Things to do: See the documentary The Beatles and India

In every nook and cranny of Beatles scholarship, the Fabs’ relationship and time spent in India is one of the most interesting. In fact, it could be said that no group did more to open Western ears, eyes and minds to Indian music, culture and spirituality than the Beatles in the mid/late 1960s. .

The connection is told in the fascinating 2021 documentary The Beatles and India (available on DVD & Blu-Ray June 21 from MVD Entertainment). It is co-directed by Ajoy Bose (based on his book, Across the Universe – The Beatles in India) and Pete Compton.

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“I met Ajoy at a forum for the white album in New Jersey and I just approached him to do this movie, and we got on really well,” Compton said via Zoom from his home in the UK. “He had talked to all these people for the book and they also made the movie. They all had these never-before-seen photos of [the Beatles] sort of stuck in the albums. So we had to rush to the local print show and reproduce them!”

The Beatles were first exposed to Indian music while filming a scene for the 1965 film To help! where a group of Indian musicians were playing in a restaurant. Intrigued by the sounds coming from the sitar and on the recommendation of Byrds David Crosby and Roger McGuinn, the Beatles sought out the instruments and its greatest practitioner, Ravi Shankar.

A quick stopover for the band in Delhi the following year further heightened their interest, and Shankar offered to teach Harrison to play, although he warned the pop star that it would take serious dedication and time.

Harrison followed later, but couldn’t shake the curious crowds (“When it comes to my vacation, I don’t want to be a Beatle. I want to be mehe quoted in an uncovered radio interview at the time). “He complains about not having peace. He wasn’t a Fab then! Compton laughs.

Harrison’s sitar playing would appear on the song “Norwegian Wood”, while Indian sounds and themes would also influence “Blue Jay Way”, “Love You To”, and “Within You Without You”.

The Beatles’ spiritual journey to India began in 1966 when Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd, and Paul McCartney saw an advertisement for a British Maharishi Mahesh Yogi lecture. All but Ringo (who was in the hospital at the time) were present, fascinated by the giggling guru who promoted the practice of Transcendental Meditation.

Click to enlarge George Harrison taking a sitar lesson from Ravi Shankar.  - SCREEN CAPTURE

George Harrison taking a sitar lesson from Ravi Shankar.

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Partly out of curiosity and partly out of a genuine desire to find something more meaningful in their lives, they quickly accepted the Maharishi’s invitation to attend a workshop in Bangor, Wales.

And then, in 1968, the four Beatles, their relatives and a group that included singers Donovan and Mike Love of the Beach Boys and actress Mia Farrow, pledged to study longer at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh. It’s this journey and experience that makes up most of the screen time in The Beatles and India.

While in Rishikesh, surrounded by nature, away from drugs and (especially) prying eyes, The Beatles’ musical creativity exploded, with the members composing many tracks that would end up in their final form on The Beatles (a.k.a The white album).

Click to enlarge The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, John Lennon and Cynthia Lennon.  - SCREEN CAPTURE

The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, John Lennon and Cynthia Lennon.

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Figures directly inspired by this era included Lennon’s sarcastic jibing during a tiger hunt that took place (“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”), the practice of chanting mantras (“Across the Universe” which includes singing “Jai Guru Deva, Om”), and their appeal to Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, who became so obsessed that she worried some when she wouldn’t even come out of her meditations to eat (“Dear Prudence”).

Each Beatle took different things out of the experience. Ringo and his wife Maureen only stayed for a few days, citing homesickness and Ringo’s food allergies as reasons (the drummer brought two suitcases: one with clothes and the other with tins of baked beans). Paul McCartney stayed for about five weeks leaving when his girlfriend Jane Asher had theater obligations.

Lennon and Harrison would stay the longest – nearly two full months – but their abrupt departure and public breakup with the Maharishi (who began attempting to leverage his Beatles connection to his business and publicity advantage) was ugly.

Click to enlarge John Lennon and George Harrison by the river near the ashram.  - SCREEN CAPTURE

John Lennon and George Harrison by the river near the ashram.

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A whisper campaign launched and fueled by the “Magic” group Alex Madras over alleged sexual improprieties against the yogi was all the boost Lennon (whose attention had waned and who wanted to come back to see Yoko Ono) needed. Disillusioned, Lennon would write a song “Maharishi” cataloging his critics.

Cooler heads prevailed when it came time to release it, however, and the lyrics and title were remade to “Sexy Sadie” on The Beatles album. The four Beatles would in various ways make peace with the holy man or talk about it better, with Harrison even apologizing in person years later.

In his opinion, Compton thinks the yogi had a bad case, and that Magic Alex’s version of the story – which he eventually had to give in a deposition for a lawsuit against The New York Times– is “so fake and wrong, it’s amazing. But it’s a film all by itself… this kind of Rasputin figure. And he is [hanging around] in every picture!

Click to enlarge Maharishi Mahesh Yogi lectures with The Beatles and their listening relatives.  - SCREEN CAPTURE

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi lectures with The Beatles and their listening relatives.

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Compton and Bose line up an interesting and varied range of talking heads for The Beatles and Indiaincluding not only scholars, journalists and Indian Beatles musicians whom the group met, but also those who worked with the Maharishi and spent time with the Beatles at the ashram and/or their children.

All give fascinating anecdotes, and Bose and Compton’s cameras catch many back at the ashram today, dilapidated but still a destination for some tourists.

“I’ve been to the ashram twice, and it’s always deserted and uncommercialized. Rishikesh is a hard-to-reach place, so it’s unspoiled,” Compton says. “These little rambling concrete boxes are still there, and they still hold a lot of magic.”
The only thing that The Beatles and India it lacks real Beatles music or even cover versions. Compton says Apple Corps’ licensing costs would have been far too high for such an independent project, nor did they anticipate official approval.

While he notes that the reaction to film festivals has been overwhelmingly positive over the past year, Compton doesn’t expect to hear from Paul or Ringo either. “I think they just live for the day and let others choose their [pasts]”, says Compton. “For me, the history of the Beatles is almost biblical, just what happened in those 10 years.

India’s impact on the four Beatles would continue in many ways after 1968. Ringo Starr continues to be a strong proponent of Transcendental Meditation, and Paul McCartney and his children visited the Maharishi towards the end of the guru (he died in 2008 at the age of 90).

John Lennon says in the film “The happiest time of my life, one of the happiest, was in India. It was such a groove, such a pure thing. Everything is a bit more in perspective.
Of course, it was George Harrison who maintained the closest and longest connection to Indian music, Hinduism, and a deep friendship with Ravi Shankar (whose suggestion to Harrison to fight famine directly resulted in The Concert for Bangladesh).

“George is the mystical Beatle. He sought [a reason] why he was chosen to be famous all over the world. He was going to be an apprentice electrician before joining the group! said Compton.

“He was the kid in the bunch and then he became the sage. Something we couldn’t put into the movie was how many times he went to India for the rest of his life. And of course , his [ashes] were scattered in the Ganges.

Finally, when asked what he learned most about the Beatles while making the documentary, Compton’s response is quick.

“It’s their kindness. When they were in India, they had no air and treated everyone the same. And people who met them said they were always very polite,” Compton sums up. “There was no superstar behavior. Everyone was level. »

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