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When India changed the course of The Beatles’ lives forever

A new documentary, The Beatles and India, directed by Ajoy Bose and Peter Compton, to have its India premiere at the Kolkata International Film Festival, traces the time Beatles came to India and the cultural assimilation that followed

Written by Suanshu Khurana |
Updated: January 19, 2022 9:26:07 am
The Beatles in RishikeshThe Beatles in Rishikesh. (Source: Colin Harrison/Avico)

It was hard to miss women swooning, screaming, chasing them down the streets, and the monstrous sums of money that surrounded The Beatles in the ’60s, both in the UK and the Western world. Amid the pandemonium, the four Liverpudlians with mop tops, kingpins of modern pop, turned East for peace. And almost 50 years ago, they arrived at the foot of the Himalayas, in Rishikesh, where, in the February of 1968, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram welcomed its most celebrated visitors.

What the Fab Four didn’t know was that senior journalist Saeed Naqvi had embedded himself in the ashram as a disciple in an attempt to get a story of the band’s stay. He was neither interested in the music nor in meditation, but only in the story he was to find inside. And on a pleasant winter day, when he saw John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, sitting under a banyan tree with their partners — Cynthia Lennon, Pattie Boyd, actor Jane Asher, and Maureen Starkey, respectively — listening to the Maharishi, he knew he had to capture that moment.

George & Patti with garlands 2 (1) George & Patti with garlands. (Source: Colin Harrison/Avico)

But back then, not everyone carried a camera. He surreptitiously brought in his photographer friend Raghu Rai, who waited outside the main gate, alongside a sea of journalists from all over the world. Rai entered with his camera fixed with a zoom lens hidden inside his labaada (cloak), sent off the sadhu accompanying him to fetch him a glass of water and took that perfect shot. The picture and the story have made it to The Beatles and India, the latest documentary on the band’s time in the country. “In those days, we didn’t have autofocus and auto-exposure cameras. So, you had to set everything. So, I took just one picture under that tree — Mahesh Yogi and The Beatles,” says Rai, in the documentary.

Ajoy Bose Delhi-based author Ajoy Bose.

Directed by Delhi-based author Ajoy Bose, who also wrote Across the Universe: The Beatles in India (2018, Penguin), and London-based cultural researcher Peter Compton, the documentary captures the Fab Four’s emotional and cultural connect with India, its influence on their music and how the sounds of the East changed the course of their lives forever. “It was actually a two-way street. For India, The Beatles were symbols of modern culture and India imbibed some of this. But these were also the most famous pop stars reinventing themselves into cultural icons and India played beautifully into this,” says Bose, 69.

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George Harrison George Harrison playing sitar. (Source: Colin Harrison/Avico)

Beyond Transcendental meditation, Harrison was fascinated by the sitar and his new friend, Pt Ravi Shankar, who taught him the instrument. “Indian music became a part of their imagination; it went beyond Norwegian Wood and a couple of other pieces. You see the influence in their other songs, too, including the use of the drone and their whole approach to the beat. It made The Beatles a more complex group,” says Bose. The White Album (1968) was a clear result of this assimilation.

PeterCompton (3) London-based cultural researcher Peter Compton.

The Beatles and India, produced by Beatles aficionado Reynold D’Silva, head, Silva Screen Music Group, the UK, was mostly created on the editing table, says Bose, who was approached by Compton, during a seminar at Bournemouth University in 2019.

Paul McCartney and Jane Asher - Avico.co.uk Paul McCartney & Jane Asher. (Source: Colin Harrison/Avico)

There are stories from the band’s stay in India, including the uproar in the Indian Parliament insinuating that the CIA, the US intelligence wing, had sent spies to India. And how Ajit Singh, owner of Pratap Music Shop in Dehradun, brought a bunch of instruments and musicians to the ashram for Boyd’s birthday and played Within you without you on the sitar. The film also includes interviews with other musicians and composers, the housekeeper at the ashram then, and the disciples who lived inside, besides riveting archival conversations with Shankar. “For the soundtrack, we roped in a number of musicians to create a soundtrack for the film,” says D’Silva. It also includes a piece by Shankar’s daughter, Anoushka.

The Beatles left India after their impressions of the Maharishi changed. “Maharishi, of course, I think, used The Beatles for publicity. But, he probably also did them a lot of good. They led such high-strung lives, so being in that forest, near the Himalayas, also helped them,” says Bose, whose film, after travelling to three international festivals, will have its India premiere at the Kolkata International Film Festival, now postponed owing to the pandemic.

One sees that effect in the music that followed. The Beatles played great music despite massive ego battles. “Something magical happened when they played together. To know that India had something to do with it, is fabulous,” says Bose.

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