My Magical Trip With The Beatles

I was a teenage rebel in Calcutta in love with The Beatles when they came to India. My long mop and the psychedelic flowers painted on my shirt emulating the Fab Four led to fierce fights with my bureaucrat father. In an interesting quirk of fate, half a century later as an established political journalist and television commentator I found myself writing a book, Across the Universe – The Beatles In India to mark the golden jubilee of The Beatles’ momentous trip to Rishikesh for the world’s largest publishing house Penguin Random House which had published my books on the Emergency and Dalit leader Mayawati.

Researching my book, I realized that India meant far more to The Beatles than experts and fans assumed.  Their trip to Rishikesh to meditate at an ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas and their famous spat with the Maharishi was well known. So was the White Album most of whose songs were composed at the ashram. But no serious attempt to put in perspective the intriguing three year long passage to India that began with George Harrison curiously picking up a sitar while filming Help in the spring of 1965 long before the Indian guru came into the picture.

Ajit Singh and Nick Nugent with The Beatles at a

In fact, the Indian link of George Harrison may have started before he was born. My investigations revealed that his mother Louise listened to the soothing strains of Indian music on special British forces request All India Radio broadcast while pregnant with him during the Second World War to calm herself from the sound of German bombs falling on Liverpool.

Beatles concert for Maharishi at Rishikesh Ashram ©Colin Harr

I went to London to meet the two surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, but they were too busy for my tight deadline. But I did speak to several Beatles experts most notably Philip Norman, one of the first major biographers of the band. Philip and I discussed The Beatles and India at a jam-packed session of the Jaipur Literary Festival at the British Library. While in London I found that an old friend Nick Nugent, BBC radio veteran, was in the Rishikesh ashram while the Beatles were there. Nick then a young student was a short-term English teacher in Doon School not far from Rishikesh. He had gone along with the school music teacher Ajit Singh invited to play at an Indian music concert celebrating the birthday of George’s wife Pattie Boyd. Nick vividly described The Beatles enjoying themselves at the party and showed photographs of him and Ajit Singh posing with George, John, and Pattie.

George Harrison playing sitar©Colin Harrison

The most memorable encounter in London was a lengthy interview with Pattie at her Kensington flat. She happily met me as I was the first Indian among the thousands of journalists she had spoken to on her association with The Beatles. It was she as a Transcendental Meditation student who had first led her husband and his mates in the band to the Maharishi. Pattie spoke of India with fond nostalgia. Interestingly, even more than the Rishikesh sojourn she remembered her previous and first visit to India two years ago as the newly married wife of George whose musical guru sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar had invited them to travel with him across India on a cultural odyssey. She told me that it was this trip that turned George’s growing fondness for the sitar and Hindusthani classical music into a lifelong quest for Indian spirituality.

Graffiti inside Rishikesh Ashram (pic 2) ©Ajoy Bose

Back in India I travelled to Rishikesh where I found the recently restored ashram buzzing with visitors from India and abroad.  Amidst the ruins of the cluster of cabins where The Beatles stayed with the majestic Himalayas looming above, the Maharishi’s splendid bungalow on a hillock overlooking the river Ganges flowing below, the lecture halls, community kitchen and quaint conical meditation huts many of them covered with colorful graffiti by visiting fans I could still feel the spirit of The Beatles and their guru there.

Graffiti inside the Rishikesh Ashram ©Ajoy Bose

In nearby Dehra Dun I met Ajit Singh, now old and wizened sitting in Pratap Music House. He told me about how George and John befriended him after his recitals on the veena at birthday parties in the ashram.

My book was out exactly half a century after the Beatles had arrived at Rishikesh. Launched in a Delhi night club with a band singing Beatles songs and frenzied dancing I was bemused at the stark contrast with my previous book launches that had been serious discussions with politicians and pundits on the state of the nation. In home city Calcutta, where I had discovered both The Beatles and the legendary nightclub crooner Usha Uthup around the same time in the mid-sixties it was she who launched my book with a rocking performance that had the audience dancing in the aisles. A flurry of exciting book launches followed. The magnificent Royal Opera House in Mumbai with members of the first Indian Beatles cover band Jets belting out their hit songs. A Bangalore pub where a variety of inhabitants of this music crazed city ranging from a veteran local doctor, the British consul and a five-year-old boy sang and danced to Beatles numbers.

