Though this be madness: Orange – Sannyas in Fremantle

With his ruby and diamond-studded Rolex, and a fleet of ninety-three Rolls-Royces, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931–1990) – or Osho, as he came to be known – was the bling guru. He rejected the asceticism of traditional Indian spiritual practice and embraced materialism and sexual disinhibition. It was a clever bit of mystical upcycling targeted at Westerners, and in the eighties – a decade where material excess could be passed off as charismatic irreverence – my hometown of Fremantle, Western Australia became a major international hub for Osho’s devotees. Recognisable by their orange clothes, his followers were called Sannyasins. A recent exhibition at Fremantle Arts Centre, Orange: Sannyas in Fremantle (April–21 May), explored the legacy of this controversial movement.

The extroverted Sannyasins aroused much public and media interest with their rumoured ‘free-love’ sexual practices, and concerns were inevitably raised about the welfare of Sannyasin children. In an interview, the exhibition’s co-curator Sohan Hayes acknowledged that his own experiences as a child growing up in the movement were mixed: parental responsibility was deemed secondary to the relationship with the master, and like many Sannyas children, he was left in the care of other adults for extended periods while his parents went off on their spiritual pursuits. Hayes nonetheless hoped the exhibition would ‘depoliticise’ the movement, complementing media representations with a more ‘sensory’ experience of Sannyas.

This friction of perspectives animated Loren Holmes’ mixed media work the explosive silence, in which a wealth of archival press material was printed onto a long, orange, wall-mounted box. Embedded into the box were a range of peepholes: peering in, between articles, I glimpsed photographs of ‘ecstatic’ disciples ‘taking Sannyas’ from their master. The peephole, it seemed, was meant to suggest the limitations (and prurient expectations) of an outsider view, though the fact that Sannyasin rapture was signified via a gimmicky kaleidoscopic lens did little to dispel an air of a confidence trick about the experience.

Significantly, the impetus for the exhibition was the death of Hayes’ mother, who still had a photograph of Osho on her mantlepiece when she died. If it’s typical for the bereaved to go through a phase when they idealise their loved one, protecting them from their more ambivalent feelings, much of the exhibition felt vulnerable to this aura of mourning. In Poppy van Oorde-Grainger’s music video work ‘Letting Go,’ images of dancers were superimposed on Fremantle Trades Hall, the local movement’s old headquarters. Shifting between older Sannyasins and a younger, sneaker-and-midriff generation who have inherited the practice of ‘ecstatic dancing,’ the footage suggested continuity rather than rupture.

The work Mirage, a collaboration between Dave Brophy, Bevan Honey and Dave Franzke featured a colour-separated print of a Rolls-Royce, whimsically embedded with a ‘spirit radio’ which broadcast Osho’s voice upon approach. Funded by ‘grateful’ disciples, the guru’s fleet of Rolls-Royces were an object of particular media scrutiny: some followers continue to explain this excess away as a profound and deliberate spiritual paradox, holding up a mirror to consumerism; others, like Hayes in his curator’s talk, simply treat it as an endearing quirk. Such indulgence, common among Fremantle Sannyasins, betrays a certain orientalism; as though their guru was an inscrutable subcontinental Yoda.

At the opening, one could have been forgiven for thinking they’d stumbled upon a group reunion rather than an art exhibition, a moved Hayes warmly acknowledging those wearing orange or devotional wooden malas. As I made my way around the gallery, the presumption of a sympathetic insider audience began to feel prohibitive. How, for instance, was I to justly respond to the inclusion of some of Hayes’ mother’s devotional drawings, executed in a naïve New Age style?

Osho taught that where art traditionally came out of the mind, and was therefore ‘subjective,’ the kind of art to which he moved his followers came ‘out of no-mind, out of silence, out of meditation’ and was ‘objective.’ The notion of the artist as a mere instrument that the ‘universe sings through’ conveniently places the work beyond critique, where it can be enlisted as a Sannyas product testimonial (Osho defined art as ‘the entrance to the temple of religion’). Responding in his curator’s talk to a criticism of the quality of some of the work, Hayes protested ‘how can you deny the experience?’ The notion that the fault is in the unmoved spectator, not the work, evokes a larger cult ethos, where the sceptic is seen as a victim of their doubting mind. As Osho said, ‘to anyone who cannot experience it, it will look like a con.’

Covert sceptics may have found some reprieve in Loren Holmes’ Where is Utopia? Set out on a table like an architectural plan, the work concerned Rajneeshpuram, a commune of up to 7000 disciples, established in Oregon in the eighties, which had its own airport, fire department and post-office. Illustrated in the manner of an instructional pamphlet, one detail showed a plane dropping orange cargo on a winding line of followers. A military intervention, spreading Agent Orange? Or were those prone bodies in states of meditative surrender, felled by Rajneesh propaganda? While the community avoided a fate à la Jonestown, it saw the genesis of what is considered the largest act of biological warfare on American soil. Hoping to gain power in the local election by affecting voter turn outs, in 1984 the movement succeeded in poisoning approximately 750 members of the Oregon community with salmonella, and Osho’s right-hand woman, Ma Anand Sheela, later landed a twenty-year sentence for her role. When the controversy erupted, Sheela claimed her master was complicit in these crimes; Osho responded like a lizard in peril, instinctively dropping its tail. His personal assistant, he told the media, was ‘just a hotel waitress’ whom he had made into ‘almost a queen’; ‘she did not prove to be a woman, she proved to be a perfect bitch.’

