “the rest of the story” was a personal journey. Until I actually knew enough, which didn’t happen until about halfway through the process, I had doubts about putting it all together into a book. I thought it would make some interesting web articles, or something like that perhaps.
Of the highs, it was finding out the little things. Such as the details surrounding the formation of Yoga Cure at Columbia Teachers’ College in NYC, where Bishnu and Buddha taught in 1935-36. Finding Columbia’s letter of thanks, and the writings of Josephine Rathbone from that time, about the early formation of therapeutic yoga answered many questions I had developed as unanswered. The other was finding articles in the Bengali magazine Bayam Charcha. This didn’t happen until July 2017. One the one hand, it was great, but it also meant I had to re-write vast portions of the book quickly with this new found material. The magazine articles, many written by Bishnu and Buddha as autobiographical pieces, gave the story a factual basis, with no need for conjecture on my part to fill in the missing gaps.
There are some stunning bits in the book, visually quite spectacular. Any thoughts on a movie?
The story is made for the big screen. I knew this from the very beginning. And so, as I compiled it, I did make an attempt to describe settings, such as the Great Eastern Hotel and the family homes for the eventual movie. Somewhat shockingly, it’s something I view as inevitable. It has nothing to do with me, and entirely with this iconic family.
You spent a lot of time with the family, friends and others in the Ghosh-Bose family. They refer to you as a “ghorer chhele” – a member of the family. Was it difficult to maintain objectivity and a critical perspective while writing the book?
Yes, it was difficult to be objective at times, particularly when I was in Calcutta, but not to the extent that it ever felt a problem. I made a point, especially with the latter parts of the book, when writing about the past two generations of the family, to only detail parts which I could verify from at least two persons, which did not have a direct conflict with another person’s telling of the events.
This meant a lot of material got left out but I felt better about it this way, and knew that it was something I could stand behind having written. I was very grateful to all the persons in the family who freely shared the information in such a trusting manner. There was nothing, except my presence and persistence, for them to base their trust in. Of course, there must be some deeper connection, some karmic tie, but I never gave it much thought, and focussed on the present.
Do you see yourself as a chronicler? An accidental historian? A storyteller? Or a seeker?
By nature, I am a journalistic travelogue writer, who weaves in a bit of history and interviews, while telling a personal story. For this book, it was the exact opposite! I had to learn how to not be the central part of the story. I also had to grow as a historical researcher in a non-conventional manner to be aligned somewhat with the nature of the persons in the story. In one part of the book, I tell of how I felt like I was a digger of history, finding out clues and bits of information, and yet it felt like I was always looking for something tangible in the experience.
But when I got to that moment of connection, it was not at all the realisation I expected. It was a realisation that I didn’t need to constantly work myself up in the digging. There was an easier way. Just ask the question, I learned, and let the answer come. I had to rewire how I thought about the whole process I knew, of historical research and writing in order to find the information, and it became more joyful in the process. It became magical in a sense, which of course, is another central theme of the story and of the promise of yoga.