During the second half of the last century, millions of lives were altered, some profoundly, by four Liverpudlians with mop-tops. The Beatles, as they called themselves, sold platinum albums, returned innocence to the world post the two world wars, held our hands in days full of gloom and became a soundtrack to many lives. Fifty years ago, in the February of 1968, the band embarked upon their discovery of India. Just like Paul Saltzman, a 23-year-old sound engineer and Beatles fan from Canada.
While the Fab Four, impressed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s lectures in London and Wales, came to Rishikesh to learn transcendental meditation, Saltzman was travelling the length and breadth of India to work on National Film Board of Canada’s documentary, Juggernaut. Their paths met when Saltzman, who was nursing a broken heart some weeks into his India trip (his girlfriend broke up with him through a letter she sent to Delhi) attended a lecture by Maharishi in Delhi University and decided to visit his Rishikesh ashram to heal himself. “I arrived there to know that I couldn’t come in because The Beatles were there, participating in a meditation course. It was bad news that they were there because I wouldn’t be allowed in,” says Saltzman.
He was eventually taken in after staying outside in a tent and hanging by the gate for eight days. Once inside, he was taught meditation, a “miraculous experience”. One day while returning from a session, he encountered John Lenon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr sitting with their partners — Cynthia Lennon, actor Jane Asher, Pattie Boyd Harrison and Maureen Starkey respectively. Their music had already been life-changing for Saltzman who had heard them live in Toronto in 1964. “I was quite calm as I was coming back from a meditation session. I do remember my heart beating fast. I asked if I could join them and John said, ‘Sure mate, pull up a chair’. They really took me into their group and were extremely warm,” says Saltzman.
Over the next week, he was conversing with them, watching them make music and photographing them inside the Rajaji National Park. He didn’t realise then that these pictures would one day be called the “most intimate shots of the band” and tour galleries the world over. “They took pictures of each other and had expensive Nikons while I had a cheap Pentax. I asked for permission and they said ‘take as many as you like’,” he says.
Fifty years since, Saltzman, who is known for Prom Night in Mississippi (2008), among other films, will release a documentary titled The Beatles in India describing his journey, and theirs, while discovering India. The film will feature a large chunk from the 70 photographs clicked by Saltzman along with interviews with filmmaker David Lynch (he runs a foundation that teaches meditation), Anand Shrivastava, Maharishi’s nephew and Chairman of SRM Foundation India, Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, and Pattie Boyd (Harrison’s first wife), among others. Saltzman even found the real Bungalow Bill — from the famed number The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill — in Hawaii.
There are photos of all four with their partners, dressed in white kurta pyjamas, wearing marigold garlands posing with Maharishi; John and Paul sitting on the steps of the ashram with their D-28 Martin acoustic guitars and jamming, one where Paul is singing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da from a piece of paper under his toe; and Ringo Starr in a sherwani and colourful scarf, among others. Saltzman’s favourite, however, is that of John, with his hand to his ear.
“At that time, I wasn’t an accomplished photographer and there was no automatic exposure; I was just a kid clicking photos. I had a ton of film but I only clicked 70 shots and 54 with anyone famous in them. Do I wish I had clicked more? Yes. But I didn’t because I was in the experience then,” he says.
The Beatles are said to have written 48 songs in Rishikesh over seven weeks while in the throes of discovering meditation and Hindu philosophy. Many of these went into the popular White Album. “George told me that he got higher meditating than through drugs,” he says. Saltzman also remembers a conversation where the musician was playing the sitar and the filmmaker appreciated the usage of the instrument in the song Norwegian Wood. “That’s when he told me about discovering the instrument and learning it from Pt Ravi Shankar,” says Saltzman.
As for the photographs, Saltzman forgot all about them for 32 years until his daughter Devyani (Saltzman’s daughter with filmmaker and ex-wife Deepa Mehta), when she was 16, asked him about meeting The Beatles and wanted to see the photographs. “After seeing these, she said I should do something with these. I thought about it for a week and said, why not,” says Saltzman, who wrote a book and toured with the photographs.
Saltzman has been a frequent flier to India since then. “When I first came here, at 23, I was overwhelmed. I felt my body opening up in a way I had never experienced. I felt more relaxed in my breathing. It was a wonderful awakening,” says Saltzman, who now does special tours for people wanting to experience the sights and sounds of India.