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Forgotten Polymath’s Prison Experiment Inspired Bollywood Classic & Won a Golden Globe

Forgotten Polymath’s Prison Experiment Inspired Bollywood Classic & Won a Golden Globe

Do Aankhen Barah Haath, a 1957 Hindi cinema classic which won a Golden Globe award, was organised by Maurice Frydman, an extraordinary polymath and polyglot from Poland.

Do Aankhen Barah Haath, a 1957 Hindi cinema classic directed by V Shantaram, which among other accolades won a National Award and Golden Globe Award, has a remarkable back story. A cannon of popular Hindi cinema, this film took inspiration from a unique pre-Independence social experiment organised by an extraordinary Jewish polymath and polyglot from Poland.     
(Above image of Maurice Frydman on the Left and the film poster on the right)

In the late 1930s, Maurice Frydman, who went by ‘Swami Bharatananda’ after renouncing the world and taking vows of Sannyasa, was invited by Apa Pant, the Prince of Aundh, a small princely state in present-day Maharashtra, and his father Raja Bhawan Rao [Balasaheb, titled ‘Pant Pratinidhi’], a strong supporter of the freedom struggle

Maurice, an engineer by trade, was called upon by Apa Pant to improve the condition of impoverished villages in the princely state suffering from regular drought-like conditions.        

At this erstwhile princely state, Maurice helped MK (Mahatma) Gandhi implement his ideas of local self-government, which historians famously call the ‘Aundh Experiment’. 

Besides assisting Gandhi in drafting the ‘November Declaration’ in 1939, which handed over the rule of Aundh from the monarch to its residents, and convinced the Raja to abolish capital punishment, he also established a free prison or open jail in Swatantrapur village. 

In this ‘open prison’, prisoners had the option of staying with their families, working on farms and were made to do work for village projects like digging wells and building schools. 

“He taught them how to build houses, he taught them agriculture; he taught them all the skills they needed to live independent lives and the recidivism rate was zero. Not a single one of these people ever needed to go back to jail. I have seen interviews with these people. Filmed interviews (of them) in their 90s. They were old men, and they were crying. They just said, ‘Maurice saved us’,” said David Godman, a friend and author of ‘Be As You Are’, an edited anthology of the revered Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings, in a 2016 interview for the YouTube channel Buddha At The Gas Pump.

Years later, filmmaker V Shantaram heard about Maurice’s social experiment. Godman stated that Maurice was hired by Shantaram as a technical advisor for the film. 

Despite Shantaram’s repeated requests, Maurice refused the offer and asked him not to put his name in the film credits. He also threatened to take out an injunction against Shantaram in the Bombay High Court forbidding him to put his name on this project. 

“He was just absolutely an extraordinary man. And went out of his way to cover his tracks; to hide what he actually had accomplished in his life,” said Godman.

Maurice Frydman's prison experiment inspired a Bollywood classic
Maurice Frydman (Image courtesy Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi Center)

A spiritual pursuit

A native of Krakow, Poland, Maurice was born in 1894. This was a time when Poland was ruled by Tsarist Russia. Maurice grew up in a poor ghetto where access to public education was limited by the Tsarist administration, a fate suffered by many Jewish children in Poland.  

However, he was blessed with prodigious intelligence. According to Apa Pant, “He was reading and writing in the Cyrillic, Roman and Hebrew alphabets and speaking fluent Russian, Polish, French, English and Hebrew before he was ten.” While his father wanted him to become a rabbi, Maurice went in another direction and earned a scholarship to study engineering.

“Before he was 20, he had about 100 patents to his name for his electrical and mechanical inventions, of which a ‘talking book’ was one,” wrote Apa Pant. Following his university stint, he worked in a series of research institutes, laboratories and electrical factories across Europe. 

By his mid-20s, however, he had reached a phase of spiritual disillusionment after emigrating to Paris. Despite studying a variety of scriptures of the Jewish and Christian faith, he felt deep discontentment. He had no interest in organised religions and their rituals and dogmas. 

Interestingly, his first encounter with the spiritual traditions of India came in the form of a second-hand copy of a book written by the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti translated into French, which he had found on a sidewalk in Warsaw, according to Godman. 

But it was during his stint in Paris when he discovered a variety of Hindu scriptures including the Vedanta texts, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and the Mahabharat. 

According to NK Srinivasan, who wrote a short biography on the life of Maurice Frydman, “He found the Vedantic path suitable to quench his spiritual thirst, away from dogmatic precepts. He resolved to go to India and seek spiritual wisdom there.” 

Srinivasan goes on to note, “He met Annie Besant and her protege J Krishnamurti in the Swiss Alps. He became a close friend of JK for nearly 40 years. Maurice, however, was always a serious questioner of JK’s thoughts and they had several verbal ‘duels’ in later years. Maurice organised meetings for JK in Paris and also translated some of J K’s works into French.”

But what sparked his desire to visit India was a book by Paul Brunton ‘A Search in Secret India’ where he first learnt about the Hindu sage Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi. “Maurice was now burning with desire to meet the sage at Arunachala or Thiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, and follow the path of Jnana. He was still tied to his work in Paris,” wrote Srinivasan. 

Maurice Frydman was a Forest Gump like figure. His prison experiment inspired a Golden Globe-winning Bollywood classic.
Maurice Frydman (wearing a suit) sitting in a 1930s group photo with Ramana Maharshi. (Image courtesy David Godman)

Divine intervention

Divine intervention came in the form of Sir Mirza Ismail, the Diwan of Mysore state, who was visiting Paris on a mission to find engineers who could enhance the industrial base of his state. 