Sheela became the public face of the movement when she visited Western Australia in 1985, infamously dismissing concerns about the local expansion of the movement with her phrase ‘tough titties.’ Watching this old 60 Minutes footage on a gallery screen, it’s not hard to imagine how this irreverent, sharp-tongued woman became a scapegoat for many of the movement’s crimes. An audience member at the curator’s talk reported that other than being ‘taken away to Sydney by Sheela’s lot,’ his time in the movement was positive. It’s good PR, of course, to insist an organisation’s failings aren’t endemic but a corruption of a ‘pure’ message, and many bought the party line.

Even the domestic styling of the exhibition seemed to insist on a benign, home-grown groundswell, far from the lurid controversies of Oregon. Worn arm chairs clustered around a fireplace lit by a warm-toned video of the guru; over near the window, visitors crowded around a collection of photo frames, remembering old comrades. Escaping the pervasive air of bonhomie, I entered the room screening Joseph London’s video work Untitled, in which voices of present-day Sannyasins were played over scenes of Fremantle streetscapes. Watching the footage of freight trains trundle into the port, I ruminated on less tangible cargo: imported philosophies and the way they have woven their way deep into Fremantle’s social fabric. Though the movement went underground post-Oregon, when the guru instructed his followers to stop wearing orange, the Oshoisms have trickled down into local hippy parlance.

When I recently developed an allergic response to a rental house with a mould problem, my landlady assured me that my serious breathing problems were a sign of repressed emotion. A close friend coming out to his mother was met with a despairing ‘but your chakras!’ (Osho, charmingly, viewed homosexuality as a ‘perversion’ of ‘natural’ heterosexual energy). In press releases, Hayes claimed that Arts Centre director Jim Cathcart felt a ‘moral obligation to cover this part of Fremantle history,’ yet little of the work considered the impact the movement has had on local imaginings of ethical responsibility. Disconcertingly, this exhibition by a respectable art institution provided a forum for present-day recruitment. A handwritten note casually left behind on a memorabilia table urged the reader to Google the official Osho website; a note pinned to the message board declared that the opening night marked the beginning of a ‘journey’ for this visitor, who had made ‘many new friends.’

I had to look deep among the exultant notes of praise to find a sober message saying the exhibition had brought up the ‘sadness and anger of a lost friend.’ Letting go had its problems, the note continued, and there was little support for some. ‘Letting go’ is a reference to the form of dynamic meditation in which semi-naked Sannyasins were blindfolded and told to cathartically ‘go mad,’ relinquishing their ego (or at least their critical defences). Hayes’ own artwork, Dynamic VR, included virtual reality headsets that offered a tame simulation of this experience of altered perception. Replicating the padded walls ashrams used for this ‘active’ form of meditation, the layout played off the Art Centre’s history, from 1864 to 1909, as the Convict Establishment Fremantle Lunatic Asylum. Donning the headset and moving self-consciously around the room, I thought of another psychiatric centre in the late 1800s, Salpêtrière Hospital, where female patients were prompted by French physician Jean-Martin Charcot to perform the symptoms of hysteria for a captive audience.

Sannyasin ‘madness’ had its own unique set of dramatic conventions, including induced hyperventilation, convulsions and screams. While Hayes’ work made a coy nod toward the outsider view of Sannyasin practices as ‘nutty,’ it’s unlikely the average gallery goer would have been aware of a more explicit link: several disciples working in the Western Australian Mental Health Services in the early eighties referred patients to the organisation, potentially introducing the vulnerable to these destabilising practices. Preaching that the root of all problems was repressed sexual energy, Osho encouraged his followers to strenuously ‘liberate’ their primal instincts in a controversial form of ‘encounter therapy.’ There were reports of physical and sexual assaults.

The exhibition catalogue portrayed Osho as a man whose vision was misunderstood by the media, claiming his ‘intention was to point toward a new way of being in the world, free from ideology and morality, yet responsible and aware.’ Yet while the media’s labeling of the Sannyasin movement as a ‘sex cult’ certainly played into conservative fears, the movement’s leader was just as well versed in moral panic. Preaching that AIDS was a homosexual disease, and warning of a conspiracy of doctors distributing false negative medical certificates, Osho claimed that his ashram was the only safe haven from a coming AIDS apocalypse; though he instructed his followers to wear gloves during sex for full protection. Which explains this gem of eighties Fremantle graffiti: The price of free love? Rubber gloves.

