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Memorable moments

Meeting Beatle George Harrison was an experience to be cherished. It revealed the man behind the myth. Some reminiscences...

WHEN I met Pandit Ravi Shankar on the New Year's Day of 1996, he told me that he would be visiting Chennai, then Madras, sometime in April. I was a little surprised because that is not the music season in the city. Sensing my thoughts, he added that he was not coming for a performance but for something else, and that I should keep even the visit a secret.

Panditji came down in mid-April along with Sukanya, his wife, and Anoushka, his daughter, who was then barely 14. Panditji then dropped a bombshell. He asked me to be ready to receive Beatle, George Harrison the same evening.

By that time the purpose of their visit to the city became clear. They had all come down to record a musical collection, which was later released as the `Chants of India.' It was conceived as a collection of mantras, set to music by Panditji and to be produced by George. But why come to Chennai for that? Panditji said that a lot of chorus was required and that he could get people who could chant correctly only in Chennai.

I was exhilarated at the prospect of meeting George, the Beatle! I belong to a generation, which literally grew up on a staple diet of Beatlemania even in a small, though progressive town of Allahabad.

Panditji was very particular that I spend as much time as possible with them. In the beginning George was very reserved — shy, Panditji corrected me — but when he saw the special relationship that I enjoyed with his guru and his family, he opened up. During the recording, he would often be seen consulting Panditji and Anoushka, who even at that tender age was deeply involved in organising and conducting music. Even though the collection has difficult Vedic pieces like Poornamadah, MahaMrityunjaya, Svara Mantra, George, to my utter surprise, knew them all and spent most of his time reciting the Gaayatri mantra.

The 10 days that I spent with George are not only the ones that I cherish but revealed the real George behind the myth. He was a firm believer in naturopathy. He had developed a severe cold and no amount of persuasion could make him take anything other than a concoction of ginger and honey. He was an equally firm vegetarian and a teetotaller. In his deluxe suite, he insisted on keeping the air-conditioner shut and windows open, even in the sultry weather. One day, he complained bitterly about the chaotic traffic and pollution in the city, and asked me who was responsible for controlling them. I was at that time Special Officer, Corporation of Madras, and told him that to an extent I was guilty. He laughed and then gave a couple of suggestions.

His relationship with Panditji was most remarkable. He treated the maestro as his guru in the very real sense of the word.

The last day of his stay was also the most memorable one for me. After dinner, we drove down to the city from a sea-side resort. It took us longer than the usual time because he wanted the car to be driven slow. That was my first tete-a-tete with him, full one hour with George Harrison. I reminded him of their extraordinary popularity, in fact a royalty status still unsurpassed, in an age when hype was not such a buzz word, and asked him what was it like to be the Beatles.

He replied that in the beginning it was certainly very difficult to cope with the loss of privacy but then they had to get used to it.

The most awe-inspiring moments of their lives were when they were awarded the Order of the British Empire.

The investiture ceremony was an elaborate one, something they were not used to, especially the formality of it. Since they were four of them to share things, they could always get by.

As we were about to reach the hotel, I told him "I salute you on behalf of my generation" for all the joy the Beatles had given us. He responded with a mock salute and said, "Thank you all for loving us." Those were his last words to me.


(The author is an I.A.S. officer belonging to the Tamil Nadu cadre)

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