I left school in Britain in December 1967, soon after the release of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Youngsters my age were avid followers of the Beatles’ music. The country was struck by “Beatlemania”, a word that entered the English dictionary owing to the impact of the four radical Liverpool musicians who changed popular music forever. Wherever they went, the “Fab Four” were mobbed by fans.
At our end-of-term school party, leavers performed a version of Sgt. Pepper’s whose alternative words escape my memory. But the catchy tune and original lyrics remain embedded: It was twenty years ago today, / Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play,/ They’ve been going in and out of style,/ But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.
Before going to university, I took up a voluntary teaching job at The Doon School in Dehradun. There was news that the Beatles were coming to Rishikesh to stay at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram. It was February 1968. They would be just an hour’s drive away from me. What would it take to become the envy of teenagers in Britain and around the world?
At Doon, I befriended brothers Ajit and Emrik Singh, who taught music at the school and owned Pratap Music House. The shop, founded in Lahore in 1883, sold musical instruments. Ajit is a musician of some repute. Soon the brothers earned the label “By appointment to the Beatles”, to whom they supplied sitars and other instruments.
Our opportunity came on George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd’s birthday in March. Harrison, an enthusiast of Indian music, had ordered a dilruba from the Singhs’ music shop as a birthday gift to be presented at a grand party one evening. Generously, Ajit invited us British volunteers to tag along.
Reaching the Ashram meant crossing the Ganga by ferry. Passing the security that kept fans and media at bay, we entered the Maharishi’s sprawling estate on the river bank surrounded by jungle. The Beatles were not immediately in sight but other celebrities were. We met flutist Paul Horn, Beach Boys guitarist Mike Love and singer Donovan. Another resident was Indian magician Shah Jahan, son of Gogia Pasha.
This was a rather special ashram, not marked by austerity or abstemiousness. It was recently described as “like a luxury spa resort”, which is an exaggeration, but in terms of comfort, compared with most Rishikesh ashrams, it was certainly a class apart. The stars had their own bungalows and would allegedly complain about the food, which was basic if you are used to fine dining. Ringo Starr, in particular, disliked Indian food and led regular excursions to Napoli’s restaurant, opposite Pratap Music House in Dehradun.
At the ashram, we saw music-making more than meditation, but then it was a Sunday. Walking up the central avenue, I could hear loud music wafting out of a bungalow, which, I was fairly sure, was occupied by the Beatles. I was probably hearing early versions of the tracks later released as The White Album. Music historians note that this album was substantially composed in Rishikesh. It included Hey Jude, Revolution and — curiously — Back in the USSR.
After another security check in the evening, we were admitted to an assembly hall, the ashram’s inner sanctum. Along with Boyd’s present, we also transported her birthday cake, which, if memory serves, was ordered from Napoli’s. We mingled in the informal setting. I found myself hobnobbing with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and his then girlfriend Jane Asher. Harrison was busy with the music, dabbling on the dilruba. Starr had, by this time, returned to the UK, possibly because the food did not agree with him, but the other three seemed to be enjoying themselves beyond public gaze.
Afterwards, we all sat down on the floor in a circle, presided over by the Maharishi who was a couple of cushions higher than the rest of us, and listened to music from Harrison, Donovan and Horn. Birthday cake was eaten and Happy Birthday sung as Boyd tried playing her new dilruba.
Apart from putting Rishikesh on the international map, not necessarily for the reasons it might prefer, the most lasting legacy of this India visit of the Fab Four — of whom Lennon had said two years earlier “We are more popular than Jesus” — was that The White Album released later the same year, after Europe had been shaken by student riots in Paris and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Other “Rishikesh songs” were penned but never made it to an album. Harrison wrote several such songs, including Dehra Dun, which is there on YouTube, a catchy tune rather short on original lyrics. Keep listening to hear the Beatles discussing their time in Rishikesh. Another such was Om Hare Om (Gopala Krishna). Also influenced by Rishikesh was the distinctive and popular My Sweet Lord, originally called Hare Krishna, released in 1970, the year The Beatles disbanded.
Transcendental Meditation (TM), that had brought the Beatles to the ashram, eventually went out of fashion, partly owing to high course fees. Recent times have seen its revival as a way of coping with trauma and depression. When McCartney’s wife died in 1998, he took his daughter, fashion designer Stella McCartney, to the Netherlands, where Maharishi then lived, Stella told The Times that TM “really did help me at a time when I really needed some help.” She described her father as a dedicated meditator who “brought TM to the awareness of most of the world.”
Rishikesh, probably, never fully recovered from its moment of fame. The TM ashram is derelict now. Napoli’s is gone but Dehradun has many more good restaurants than it did in 1968, and Pratap Music House is still going strong.