Fond of mythologising its ‘libertarian’ spirit, my sun-boiled port town is prone to a bit of cultural amnesia. But in our rush to celebrate local ‘colour,’ reclaiming the Sannyasin movement as a bit of harmless eccentricity, let’s not forgot those who were damaged or neglected by its vast web; nor pity them as unfortunate, remote exceptions. After all, it takes a village.


Image: Rajneesh and disciples / Wikipedia

Katie Dobbs

Katie Dobbs is a writer and critic. Her work has appeared in Overland, Literary Hub, Review of Australian Fiction and The Lifted Brow.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Yes, ‘Orange’ practises didn’t sit easily with a committed leftist politics, and it wasn’t difficult to see the business they were in: political, monetary and ethical extortion.

  2. An excellent review. I too was really surprised by the lack of critical reflection within the exhibition, and by the surrounding exhibition events. I feel that by positioning the period in history in such an earnest, fond and benign way does not acknowledge the many complex and problematic aspects of this movement – much of which have been documented by original members in terms of their experience and more broadly as part of the discourse of religious cults, and the issues you explore here. Agree that it functioned more as a reunion, and hence feel that it sits uncomfortably that this subjective, largely singular opinion, has been endorsed, and promoted, by a gallery without critical consideration.

  3. This is the first piece of writing to really critically assess, ‘Orange’, in depth. Thank you for taking the time to do this, Katie, I had been waiting for someone to really take time to have a close look. If I could make some comment in response to your suggestions that certain texts in the exhibition functioned a recruitment devices and that there was the overwhelming sense of the exhibition functioning an ‘Orange’ reunion. There was an extraordinary number of people who claimed they really loved the show, as indicated by the blog wall, but I was aware that many making those comments were clouded by nostalgia not only for Sannyas, but that time in Fremantle. Making work around a subject like this one, that is so tangled up in emotion and nostalgia was very challenging, and perhaps there is danger of any of the included texts and media being conversional – that was part of their original aim. We were careful, of course, to remove any direct advertising from the blog wall and reading table.

    Buried amongst the many Sannyas salutations was a comment by someone who’d written two words, ‘Karri Valley?’ The question was like an accusation – why were these events excluded from the show (apart from some press articles in Loren’s work)? Why did we not go further into the dark side of Sannyas? The limits on discussion where in large part defined by the artists and the community members they worked with to create the works in the show. We all had to be very sensitive in our approaches, to be honest. Poppy, who worked with the Sannyas kids to create the video work, ‘Letting Go’, was limited by what those individuals chose to discuss. I was limited by my own experience and relationship with my Mother. Yet each of the artists attempted to critically respond to a sub-set of material and people that they were assigned. I acknowledge that some of the works had a certain sense of reverie, and the sense of nostalgia appears out of a function of recreating a location, a space. The intent was too give some sensory impressions of that time & now, alongside the conceptual impressions given by the artefacts and media. There were considerable limits & sensitivities in working with this subject and some would perhaps say it was madness to even consider the task!

  4. Well, well … an article on the so-called Orange People. Probably overdue. What sense to be made of the movement though, if it can be called such? Well I recall the aforesaid so-called orange people spilling out of the old Fremantle Trades Hall building on the corner of Collie and Pakenham streets (some irony) around midnight each evening (as if at a rave, which they also attended) as I cycled home from my stint at the Mail Exchange where I worked as a letter sorter, high on ecstasy (not me, the other lot). Sometimes though I would stop at the Esplanade Hotel (before it was gentrified) and get a middy of beer and a pie, the latter of which the barman (the only females in the bar were topless) would take from the warmer with his bare hands, and bang it down beside me on the bar, just like that, sans plate or anything fancy. Predictably, the Orange phenomenon didn’t last that long, and I remember seeing some years later Jane Campion’s 1999 film, Holy Smoke, where the daughter of a well to do farming family, if I recall correctly, simply wanted to go to India and join a spiritual community, and her family did all they could to stop her, even going to the trouble and expense of hiring a macho cult de-programmer to dissuade the girl from doing something she felt driven to do. So, the Orange People. Who weren’t hippies, more hangers on and hangers out of the social dictates of the time, all for themselves really, like the Sanyassin governing body, and unlike the earlier hippy movement, who at least pointed the middle finger at social conservatives and said you and your society are the ones who are crazy and mixed up, not us. Or something like that.

    1. To be fairer to the aforesaid ‘Orange People’, I knew many, both before, during and after the movement, whether at school, at Uni, or out on the social fabric, and mostly found them okay, a few committed to the spiritual ’cause’, but most in it for the fun of the ride, the companionship of like minds, easy sex etc., which sounds a bit condescending, perhaps, and foremost, I found them mostly to be apolitical (which explains how the Bagwan bullshit rolled them so easily), in the sense that they were not political subjects within and for themselves, for their own and for the social good, rather controlled as a group by a false guru who, without the irony of the that Frank Zappa album, Was Only in It for the Money, and as stated previously, the devotees to the cause were crazy and mixed up, like 50s teenagers were said to by the ruling ideology of the time, and minus the later 60s retort that no, the ruling social governance is the crazy mixed up one.

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