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50 years of Beatles in India: How George Harrison brought Indian classical music to Western pop

Indian spiritualism and music were like a magnet for George Harrison and their involvement in his own music abated not one bit post The Beatles

Paul McCartney (right) and George Harrison getting a sitar demonstration in New Delhi on 6 July 1966. Photo: Getty Images
Paul McCartney (right) and George Harrison getting a sitar demonstration in New Delhi on 6 July 1966. Photo: Getty Images

Much before The Beatles, there was Ravi Shankar, and long before him, there was Indian classical music. But for the six billion people of this planet who happen not to be Indian, the three seemed to magically appear together in a moment of celestial, psychedelic epiphany in the 1960s. This reading is rubbish, of course, but perceptions have a way of edging out facts.

There are many more players in the sequence of events that was to culminate with Indian classical music bursting on to the world stage with Western pop: the “quiet Beatle" George Harrison, American folk rocker David Crosby (of The Byrds and, later, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), the musicians of the Asian Music Circuit in the UK and what Harrison would no doubt call destiny.

Harrison’s interest in Indian music began accidentally, in April 1965, on the sets of The Beatles’ film Help! , which had a sequence filmed in an Indian restaurant in London with Indian musicians playing Indian instruments, including a sitar. “George was looking at them," according to John Lennon in the documentary The Beatles Anthology. The film’s music composer, Ken Thorne, used an Indian ensemble of sitar, flute, tabla, ghunghroo, tanpura and possibly a dilruba and surbahar to play a Beatles medley called Another Hard Day’s Night. The piece was not particularly well played, but it was appropriate to the occasion. And it got Harrison interested in the sitar.

The instrument—synonymous with Indian classical music—made its second appearance for The Beatles with Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), a Lennon-McCartney song that features in the Rubber Soul album. Just using the sitar immediately lends this wistful tune an Indian feel and depth that seems not a bit out of place. The album was released in December 1965 and Norwegian Wood was to become, quite possibly, the first Western pop song with the sitar in it.

How it happened is a story of cultural cross-fertilization of the kind that was rare back in 1965.

Lennon started writing the song in January-February of that year, according to Ian Macdonald’s Revolution In The Head.

On 15 August 1965, The Beatles began a tour of the US at the height of Beatlemania. By the time they had begun the tour, Harrison had already received a full introduction to the music and sitar playing of Ravi Shankar, courtesy of Crosby during a UK tour of The Byrds in early August, 1965. Crosby and legendary Byrds guitarist Roger McGuinn had been listening to Ravi Shankar back in the US. Recounting the interaction at the age of 75, at a concert in New Jersey in May 2017, Crosby said he had a Ravi Shankar album in his suitcase and he gave it to Harrison, which, “had… repercussions".

“He liked it, he liked it a lot. So then he went to India and in India he ran into a teacher, a guru, that he liked a lot." This, of course, was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Crosby, however, wanted to advise caution—“because I’m a little cynical". The outcome was a song called Laughing, the outstanding cautionary tale in his first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name.

If the intention was to moderate Harrison’s enthusiasm, Crosby had failed. Indian spiritualism and music were like a magnet for Harrison and their involvement in his own music abated not one bit post The Beatles.

His exposure to Indian instruments on the sets of Help! sparked off a lifelong passion for Indian music, as well as a close friendship with Ravi Shankar, who considered the Beatle his younger brother. After Help! and the US tour, Harrison bought a sitar from a shop on Oxford Street in London in September and it may have been this instrument that we hear him playing on Norwegian Wood, although not with any elegance. The song was recorded in October 1965, which wouldn’t have given Harrison much time to practise. But he had certainly created a bit of music history.

One of the first to pick up the sitar after Norwegian Wood was Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones in the band’s furious rock paean to depression, Paint It Black, which is now associated with a generation’s disenchantment with materialism and war. The song was released in May 1966, a month after The Beatles recorded Harrison’s Love You To, his first ‘Indian’, for their album Revolver.

The song follows a Hindustani classical structure—a slow alaap introduction, followed by the main tune (gat) in madhya laya or a middling tempo and ending with a jhala-like quick-tempo fadeout on the sitar. The song is without doubt a path-breaker in its uncompromising adherence to a form of music that was alien to Western pop.

The sitar played on the track is wonderfully confident and accomplished but views differ on who played the instrument. Peter Lavezzolli, in his book The Dawn Of Indian Music In The West, thinks it’s Harrison, but MacDonald writes, “For the recording, players form the North London Asian Music Circle were hired, including an uncredited sitarist who played most of what was once attributed to Harrison." Most certainly, the playing is of a standard that an untutored musician—even a talented one like Harrison—would have found hard to produce. The tabla was played by Anil Bhagwat.

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, in 1974. Photo: AP

An Indian Summer now lit up the Swinging Sixties. The song was recorded in April 1966 and two months later Harrison finally got to meet Ravi Shankar. The Indian, already a legend, was in Bath for a performance with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. They met: Ravi Shankar was decidedly undecided about Harrison, who may have been just another long-haired pop musician in the eyes of the Indian. “It is strange to see pop musicians with sitars. I was confused at first. It had so little to do with our classical music. When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think," says Ravi Shankar in Raga, a 1971 documentary about the sitarist. “But I found he really wanted to learn. I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene."

Harrison now started taking lessons from Ravi Shankar, which led to the flowering of an extraordinary period of musical collaboration between The Beatles (Lennon too was an ardent admirer of Indian music—just listen to Tomorrow Never Knows or Across The Universe) and Indian classical music. The pinnacle of this beautiful partnership came with Harrison’s song Within You Without You in The Beatles’ most famous album, the iconic Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Harrison bought a sitar from a shop on Oxford Street in London and it may have been this instrument that we hear him playing on ‘Norwegian Wood’, although not with any elegance-

Recorded over March and April 1967, Harrison wrote the song on a harmonium (which seemed so entirely appropriate by now) at the home of his bassist friend Klaus Voorman. Having received tuitions from Ravi Shankar, the Beatle played the sitar on this track—and gave a superb performance. The song itself is ambitiously Indian, cruising between the 4/4 of a teentaal and 5/4 of the jhaptaal, with Indian musicians on the dilruba, swarmandal, tabla and tanpura, and an 11-member Western orchestra on violins and cellos.

As much as its music, the song stands out for its lyrics, a meditation on Indian philosophy—the refrain “And life flows on within you and without you" stresses the impermanence of life with its play on the word “without". Trashed at the time by insular critics, Within You Without You remains the most complete and accomplished piece of Indian music-inspired Western pop more than 50 years after the album’s release.

What then is the legacy of this extraordinary musical collaboration between The Beatles and Indian music? Quite possibly, there would have been no Ananda Shankar (Ravi Shankar’s nephew) playing Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Light My Fire on the sitar on an album (Ananda Shankar) that became an underground dance classic in 1990s London. But individuals can only push history—not create it. Undoubtedly, Indian classical music would have reached and overwhelmed Western audiences with or without Ravi Shankar and Harrison, so extraordinary is its depth, power and richness. And as to the influence of The Beatles on Indian music, if you listen carefully you’ll find John, Paul, George and Ringo behind every rock-y Bollywood song you’ve ever heard or are likely to hear.

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