The Beatles: How a trip to India changed everything
Soho House Mumbai member and actor Kabir Bedi famously broke into a hotel in 1966 to interview the Fab Four. Here, he tells us how India left its mark on the Summer of Love icons
By Kieran Yates Tuesday, 8th June, 2021
When George Harrison played the first note of the 10-note sitar raga, it was clear that The Beatles’ music would never be the same. Over the next few years, the influence of India on the now iconic Sgt Pepper album would go on to define an era across western Europe and the US, which some coined the ‘Summer of Love’ and other demonised as a hippie free-for-all.
However it was documented, it’s undeniable that the period of liberal sexual freedom, radical pushback against the state and a generation tired of the war was largely sound-tracked by this album. For listeners now, it’s clear that the monolithic view of Indian culture that was exported by the foursome only told part of the story – of course, four white men from Liverpool bringing Indian music to the world were never going to paint a full picture. But, for a generation looking for identity and themselves, it was a sonic declaration to be still and embrace meditative quiet.
For actor and author Kabir Bedi, it was a moment so transformative that in 1967 his fandom led him to a hotel room to interview the band. ‘It happened the first time they came to India, a year and a half before they went to Rishikesh,’ he tells me over email. ‘How I got that exclusive interview as a 20-year-old reporter for All India Radio, beating out every journalist in Delhi, is a hell of a story. It’s the opening chapter of my autobiography Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life Of An Actor. I talked to George Harrison about his pioneering use of the sitar in Norwegian Wood. He spoke of enormous respect for Ravi Shankar and his love of Indian philosophy. I asked him if that’s why people called him the Indian among the Beatles. ‘I’m no Indian,’ he replied, ‘but you can call me a bit of a Hindu.’
Part of the politics of being anti-establishment in 1960s Britain was pushing back against the visual signifiers of being in perceived servitude to the corporate man. This ‘man’ was often visualised in pervading images of the crisp, white starched shirts worn by bankers and politicians with their offers of corporate life or war. The idea being that these men looked uncomfortable, and their politics were too. After The Beatles were caught on 16mm handheld cameras and globally distributed – filmed in 1968 by students in the ashram – which showed them sporting long hair and wearing kurtas, it felt like new attitudes came with a new uniform. The British fashion industry reproduced the looks en masse, often at high-fashion market value, co-opting the aesthetic that defined this new generation.
George Harrison described the fascination in an archive interview in The Beatles Anthology, commenting that, ‘If you go to India, you can’t wear Western clothes… That’s one of the best bits about India – having these cool clothes: big baggy shirts and pyjama trousers.’
‘We did a lot of shopping,’ Ringo Starr added. ‘We all had Indian clothes made because they could do it right there: huge pants… Nehru collars. We got right into it.’
There is a piece of archive footage from 1968 on YouTube that details, through the turquoise tint of time, the composer and sitar virtuoso, Ravi Shankar, playing the soothing twang of the sitar. He lets the notes ring out with a smile as he counts the time in with a ‘da’, only to be interrupted with the odd pant of George Harrison trying to keep up. The two reportedly met in the summer of 1965, after making Help! where the band member was introduced to Ravi Shankar’s music – one year later, Harrison would ask him if he could be his pupil.
Shankar defined the musical evolution of the group, and his relationship with Harrison went on to help popularise the use of Indian instruments and classical devotional music of the sitar into pop throughout the 1960s. Kabir Bedi recalls in his book Stories I Must Tell that ‘Norwegian Wood was the first time a sitar was played in Western pop,’ he explains over email. ‘George Harrison played it again in Love To You and Tomorrow Never Knows. In Strawberry Fields, he used the swarmandal, the Indian harp. His love of the sitar made Shankar an icon of the counter-culture and flower-power generation.’
What does it take to create a sonic experience that transcends the restrictions of reality? For some, the answer is hallucinogenic drugs; for many in India in the 1960s, it was transcendental meditation. Before the modern proliferation of mindfulness apps, this idea of transcending mental states was a relatively ‘new age’ idea in the global west, and provided a radical connection with the self.
The group tried to find the answer through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement, spending three months in his ashram in Rishikesh in February 1968. In part, it was a moment of reflection for them too, as Kabir Bedi tells me, ‘Brian Epstein, their manager and closest friend, the most important figure in their lives, had died. They must have been lost and grieving. I’m sure meditating with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the spiritual atmosphere of the ashram, helped them to heal.’
The group tried to find the answer through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement, spending three months in his ashram in Rishikesh in February 1968. While for some the ashram held the promise of new imaginative horizons, (the band allegedly wrote up to 48 songs there), the exoticised myth of the Rishikesh’s ashram was perhaps punctured by Ringo Starr. Owing to his allergies, he found the lifestyle (and insects) unmanageably difficult, and reportedly filled his suitcase with Heinz baked beans as a food alternative.
There is a singular image (at the top of this article) that’s immediately conjured when we think about The Beatles’ in India, which makes sense seeing as it was choreographed for that very purpose. In it, the band are seated in a row with 12 other people in front of terracotta pots full of flowers, cross legged with garlands of marigolds around their necks. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is on an elevated platform behind them, along with a framed portrait of Brahmananda Saraswati – the guru evoked by Lennon in Across The Universe.
Shot in 1968, it captured students all under the tutelage of the ashram, allegedly taking half an hour to scramble everyone together to art direct the picture that in 2009 The Hindu newspaper described as ‘one of the most iconic photographs in the history of rock ‘n’ roll’. Although the band’s relationship with the maharishi changed shape following sexual misconduct allegations made against him, the picture went on to be reproduced globally, finding itself stuck on the bedroom walls of teenagers and young adults looking for an image of freedom and an idea of (art directed) racial harmony.
India provided distance from the boil of protest happening back home, and Revolution was written in Rishikesh against the volcanic eruption of global political and social discontent, which summed up much of the decade. In the US in 1968, the civil rights movement was making visible the violent treatment of its Black citizens and the fearful opposition to the Vietnam War. That same year also saw mass worker protests and strikes in France, violent communist party pushback across Eastern Europe, and the beginning of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
India created a new way of seeing that went beyond the reported songs written there and gave the band another world view – one that shaped western imagination. They used the time to build a musical community, inviting guests like Mike Love and Mia Farrow to make music, but also create a narrative that artists at home may need to break out of the geographical restraints of the west to make great work.
As Kabir Bedi remembers, ‘The Beatles thrilled us with their revolutionary pop music. We’d been listening to the Everly Brothers, Pat Boone, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley. But the band took us to another planet. They moved beyond the rhyming lyrics of earlier singers. They gave us guitar compositions, which combined with the sounds of soul and folk music. They had amazingly creative orchestrations. These new sounds influenced many musicians in India.’
For many, the perception of India as the farthest point away from the restraint of the British conservative establishment was a balm, and the music was a sonic escape from some of the anxiety of that period.
Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of an Actor by Kabir Bedi
Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life Of An Actor by Kabir Bedi is now available for purchase here.