By Saket Suman,
New Delhi : In February 1968, members of the legendary rock band, The Beatles, arrived in Rishikesh for a “momentous” sojourn. A teenage rebel — a diehard Beatles fan himself — watched them with keen interest. Five decades later, he has compiled an account of their stay here, and maintains that the three-year period that marked their affair with India was particularly significant in the life of the band.
“This is when The Beatles reinvented themselves from being the world’s most famous pop stars into pioneering musical artists, creating new parameters of contemporary music,” says Ajoy Bose, who has written an exhaustive account of their journey in “Across The Universe: The Beatles in India”.
Bose, a well-known journalist, finds it interesting that their growing relationship with India, “led by George Harrison, who was particularly into Indian music, culture and religion, went side by side with their experiments with narcotics and psychedelic drugs”.
“Their stay at the ashram got the band away from psychedelic drugs, although they may have sneaked in a few quick smokes of pot. What we do know is that their stay in Rishikesh resulted in an astonishing creative burst of song-writing — the most prolific in their entire career,” Bose told IANS in an interview.
“I believe that the real reason why they managed to write so many songs in India was because it was the first time since they became the Beatles they were allowed to be individuals and not just a band that needed to perform or record in the studios.”
Living in a remote Himalayan ashram, the Beatles did not, for a change, have to worry about “being stars and celebrities” and the inevitable tensions that this involved.
“So a sabbatical did change the Beatles, at least temporarily, and particularly the songs they wrote in the ashram, because these were all individual pieces and were not created with an album in mind. That is why the ‘White Album’, which contains most of these songs, is considered so unique in the Beatles discography,” notes Bose.
The real reason behind the Beatles’ historic journey, however, is not really known. Bose contends that “destiny played a very strong part” in bringing the Beatles to India. It so happened, he explains, that George Harrison, the lead guitarist of the band, almost accidentally picked up the sitar on a film set.
“Harrison’s intense relationship with Pandit Ravi Shankar played an equal, if not larger role, than Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s transcendental camp… Some of the people who knew both Harrison and Ravi Shankar described their close friendship as a karmic connection — as if they were related in a previous birth.
“And the famous sitarist himself once commented that George’s surprising affinity to Indian music, culture and religion could perhaps be only explained in terms of the Hindu belief in reincarnation,” says Bose, who has previously authored “For Reasons of State”, a book on the emergency; and “Behenji”, a biography of former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati.
The Beatles visit had another fallout: It generated huge interest in India across the West. “It certainly motivated thousands and thousands of backpackers from Europe and the United States to trek across India — and many of them stayed back as Hippies,” he says.
On what prompted him to write “Across The Universe…” at this juncture, Bose says that it is “a labour of love” and a tribute to the Beatles from a fan who fell in love with them as a teenager in the mid-1960s.
“I fought with my father over listening to their music, copying their psychedelic clothes and, of course, keeping my hair as long as the lads from Liverpool. At the same time, it was not just hero worship of the Fab Four… (I wrote the book as) I really felt there was a big hole in the huge number of books on the Beatles,” he maintains, the “big hole” being their affair with India.
The English rock band that was formed in Liverpool in 1960 — with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — became widely regarded as the foremost and most influential music band of their times. Ringo, the drummer of the band, had to go back after a fortnight in Rishikesh because “his chronic stomach condition could not take Indian food and also because his wife Maureen was afraid of insects”.
The three-hundred page book, published by Penguin Viking, comes with an elaborate back note section, where the author has provided relevant references.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)