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50 years of Beatles' India-inspired 'White Album'

A day in the life (Clockwise from far left) The Beatles in a still from A Hard Day’s Night ; Nicholas Nugent (in black shirt) stands next to John Lennon, to his left is Ajit Singh, while Steve Browne holds the dilruba made for Pattie; with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh; Lakshman Jhula; and remains of the ashram   | Photo Credit: United Artists

It was 1968, the era of the Beatles. Their ‘psychedelic’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released and was all the rage among teenagers in Britain. The catchy lyrics remain embedded in my mind: It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play; They’ve been going in and out of style, But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.

Lakshman Jhula

Lakshman Jhula  

 

I left school in England and travelled to take up a post as a volunteer-teacher in Dehradun. As a teenager myself, imagine my joy to find that the Beatles were to arrive at nearby Rishikesh to begin several weeks of transcendental meditation. The technique’s exponent, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi from Varanasi, who had become popular in Britain and California, invited the Beatles and other celebrities to his Rishikesh ashram. These included actress Mia Farrow, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, the singer Donovan, known as ‘the Scottish (Bob) Dylan’, and flautist Paul Horn.

In those days, Dehradun was a pleasant town in Uttar Pradesh, renowned for its institutions — the Indian Military Academy, Forest Research Institute and the Survey of India — and as a stopping-off point en route to the hill station of Mussoorie. Pedestrians and cyclists like me knew the narrow main street, which leads West from the distinctive six-sided clock tower, as ‘suicide alley’ — for obvious reasons. Now, the city has grown in stature to become the capital of Uttarakhand.

A little help from friends

I got to know Ajit Singh, the owner of Dehradun’s Pratap Music House, which was supplying The Beatles with Indian musical instruments. My lucky break came when Ajit received an order from George Harrison to make a dilruba for his wife Pattie on her birthday. Ajit invited me and fellow volunteer-teacher, Steve Browne, to travel to Rishikesh to deliver the instrument — our role was to carry Pattie’s birthday cake from a Dehradun bakery. Delivering cake and present meant staying on for the birthday party.

Here, there and everywhere
  • Formed in 1960 in Liverpool, The Beatles were considered the most influential act of the rock era, and their popularity led to Beatlemania.
  • Two of The Beatles — Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have been knighted.
  • The Beatle haircut, popularly known as the mop-top, a mid-length style with bangs, was a winner among teenagers, although it didn’t go down too well with adults.

My visit to the ‘Valley of Saints’ remains vivid. Rishikesh, with its numerous ashrams, is famous as a centre of meditation and is the gateway to the shrine town of Badrinath. It is regarded as the place where the sacred Ganga enters the plains through a gorge from its Himalayan source. We crossed the Ganga over the elegant Lakshman Jhula footbridge, where monkeys hover. We climbed the steep bank on the opposite side and, passing scrutiny by guards, were admitted to the Maharishi’s extensive and exclusive ashram, surrounded on three sides by thick jungle and on the fourth by the river.

Music in the air

We were not invited (or required) to join the twice-daily mediation sessions, but participated in informal open-air mingling and singing. During the afternoon, which seemed to be rest time, songs wafted from the bungalows where the meditators lived. Much of what we were hearing would later be released on the White Album 50 years ago today, on November 22, 1968. An expanded and ‘digitally remixed’ anniversary version of the classic album has just been released in Britain.

Nicholas Nugent (in black shirt) stands next to John Lennon, to his left is Ajit Singh, while Steve Browne holds the dilruba made for Pattie.

Nicholas Nugent (in black shirt) stands next to John Lennon, to his left is Ajit Singh, while Steve Browne holds the dilruba made for Pattie.  

 

Marking the re-release, BBC Music Critic, Mark Savage, wrote that “the White Album is turbulent, raw and challenging — partly in reaction to the political upheaval at the end of the 1960s, as the Vietnam War and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr crushed the idealism of the Summer of Love”. Students were rioting in Paris and the Soviet army had invaded Czechoslovakia to quell the Prague Spring uprising.

Indian music first appeared on the previous album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in George Harrison’s melody ‘Within You Without You’ which begins with a delightful sitar solo. Harrison had taken lessons from his musical guru, Ravi Shankar, on a previous visit to India.

The White Album tracks were loosely based on the Beatles’ stay at Rishikesh. ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ told the story of the American son of an aide to the Maharishi, who secretly set out on a hunting expedition in the surrounding jungle and ended up killing a tiger — “in self-defence”, he claimed. The killing did not go down well at the strictly-vegetarian ashram. Paul McCartney wrote ‘Blackbird’ about the noisy crows which disturbed morning meditation sessions, though later he said the song was about race relations in America. ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, also by Paul, was based on a lecture the Maharishi had given about man’s relationship with Nature. John Lennon’s overtly political song, ‘Revolution’, was inspired by protests in many cities against the Vietnam War. Donovan’s own hit song, the ballad ‘Jennifer Juniper’, was inspired by his infatuation for Pattie Harrison’s younger sister, Jenny, who was also at the ashram.

With Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh

With Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh  

 

Though I did not know it at the time, I was hearing raw versions of some of these songs. Rishikesh was the testing ground, a rehearsing studio, before the serious business of recording took place back in London — at Abbey Road Studios — a few months later.

When dusk fell, we made our way to the inner sanctum or lecture theatre, where the evening festivities took place. The Maharishi sat cross-legged on stage, alongside him was birthday girl Pattie Harrison and her husband George. We joined others from many countries in singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and traditional if unseasonal favourites like ‘You are my Sunshine’ and ‘Jingle Bells’.

For me, this was a chance to chat with the musical icons of the era, including John Lennon, Paul McCartney as well as Paul’s then-girlfriend, the actress Jane Asher. Later, we all went outside for fireworks, before the evening came to a close and everyone retired to their bungalows. The Beatles left Rishikesh after accusations of sexual misconduct were made against the Maharishi, first by Mia Farrow, giving rise to the song ‘Sexie Sadie’.

50 years of Beatles' India-inspired 'White Album'
 

Two songs written in Rishikesh have never appeared on a Beatles album. George Harrison wrote a ditty called simply ‘Dehradun’, which can be seen in a video version on YouTube: Dehra Dehra Dun... many roads can take you there, many different ways one direction takes you years, another takes you days; Dehra Dehra Dun. ‘The Happy Rishikesh Song’, is about mantras and inner peace.

Rishikesh gave the world of rock music the White Album — and made the Maharishi a rich man through his transcendental meditation movement. He later moved his headquarters to Switzerland and died in Europe in 2008.

Fifty years on, the ashram at Rishikesh has been partially reclaimed by the jungle. There is talk of reviving it as a tourist attraction. Tranquil Rishikesh never had such a moment in the limelight. Pratap Music House in Dehradun, founded in Lahore in 1883, still goes strong. For me personally, the episode started me off in journalism. I reported on the birthday party and have been reporting from — and writing about — India ever since.

Fun facts:

 

Rishikesh hosts the International Yoga Festival.

Legend is that Ringo Starr brought tins of baked beans to save him from eating spicy curry meals at the ashram.

Parts of the ashram have been cleared of undergrowth and draw visitors. ‘The Beatles Cave’, one of the pods where the band is said to have stayed, is filled with murals of their songs.

 

Nicholas Nugent is the author of Rajiv Gandhi: Son of a Dynasty. Formerly a journalist with the BBC, he now teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai

An earlier version of this article had errors in the photo captions. The error is regretted.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 10:05:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/it-was-50-years-ago-today/article25556369.ece

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