December 9, 2005
I wonder if the bead counting mendicants on the other side of Lakshman Jhoola in Rishikesh have any recollection (on the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death) of how their peace was shattered by the arrival of the Beatles in the spring of 1968, in search of a new label: holy singers from the hermitage.
This plot, the quest for a new, spiritualised image, was, I suspect, in John Lennon’s head, whom I found the most secretive of the Beatles. The most candid was Ringo Starr: “its like a Butlin holiday camp!” he exclaimed within hours of having reach Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, Chaurasi Kutia, or 84 huts. The next day he brought his spiritual quest to an abrupt end, packed up his bags and left. The most earnest about meditation, Indian music, particularly the sitar, was George Harrison who occasionally tried to draw Paul McCartney into the conversation with little apparent success.
This was the first wave of globalisation that I personally experienced, ensconced in my cubicle as a guest of the Maharishi (that’s the story I shall tell on another occasion).
The Beatles were not the only musicians to have made their way to the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh. The Beach Boys, Donovan, Mike Horn and film stars like Mia Farrow and sister Prudence Farrow, lay for days, sunk in transcendental meditation. “Hush!” the Maharishi would whisper. “Prudence and the Beatles have been in continuous meditation for 36 hours.” I was always a little sceptical of these feats which bordered more on physical endurance than spiritual experience.
The manifestation of the Beatles in a Hindu ashram has its genesis in a movement started in the US a decade earlier. While Jack Kerouac, the guru of the Beat generation, was writing and rewriting ‘On The Road’, his comrade, Allen Ginsberg, was spacing his marijuana trances with reverential trips to Varanasi in search of nirvana.
The Beatniks gave way to a surge of flower children in Haight & Ashbury, California. These flower children, disparagingly called the hippies, came to India and Nepal in droves, re-invented Goa and spilled over into the ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama’ hotels in New Delhi’s Paharganj.
These impulses were being picked up at a more sophisticated level. Cross fertilisation between the East and the West, particularly in the musical field at a higher cultural level, was facilitated at the Edinburgh Festival in 1963. Lord Harewood, director of the festival, was a friend of Yehudi Menuhin, the great violinist, and Dr Narayana Menon, veena player and secretary, Sangeet Natak Akademi. It was Menon who introduced Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) to Lord Harewood. Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar made such an impact on the musicians and musicologists present in Edinburgh, that their performances imparted to Indian classical music an exceptionally high profile in western musical circles.
In some ways the appearance of the Ravi Shankar-Ali Akbar duet in the western musical world could be compared to the impact Satyjit Ray had on the world of cinema with the release of Pather Panchali in the mid-’50s.
The Edinburgh music festival was followed up by Yehudi Menuhin-Ravi Shankar sitar-violin duets. Menuhin, one of the greatest western musicians of all time, delving into Indian classical music and yoga, gave Indian culture a boost in the West it had not had in recent decades. The fillip given to this fusion by Menuhin, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar attracted the attention of the Beatles, particularly George Harrison.
I still remember the Oblong Glass House in the Maharishi’s ashram which served as Harrison’s “sitar” room. A junior sitar player, claiming endorsement from Ravi Shankar, became Harrison’s ustad. It was during these sessions that Harrison began to strum the notes of Raga Bageshwari. Not many Beatles enthusiasts around the world know that the Beatles classic ‘Norwegian Wood’ is actually stultified Bageshwari. That was as far as George Harrison could go in mastering the raga.
Ravi Shankar, on the other hand, saw in the unprecedented popularity of the pop culture spawned by the Beatles (and others) as an opportunity to penetrate a wider audience in the West. It was this calculation which caused him to accept a proposition Ravi Shankar has lived to rue. His accompanist on the tabla, Allah Rakha, told me he had nightmares after that performance.
The disastrous “non performance” was at Woodstock, the greatest pop jamboree ever. But, alas, it was too noisy for classical music. Worse, the flower children closest to the stage took their clothes off and proceeded to make love in the spirit of hippie freedom, even as Allah Rakha, closed his eyes and covered them with his hands.
On this, the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, it is worth our while to remember the distinction between cultural “fusion” and cultural “confusion”. Ravi Shankar at Woodstock represented the latter.
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