It was 1966 when four young lads from Liverpool found themselves in a small music shop in a bustling bylane of Old Delhi’s Daryaganj. As the owners were talking to these four young charismatic foreigners, a crowd had gathered to get a glimpse of them from outside, recalls Jaspal Singh Sachdeva, the current proprietor of the shop.
“They had a mop-top haircut, perhaps a tad too much for the localities to understand, and an undying inquisition for the Indian classical music,” said Sachdeva, whose father and uncle managed the shop at the time.
The four Liverpool boys were none other than the pioneers of the 60s’ sound: Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison. The Fab Four. The Beatles.
The local music shop’s chance encounter with the Beatlemania is not found in any photographs but is survived through tales told by Sachdeva, who was a schoolboy at that time.
This might be another inconsequential story of famous artists exploring a local market for leisure, but at the heart of it lies George Harrison’s tryst with Indian classical music, his quest for spiritual upliftment, and an unlikely friendship he forged with Indian maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar.
Help!: A Beautiful Accident
George Harrison’s interest in Hindustani classical music piqued in 1965 when the Beatles were shooting for their slapstick ‘Help!’. One of the sequences of the film had a setup of an Indian restaurant ‘Rajahama’ along with Indian classical musicians.
It was during the shoot that George Harrison noticed a sitar and fiddled with it for a while. In a 1992 interview with Billboard, he said, “I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it and thinking, ‘This is a funny sound.’”
One of the film’s melodies had an ensemble of Indian instruments including the sitar, though it was roughly produced – ‘Another Hard Day’s Night’ is considered to be the first Beatles song with a sitar. Although, it did not involve any of the band members.
Harrison further said that discovering a sitar was purely a happenstance. But it got him interested in Indian classical music and bridged the gap between the West and the subcontinent's music culture. It was Harrison’s tryst with a sitar that nudged the Beatles towards a spiritual-experimental journey that eventually helped them evolve into the avant-garde eclectics.
George Harrison (25 February 1943 - 29 November 2001) first played a sitar on the Rubber Soul song ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, recorded in October 1965. Harrison went to a music shop in Oxford Street called Indiacraft. There, he bought what he described as “a real crummy-quality” sitar. Not knowing how to play it, he played around with it for a while.
“We were at the point where we’d recorded the Norwegian Wood backing track and it needed something. We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if we could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitar up – it was just lying around; I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it. It was quite spontaneous: I found the notes that played the lick. It fitted and it worked."George Harrison said in ‘Anthology’.
Years later, in a bid to pull his friend’s leg, Ravi Shankar admitted that the song “sounded so terrible.”
The ‘Quiet Beatle’ and The Sitar Virtuoso
It was during this time that Harrison began to hear Pt Ravi Shankar’s name in the music circuit. David Crosby of The Byrds also admired the maestro and after a chat with Crosby, Harrison decided to buy Shankar’s record.
He later stated that Ravi Shankar’s music was a life-changing experience for him. After a few months, he met Shankar at the Asian Music Circle organisation and requested the maestro to teach him sitar.
"I'd like to meet somebody who could really impress me. And that was when I met Ravi. He was the first person who impressed me in a way that was beyond just being a famous celebrity. Ravi was my link into the Vedic world. Ravi plugged me into the whole of reality," Harrison says about his first meeting with sitar maestro Ravi Shankar in Martin Scorsese's documentary 'George Harrison: Living In the Material World'.
Though having apprehensions about Harrison, Ravi Shankar soon discovered that the two shared the same sense of virtues and goals. Both wanted to transcend the auditory perception of the listeners.
According to Shankar’s autobiography, ‘Raga Mala: the Autobiography of Ravi Shankar’, before giving him his first lesson, he told Harrison how he wanted to forge a spiritual connection with the listeners, “My goal has always been to take the audience along with me deep inside, as in meditation, to feel the sweet pain of trying to reach out for the supreme, to bring tears to the eyes, and to feel totally peaceful and cleansed."
The pair met in London and began lessons in Harrison's home. They spent weeks in England before moving to Kashmir and later to California.
In a 1997 issue of Rolling Stone, Pt Ravi Shankar stated how Harrison gave him tremendous respect and that he was very ‘Indian that way’. “We are such good friends, and at the same time, he is like my son, so it’s a beautiful, mixed feeling.”
After completing his sitar lessons, Harrison applied the structure of Hindustani classical music in many Beatles songs.
The second of their Indian-influenced songs was “Love You To,” recorded for the album Revolver. His third was “Within You Without You,” in the Beatles’ most famous album, ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’
Even though Pt Ravi Shankar was popular in Europe and Americas before his collaboration with George Harrison, this friendship played a role in bridging the gap between the audience for Indian classical music.
Pt Shankar’s association with Harrison made him the most sought-after artist for international festivals. He performed at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and The Dick Cavett Show.
Having influenced each other’s careers, it wasn't long before they collaborated for several projects, including three albums, ‘Shankar Family & Friends’ (1974), ‘Ravi Shankar's Music Festival from India’ (1976) and ‘Chants of India.’ But it was the iconic 1971 concert by “George Harrison and Friends” at the Madison Square Garden that was registered as the defining moment in the history of pop music.
The Hippies Have Reached India
In 1967, Beatlemania was soaring to new heights, while Harrison was plummeting to his lows. He was searching for spirituality. Calmness. Peace. Call it destiny, his wife Pattie Boyd came across an ad in a newspaper for transcendental meditation.
In August of that same year, the Harrisons, along with the other members of the Beatles, attended a lecture that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the pioneer of transcendental meditation, was giving in London, and found their calling.
Cut to February of 1968, the Beatles had packed their bags and arrived in India, to live with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in an ashram in Rishikesh.
Filmmaker Paul Saltzman wrote about a candid conversation he had with Harrison in the ashram, “He said to me ‘like we’re The Beatles after all, aren’t we? We have all the money you could ever dream of. We have all the fame you could ever wish for but it isn’t love, it isn’t health, it isn’t peace inside, is it?’ He gave me a dear, even loving smile. Neither of us spoke for several minutes.”
Harrison along with his bandmates found the much-needed peace through meditation and Maharishi teachings.
The band's planned stay at the ashram was cut short, however, following sexual misconduct allegations against the Maharishi. But the stint also turned out to be one of the most creative periods in their career.
They wrote many songs during their spiritual stay and the majority of them were used in the Beatles (White Album) and Abbey Road. Scottish singer Donovan was also living in the ashram at the same time as the Beatles. He said that Harrison’s White Album songwriting style evolved as a result of the artistic exchanges and jams they had together in India.
In 2016, during an interview with The Rolling Stone, Donovan said, “What George was fascinated with was these descending chord patterns that I was playing and out of it came the most heartrending song I’ve ever heard him write, but also that anybody had written: ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.'”
George Harrison, as the lead guitarist of the Beatles, became a pioneer of the 60s’ rock and roll. But it was when he introduced sitar into his music, he created something so extraordinary that revolutinalised how people saw ‘fusion music.’ The legacy is so deep that they created a path for generations to follow.
And to think it all started with an accident on a set of an odd movie!
(Inputs from The New Yorker, Billboard, Rolling Stone, and The Guardian)