Impressed by intelligence and technical brilliance, Ismail extended an invitation, asking him to set up electrical factories in Mysore state. Without hesitation, Maurice accepted the invitation and made his way to present-day Bengaluru where he began work setting up the Government Electric Factory. This factory would go on to produce India’s first electrical transformers. 

Besides receiving a generous salary, Ismail also gave him a car and a house. For Maurice, though, this was a chance to meet Ramana Maharshi at Thiruvannamalai, which was about 250 km from the city. In 1935, Maurice made his first visit to the spiritual guru’s ashram. 

“Maurice travelled on weekends to the ashram of Bhagwan Ramana and became an ardent disciple of Maharshi. Later Maurice stayed in the ashram for three years…The spirit of renunciation burned in the heart of Maurice. He would soon renounce everything. He wanted to take sannyasa  —vows of monkhood according to Hindu traditions,” wrote Srinivasan. 

Despite his devotion to Ramana Maharshi and writing a small book in English compiling his teachings, it was Swami Ramdas, who “gave sannyasa to Maurice and offered the gerua cloth with the monastic title ‘Swami Bharatananda’ – a name Maurice would use in later writings”. 

The spiritual transformation was nearly complete with Maurice donning a shaved head, saffron robes and a begging bowl as well. Going further, nearly everything he earned as the General Manager of the Government Electric Factory in Bengaluru was donated to the poor. 

Ismail wasn’t very fond of this transformation. But unwilling to lose a brilliant engineer, they arrived at a compromise. He would wear formal British clothing only while receiving important guests to the factory. But that dynamic changed when Apa Pant first visited him at the factory. 

Association with Gandhi

Apa Pant sought Maurice’s services for three months to improve the condition of villages in the Aundh princely state. Sir Ismail rejected his request and said he could only release Maurice from his duties managing the factory at a later time. Even a letter from the Raja of Aundh requesting the same couldn’t change Ismail’s mind. Maurice, however, was having none of it and gave up his lucrative job at the factory to work in service of these impoverished villages. 

It was at Aundh where Maurice met Mahatma Gandhi for the first time. According to various accounts, it was Maurice who convinced the Raja of Aundh to free his control over the 70-odd village properties, following which he drew up the November Declaration. He then wrote the constitution of the state, which formalised the transfer of power from the Raja to his people. 

“An interesting side fact is that during his time with Gandhi, [Maurice] Frydman worked on and improved the design of the cotton spinning wheels that became synonymous with Gandhi and his movement,” notes this description. But his association with Gandhi didn’t end at Aundh.

Maurice’s close associate Barry Gordon, a former marine in the United States Army, wrote in an article, “He was also active in the [Gandhi’s] Sevagram movement, which continued after Independence from Britain. Maurice played a key role in the invention of several hand tools, such as spinning equipment, which was then employed by the village industries movement.”

This Bollywood classic was inspired by Maurice Frydman's prison experiment
Film poster of ‘Do Ankhen Barah Haath’: The film was inspired by Maurice Frydman’s unique open prison experiment in Aundh, Maharashtra

Shelter for Tibetans 

Post-Independence, his biggest contribution came in the form of assistance to Tibetan refugees escaping the Communist regime in China post-1959.  

Maurice had heard about their plight from his friend Apa Pant, who at the time was stationed in Sikkim as a political officer by the Nehru government. Despite their terrible plight after an arduous journey across the Himalayas, the Nehru government initially exercised caution about how to deal with them given this was a time when he wanted to maintain close ties to China. 

As NK Srinivasan noted, however, Maurice was having none of it. 

“Maurice met with the prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, a close friend of Apa Pant. He requested Nehru to write to various states to provide settlement villages for these refugees and he would organise for their welfare. Nehru would not make a quick decision. But Maurice was almost adamant; met him several times and waited on Nehru for several hours and finally got an official letter signed by him to various state governments,” wrote Srinivasan. 

“With this letter, Maurice travelled to several states for Tibetan refugee villages from Delhi to Karnataka. In fact in Karnataka, where he was a familiar figure with local officials and widely respected, he could obtain three villages. They are thriving Tibetan communities even today,” he added. From 1959 to 1965, Maurice worked tirelessly for their relief and rehabilitation. 

Assisting him in this endeavour was Wanda Dynowska, a wealthy Polish lady and secretary of the Theosophical Society in Poland, who came to India in 1935 and was given the Indian name Uma Devi by Gandhi. For her extensive work in the relief and rehabilitation of the Tibetan refugee community, she was given the name ‘Ama-La’ or as the Dalai Lama recalled ‘mother-ji’.     

Post 1965, Maurice spent a lot of his time in Mumbai, where he became a disciple of Nisargadatta Maharaj, “a sage in the advaitic tradition, much like Ramana Maharshi”. He edited and translated Nisargadatta Maharaj’s tape-recorded conversations into the English-language book ‘I Am That’, published in 1973. It includes an appendix written by him titled ‘Nisarga Yoga’ which briefly describes this form of Yoga. Maurice eventually died on 9 March 1976 in Mumbai.      

Godman described him best, “Maurice is one of most extraordinary people I’ve ever come across and virtually nothing is known about him. And because of his connection with Ramana Maharshi, Krishnamurti, Gandhi, Nisargadatta, the Dalai Lama, I kind of view him as a Forest Gump of 20th-century spirituality.” One would, however, go one step further, and note that if there was a Forest Gump-like movie made in India, it should be about him.  


David Godman – 2nd Buddha at the Gas Pump Interview

‘The Extraordinary Life of Maurice Frydman’ (Biographical Collection)

‘Maurice Frydman–Jnani and a Karma Yogi: A Biography’ by NK Srinivasan

Maurice Frydman by Barry Gordon courtesy Inner Directions

Twitter/The Paperclip

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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