A spiritual guru’s curious journey to becoming the first Indian filmmaker in the US

Akhoy Kumar Mozumdar was an unusual yogi. A slender man with a piercing gaze, who often dressed in robes, Mozumdar did not practice magical tricks, nor did he spout ancient eastern wisdom as other yogis and gurus of the time did. Instead, as Frederick Lieb, a popular journalist of the time, wrote, he “healed people with the cosmic rays generated by a mere touch of his fingers”.

His idiosyncratic philosophy, called Universal Messianic Message, was cobbled together from his varied readings of ancient texts. It underpinned his lectures that preached positive thinking and combined esoterica drawn from religious texts. For some years in the 1910s and 1920s, his teachings made him popular among the swish Hollywood set and the upper crust of Los Angeles.

Part of the popularity stemmed from his apparent agelessness, according to Lieb. Lieb was a sports journalist who, finding himself out of work during Depression years (1929-1933), wrote on other subjects. In his 1939 book Sight Unseen: A Journalist Among the Occult, Lieb claimed that Mozumdar had discovered the fountain of youth. He first met Mozumdar in 1925, and at their next meeting, eight years later, he seemed younger than ever.

That impression of agelessness had nothing to do with magic, though. It was, like other aspects of Mozumdar’s life, a convenient bending of the truth. According to his writings and loyal disciples, Mozumdar’s year of birth was 1864, although official records on ancestry.com peg it as 1881 – seventeen years later.

A spiritual guru’s curious journey to becoming the first Indian filmmaker in the US
A clipping from Los Angeles Record, October 6, 1923.

Newspapers of the time often referred to him as Prince, or an Indian rajah, which gave him a veneer of exotica. He was in fact the youngest of eight children born to a Bengali lawyer and his wife, and spent his early years in a town near Calcutta. But in the story Mozumdar gave himself, his mother recognised his spiritual leanings early on, giving him the name Akhoy, which meant Son of God. In this story, he left home at the age of 16 and travelled to China and Japan, before reaching Seattle in 1903. He even claimed to have travelled through Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ.

READ  Trump campaign asks appeals court to halt Biden from being declared Pennsylvania winner

Early Makeovers

He arrived in the city of Seattle in 1905. In his initial years in the country, Mozumdar lived for a while with a Swedish family, learning during this period a new way of life, greater fluency in English, and an understanding of Christianity. His life as an independent lecturer and preacher began, albeit in a small way, after he got associated with the fledgling Theosophy movement in Seattle. Beginning 1908, he addressed audiences in public halls and institutions like the State Normal School in Bellingham, Oregon.

Preaching was not his calling, though – at least not yet. He once described himself as a war correspondent, reporting on the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. In one article for a local newspaper, he wrote about Japan’s push for modernisation and the example it set for nations like India.

After 1910, he reinvented himself yet again, appearing as a lecturer in cities further inland, such as Spokane, Washington, and Butte, Montana. He taught something he called “Christian Yoga”, an unusual mix of mind control and lectures based on the Bible. This allowed him to build a small following in Spokane and publish a periodical entitled Christian Yoga Monthly. This was the time when there was a wide spectrum of groups, churches and movements operating in the US under the umbrella of the New Thought Movement. These included groups as diverse as new age mysticism, individualism and mesmerism.

Struggle For Citizenship

In Spokane, Mozumdar attained a different kind of fame with his attempts to become a naturalised American citizen. It was a fraught time in American politics, with exclusion laws in place to keep the Chinese and Japanese out. There were also moves in states to implement laws against miscegenation and to bar aliens from owning land.

Mozumdar was not however, as he claimed, the first Indian to be naturalised. In 1909, Bhicaji Balsara, a cotton buyer for the Tata group and a Parsi immigrant, had been grudgingly granted citizenship by the Circuit Court of Appeal in New York, on the grounds that he was “free” and “white” as defined by the Naturalization Act of 1790. The court accepted Balsara’s arguments – based on the racialised thinking of the time – that Parsis, who originally came from Iran, were Caucasian like European immigrants of so-called Aryan origin. Much before Balsara, a Los Angeles-based Parsi, Sorabjee Eduljee, had been naturalised in 1890.

