In the September of 1966, following the end of what would be The Beatles’ final world tour, George Harrison boarded a flight bound for Bombay, India. His purpose for the trip was to take sitar lessons under the tutelage of the famed virtuoso classical Indian musician, Ravi Shankar.
The significance of Harrison’s eastward journey was profound; Harrison’s inquiry into Indian classical music would set the tone for psychedelic Western pop music that would emerge for the remainder of the decade and into the seventies. Nevertheless, Harrison’s visit was not his first encounter with Indian classical music. While filming a restaurant scene for the movie Help!, Harrison recounted hearing Indian Classical musicians play in the background. Though fleeting, it nonetheless inspired Harrison to pick up the sitar, whose curiosity was driven by tonality of the stringed instrument, so removed from the Western musical palette. Inspired, Harrison to note: ‘‘This sounds funny’…it was a incidental thing but somewhere further down the line I began to hear Ravi Shankar’s name’. Soon after, the sitar made its first appearance on The Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul, with Harrison’s sitar work being most notably heard on the track Norwegian Wood.
With Harrison’s interest in Indian Classical music becoming public knowledge, the press aimed to force a meeting between the Beatle and Shankar; in Harrison’s own words:
They started thinking: ‘A photo opportunity – a Beatle with an Indian.’ So they kept trying to put us together, and I said ‘no’, because I knew I’d meet him under the proper circumstances, which I did. He also came round to my house, and I had a couple of lessons from him on how to sit and hold the sitar.
So in September, after touring and while John was making How I Won the War, I went to India for about six weeks. First I flew to Bombay and hung out there. Again, because of the mania, people soon found out I was there.
In order to sustain practice with the instrument for lengthy periods of time, Shankar enlisted the help of a Yoga teacher to better Harrison’s playing posture. Harrison recounts the trip:
It was a fantastic time. I would go out and look at temples and go shopping. We travelled all over and eventually went up to Kashmir and stayed on a houseboat in the middle of the Himalayas. It was incredible. I’d wake up in the morning and a little Kashmiri fellow, Mr Butt, would bring us tea and biscuits and I could hear Ravi in the next room, practising… To suddenly find yourself in a place where it feels like 5000 BC is wonderful.
I went to the city of Benares, where there was a religious festival going on, called the Ramila. It was out on a site of 300 to 500 acres, and there were thousands of holy men there for a month-long festival. During this festival the Maharajah feeds everybody and there are camps of different people, including the sadhus – renunciates. In England, in Europe or the West, these holy men would be called vagrants and be arrested, but in a place like India they roam around. They don’t have a job, they don’t have a Social Security number, they don’t even have a name other than collectively – they’re called sannyasis, and some of them look like Christ. They’re really spiritual; and there are also a lot of loonies who look like Allen Ginsberg. That’s where he got his whole trip from – with the frizzy hair, and smoking little pipes called chillums, and smoking hashish. The British tried for years to stop Indians smoking hashish, but they’d been smoking it for too long for it to be stopped.
I saw all kinds of groups of people, a lot of them chanting, and it was a mixture of unbelievable things, with the Maharajah coming through the crowd on the back of an elephant, with the dust rising. It gave me a great buzz.
Harrison’s deep interest in the culture was subsequently shared with other members of The Beatles, who, by the closing years of the decade also partook in transcendental meditation and acquainted themselves philosophies of the region.
This growth in interest in Indian classical music and culture was visible in the band’s next album, Revolver, wherein the song Love You Too was Harrison’s first to be entirely composed on the sitar. Modeled on north Indian Classical music, it featured Indian classical musicians who played an array of stringed and percussive instruments. Other tracks also featured odd time signatures, and instrumentation formerly unseen in Western pop music. This spread lyrically too, with notable lyrics from the album having been drawn from Eastern philosophical works.
The music was not the only souvenir from the trip. Harrison’s photographs from this trip are particularly noteworthy. Armed with a 35mm camera and a fisheye lens, a collection of self-portraits show an intimately spiritual side to the man famously noted as the ‘quiet’ Beatle. His photographs capture arresting shots of the North-Indian landscape.
Harrison’s interest with Indian culture never wavered for the remainder of his life. Following the break-up of The Beatles, he recorded with Shankar through the seventies. This became the album Collaborations, released after Harrison’s death as a four-part box set in 2010.
Credits to works referenced:
- George Harrison, Anthology
- Rodrigo Guerrero, The role of The Beatles in popularising Indian Classical Music and Culture to the West.