Maharishi and The Beatles at the ashram. ©Colin Harrison Avic

But the most memorable book event was at the Mountain Echoes Festival at Thimpu in Bhutan where it was Usha Uthup again with her amazing gift for improvisation who turned it into a spectacle. Discussing The Beatles with me and singing their numbers, she noticed legendary Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah in the audience and promptly summoned him to the stage. Announcing that the actor was also a singer of Beatles songs she persuaded us to join her sing a few numbers {my first experience in public singing} closing with John Lennon’s iconic anthem song Imagine. With the lights switched off she urged the audience to wave their mobile torches in the darkness. And it was her Majesty Queen Mother of Bhutan sitting in the front row who led the ecstatic audience!

But my magical mystery tour with the Fab Four was not yet over. Invited to speak on at a conference to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the White Album at Monmouth University in New Jersey I met cultural researcher Pete Compton, close aide of music entrepreneur and film producer Reynold D’Silva, Goan by birth but domiciled in London for many decades. Reynold had read my book and was keen to make a film inspired by it and asked for my collaboration. Within months I was making my directorial debut with Pete as my co-director, and Reynolds as producer all three of us in our sixties and Beatles fanatics.

The Beatles on their first visit to India in Delhi 1966. ©Ajo

With the help of young but hugely talented editor Ben Nugent and a dedicated team of cameramen, researchers, and technical staff we rushed to make the film interviewing on camera the people I had spoken to while researching the book and beyond. In a stroke of good fortune while being interviewed for my book at All India Radio Mumbai I discovered I was sitting in the same studio as George while being interviewed more than half a century ago elaborating for the first time his passion for Indian music and culture. The rare long lost interview tape had just been discovered and I managed to acquire it for our project and along with my interview with Pattie turned into a running commentary through the film.

We widened the net of people I spoke to for the book. Bollywood actor Kabir Bedi on how he persuaded The Beatles manager Brian Epstein, for an interview with the band on their first visit to India. The pilot who flew the helicopter where John Lennon clambered on with the Maharishi hoping to get a secret mantra told us hilarious stories of the flight. An eye-witness account of the historic London dinner party that brought George Harrison and Ravi Shankar together. India’s pre-eminent photographer Raghu Rai on how he captured the very first image of the Beatles at the ashram, an image that went across the world.

The Beatles and India poster (landscape)

Despite the Covid pandemic disrupting production schedules the film opened with a bang.  Premiering in the summer of 2021 at the UK Asian Film Festival in London it won two prizes, the best film chosen by the audience and for best music. Alas I watched this amazing launch of my first film from thousands of miles away in Delhi locked down by the pandemic.

As the lockdown lifted after a few months I joined the party on a rollicking tour across three film festivals in Spain with Pete and Reynold and a band of young Indian musicians who with others had recorded songs by the Beatles composed at Rishikesh or about India for a double album inspired by the film. Our first stop was at one of the oldest film festivals, Seminci at Valladolid where Pattie joined us to pose in the town square with a cycle rickshaw brought from the local Indian culture centre Casa De La India. The audience, old and young greeted our film with rapturous enthusiasm at Seminci as it did at the Evolution festival in Mallorca and the In Edit festival in Barcelona. In 2022 the film was nominated in the best documentary category at the prestigious New York Indian Film Festival and greeted a few months later by a sellout crowd at the Independent Indian Film Festival in Frankfurt.

As I recover from a series of screenings and discussions on the film across India starting with one at Kolkata’s iconic Victoria Memorial, I wonder about the next turn of my magical mystery tour with The Beatles.

Ajoy Bose is a veteran journalist with nearly 50 years’ experience in several print publications in India and abroad having worked as India Correspondent for The Guardian, London, Khaleej Times, Dubai and the Executive Editor of The Pioneer, New Delhi. He has also been a commentator on various television channels including as the Resident Commentator of CNN News 18. Ajoy Bose is also a well-known author whose books include a widely acclaimed book on the imposition of Emergency and suspension of democratic rights in 1975 in India by Indira Gandhi, a three-edition political biography of lower caste leader Mayawati and the first and only book celebrating the unique love affair between The Beatles and India which in turn inspired his film directorial debut the award winning documentary The Beatles and India in 1921.

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