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The everlasting spell of the Beatles

How a documentary screening in Bengaluru rekindled memories of one of the world's greatest bands and their visit to India    

The Beatles (from left) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison in 1963. 
The Beatles (from left) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison in 1963.  (Alamy)

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The auditorium at the Bangalore International Centre (BIC) was packed. Silver haired seniors chatted about their favourite Beatle numbers with young, long haired musicians. Groups of Beatles fans just out to enjoy the evening settled into their seats. Latecomers looked around for places to squeeze into.Almost half a century had gone by since the Beatles stopped making music as a group.Yet the excitement was palpable. The Beatles were coming back together, for a bit.

The BIC event was a documentary, The Beatles and India, directed by Indian journalist Ajoy Bose.There had been other documentaries on the Fab Four before, but this one promised to be more interesting because it focussed on the British band's famous 1968 trip to Rishikesh. A trip which was in a way life changing for them.On one hand, it triggered their productive juices, and on the other, it left them disillusioned with the guru who attracted them to India.

Also read: On The Beatles track

For me, The Beatles documentary kindled some exciting old memories. In February 1968, when the Fab Four had visited India, I was nearing the end of my two-month long internship with Hindustan Times newspaper. In the Reporters Room, where I was doing my last stint, there was great excitement. All the reporters were vying with each other to go to Rishikesh. Those who went to the airport when they arrived said they could get nowhere near them because of the security. A reporter who was assigned to go to Rishikesh took his wife along because he thought it would be easier to get in, but no such luck. The Beatles had actually come along with a large contingent of journalists, who were not allowed inside the ashram.

Murals and graffiti on the Beatles ashram walls.
Murals and graffiti on the Beatles ashram walls. (Mint)

I was just an excited 20-year-old bystander lapping up every bit of news and gossip which came through. They were high on LSD in the UK, a senior reporter who was researching the story on the Beatles told me, but here they were on ganja. Another disagreed, saying they were getting their high from transcendental meditation. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had them mediating for hours on end with flower garlands around their neck.They were going to learn to levitate we heard.“On ganja,” asked a sceptical colleague.

It was a time when consuming drugs was becoming more popular among youngsters, in India and abroad. In fact, one of the first articles I wrote as an intern was about a handsome young hippie dressed in dirty, tattered clothes who sat on the pavement near my central Delhi office with a dog and a hat in front of him and a sign that said help me reach home.Foreigners dressed in bizarre Indian clothes and hollow eyes wandered around offering flowers to strangers. At a dinner party which I attended, tagging along with a senior colleague, a Peace Corps official got a phone call and hurried out of the room with a worried expression. His teenage daughter in the US had been arrested for smoking pot, my colleague told me. At The Cellar, a basement pub in Delhi's Connaught Place frequented by young people from across the world, the small smoke-filled room with a low roof was full of signatures and graffiti done with charcoal, mostly by youngsters high on weed, I was told by many.

In the documentary shown at BIC, veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi, who was a young reporter with The Statesman in 1968, spoke about how he managed to get into the fortress that was built around the Rishikesh ashram. For months before they arrived, he said he had prepared the ground by posing to be a devotee of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru who had attracted the music group to India. So, when the Beatles arrived, he got in by invoking the name of “Guruji". He also managed to pull in his photographer colleague Raghu Rai.

Inside my newsroom, as the days rolled, more interesting news started coming in. Pandit Ravi Shankar was at the ashram teaching George Harrison. Mia Farrow had arrived with her sister after her break-up with Frank Sinatra.Ringo Starr left within 10 days and no one quite knew why.The time for me to leave Hindustan Times was also coming closer.

I heard of the Beatles for the first time in 1964, when an aunt, who had just returned from Oxford, told me about this “exciting” young music group that was taking the world by storm. I promptly went and bought myself a 75 RPM disc, which had “I Saw Her Standing There,” on one side and “Love, Love Me Do” on the other. I was instantly hooked.

The joy, which came through those songs with their simple lyrics and mesmerising rhythms, stayed with me through the years.

As decades passed, their songs became more complex. Imagine, Strawberry Fields, Hey Jude, Yellow Submarine… songs composed and sung about half a century ago are still evergreen. I even had a physical encounter with the most publicity-shy Beatle, Ringo Starr, in New York at the Phil Donahue show in the early 1990s. He was the surprise special guest and I was part of the audience.

And then in 2015, when I went to visit my nephew in Liverpool. The Beatles came alive for me all over again as the kid took me around all their favourite haunts, their school, the places which inspired their songs.

My records are now long gone, but listening to those songs almost 60 years later on YouTube, I feel again the same youthful joy.

As I walked out of the BIC auditorium after watching the documentary, the two-dimensional images I had carried with me of the Beatles' 1968 visit were suddenly infused with colour and life.

I had seen the Beatles, dressed in Indian clothes and wearing flower garlands, celebrating birthdays at the ashram, and practising songs outside the rooms especially built for them.I had seen the ever-smiling Mahesh Yogi posing with a flower in his hand.I had listened to interviews with people who had managed to get inside the ashram and with those who had interacted with the Fab Four during their visit. The authentic, clear footage of those 1968 events, brought alive all my memories.

Like the Strawberry Fields, their perfect psychedelic rock song which was written by John Lennon when he was high on LSD, I knew now that for me my encounters with The Beatles would live on forever.

Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry fields forever

Strawberry fields forever
Strawberry fields forever

Also read: ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ sets the band's record straight




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