A new film on the Beatles and India: What caused the falling out at Rishikesh?

Ajoy Bose’ s 2021 documentary uses contemporary footage and fresh new interviews to re-examine the band’s India connection.
Paul McCartney and George Harrison with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh in 1968. The ‘biggest band in the world’ did want to give bliss a chance, but their interest in spirituality was short-lived. (Colin Harrison Avico Ltd) PREMIUM
Paul McCartney and George Harrison with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh in 1968. The ‘biggest band in the world’ did want to give bliss a chance, but their interest in spirituality was short-lived. (Colin Harrison Avico Ltd)
Updated on Dec 03, 2021 07:53 PM IST
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The most telling moment in the brief love affair between India and Western hippie culture came at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1971. Opening the Concert for Bangladesh, a show organised by former Beatle George Harrison, Ravi Shankar and his tabla accompanist Alla Rakha, first tuned their instruments. As soon as the tuning-up was over and Shankar was ready to begin his set, he was assailed by a massive wave of applause. The crowd believed that the tuning up had been the first song of the set.

“If you like the tuning up so much,” Shankar told the audience, “I hope you will enjoy the performance even more.”

I was not quite 15 years old when the Concert for Bangladesh was held and wondered, even then, if Shankar was simply being literal, or if there was a slight snideness to his remark.

It took me decades to find out. I finally asked Shankar, in an interview, if there had been an edge to his words. It turned out that a mixture of snideness and exasperation prompted the remark. Shankar was pleased that the Concert was happening. It had been his idea. (Harrison included Shankar’s appeal to him in his song, Bangla Desh: “my friend came to me with sadness in his eyes / told me that he wanted help before his country dies”). And he was pleased that Indian music was being received so rapturously.

But he was frustrated by the unwillingness of his new Western fans to bother to understand the music. And he was worried that, for many young Westerners, Indian music and drugs seemed to go together. Hence, that edge to his remark to the mostly stoned Madison Square Garden crowd.

The mismatch between Shankar’s rigorous raga tradition and the mindless adulation of the West emerged out of the influence of the Beatles. As Ajoy Bose shows in his 2018 book Across the Universe: The Beatles in India and now in the documentary The Beatles and India, it was only because the biggest band in the world “discovered” India that young people in Europe and America decided to tune in and turn on.

The Beatles were into India even before they met Ravi Shankar. But when George Harrison sought Shankar out and asked him to teach him how to play the sitar, a young infatuation turned into a full-fledged love affair.

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It seems clear now that the other Beatles were not as fascinated by Indian music as Harrison was, but they let him record such Indian-influenced songs as The Inner Light (most of it was recorded at HMV Studios in Mumbai, with no other Beatles present), Within You Without You (very little musical input from the other Beatles) and Blue Jay Way (which used Western instruments to achieve an Indian sound).

What the band was more interested in was Indian spirituality. They went off to a meditation retreat in Bangor, Wales, conducted by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but left early, in shock, after their manager Brian Epstein died, possibly by suicide. Floundering, they returned to the Maharishi and later spent several weeks at his ashram in Rishikesh.

It was while the Beatles were in Rishikesh that the West began to be fascinated by Indian spirituality. Such words as ‘guru’ and ‘karma’ entered the vocabulary and yoga became trendy. It was during this period that the Hare Krishna movement made its biggest popular advances, once again with the patronage of the Beatles, especially George Harrison, who produced the hit-single version of their mantra.

The India-is-so-groovy phase lasted about seven years. It began in 1966 and began to tail off in 1973. During that phase, India was everywhere. Ravi Shankar became the most famous Indian in America, and performed at Woodstock in 1969. A south Indian guru called Swami Satchidananda also spoke at the Woodstock festival (“Music is the celestial sound and it is sound that controls the whole universe, not atomic vibrations”, he declared).

Nehru jackets became a fashion statement. Kolhapuri chappals were sold at huge mark-ups, and beads became integral to hippie culture.

Though Harrison’s interest in Indian philosophy was deep and profound (he told me in an interview that Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda changed his life), most of his fans never really went beyond the chanting, and used the promise of spiritual bliss as a cover for drug use. To be fair, the Beatles did want to give bliss a chance, but their interest in spirituality collapsed after their stay in Rishikesh.

What happened there is still unclear but John Lennon was bitter enough to write a nasty song about Mahesh Yogi called Maharishi. (“Maharishi, what have you done/ You made a fool of everyone”). After Harrison and Paul McCartney intervened, Lennon changed “Maharishi” to “Sexy Sadie”.

Filmmaker Ajoy Bose.
Filmmaker Ajoy Bose.

The documentary The Beatles and India examines the reasons for the falling out. Nobody believes John Lennon’s version that Mahesh Yogi made a pass at actress Mia Farrow, who was also at the ashram. Bose speculates in his book Across the Universe that the false story was fed to Lennon by a jealous crony of his named Alexis Mardas. Another possibility is that the Beatles felt that Mahesh Yogi had begun to exploit them for commercial purposes.

A third option, mentioned in the film, is that the Beatles themselves did something wrong. Apparently when George Harrison went to see Mahesh Yogi years later, he apologised for what the Beatles had done. But what exactly had they done?

The author Deepak Chopra, who was a friend of Harrison and once worked with Mahesh Yogi, set up that meeting. He told me, in an interview, that the Maharishi had discovered that the Beatles smuggled drugs into his ashram. This angered the Maharishi and led to the falling-out. That was what Harrison was apologising for.

For whatever reason, the West continued to be fascinated by Indian spirituality until one day, it just wasn’t. This became clear when Harrison went on tour in the US in 1974. At each venue, before he came on, Ravi Shankar would play a brief opening set of semi-classical music. Harrison was confident the audiences would lap it up. But he was wrong. Now, the same audiences who had cheered the tuning-up at the Concert for Bangladesh began to leave the hall and head for the bar when Shankar started to play. The mood had changed.

Still, it was a brief glorious moment and the documentary The Beatles and India captures it perfectly, with clever use of contemporary footage and fresh new interviews. The Beatles are back in vogue this year (Peter Jackson’s re-edited version of the Let It Be sessions is now out too) and The Beatles and India is a perfect documentary for this time.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Why hide the papers? Why keep the conspiracy theories related to Netaji Subhas Bose’s death alive? And why deny India the truth about the death of one of its great freedom fighters?

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Sunday, May 29, 2022