READ  US presidential election 2020 updates: Over 7 million voted early in Texas : False info, conspiracy theories target Florida's Hispanic voters - The Times of India
A spiritual guru’s curious journey to becoming the first Indian filmmaker in the US
A clipping from the Los Angeles Times, August 26, 1923.

Mozumdar’s similar arguments – that as a high-caste Indian, he too was Caucasian – secured him citizenship in 1913 from the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco. As an American, he was drafted into World War I towards its end.

In 1923, however, his citizenship, and that of several other Indians, was revoked by the Supreme Court. It ruled in the US vs Bhagat Singh Thind case that by the “common understanding” of race, South Asians were not free and white. Mozumdar would regain citizenship nearly 25 years later, when he applied again in 1950, following the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 that allowed “resident aliens” to apply for naturalisation.

Foray Into Filmdom

By this time, in the mid-1920s, Mozumdar was living in Los Angeles, working on a film that would expound his metaphysical ideas. Beyond the Veil was a photoplay (filming of a theatrical production) about a prince who renounced his kingdom to become an ascetic. Mozumdar took on himself to play the lead role of prince Rama Das. The production had some of the better-known actors of the day, such as Kathryn McGuire, William Boyd and Doris McClure. Mozumdar not only wrote the original screenplay but also co-directed it, making him the first Indian filmmaker in the US. Beyond the Veil was shown in San Francisco’s Tivoli theatre as Prince of India in 1924. It is now believed to be irretrievably lost.

A spiritual guru’s curious journey to becoming the first Indian filmmaker in the US
A clipping from The Evening Herald, November 30, 1923.

In his later years, Mozumdar attained notoriety for his involvement in an unsavoury court case involving a rich widow and her misplaced fortune. In the 1930s, Mozumdar bought acres of pristine forest land in Crestline, in San Bernardino Mountains, east of Los Angeles, with the intent of building a large lecture hall and a temple for his United Messianic Church. The impressive dome of the temple, putatively modelled on the Taj Mahal and visible for miles, impressed visitors and travellers alike.

READ  Apple launches iPhone 12 with 5G, HomePod Mini smart speaker

Among the donors to Mozumdar’s United Messianic Church was Minnie Splane, the wife of Mignon Splane, who had made a fortune in oil. Her children filed a case against her in a Los Angeles court, claiming that she was frittering away family money on dubious schemes. In 1940, the judge placed Minnie Splane under the guardianship of her son, after ruling that she was a puppet in the “hands of artful and deceiving persons”. Mozumdar’s temple complex, including an amphitheater called Pillars of God, would remain incomplete.

Mozumdar was forced to rent out the place to the Young Men’s Christian Association as a summer camp: it was called Camp Mozumdar. He lived out the remainder of his life in Los Angeles, and died in 1953 in San Diego. That he retained a following among esoteric cults is evident from the fact that Ernest Holmes, who set up his own movement called “religious science”, officiated at his memorial. The strange buildings Mozumdar built – the Temple of Christ and the Pillars of God – still stand at Crestline and are now in possession of a small religious group headquartered in South Korea.

A spiritual guru’s curious journey to becoming the first Indian filmmaker in the US
Mozumdar temple. A clipping from The Desert Sun, January 14, 1978.

Some years ago, Mozumdar’s teachings saw a cultish revival, when some of his books and writings appeared on a website bearing his name. Two years ago, in 2018, Akhoy Mozumdar was inducted into the Spokane Historic Hall of Name – a worthy addition for, if nothing else, his whimsical propagation of Christian Yoga and his determined quest to seek naturalisation.

This is the second part in a new triweekly series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world, particularly the United States. The first part can be read here.

A spiritual guru’s curious journey to becoming the first Indian filmmaker in the US