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The Beatles in India: ‘With their long hair and jokes, they blew our minds!’

Posted on Jun 03, 2021

I n 1968, Paul Saltzman was a lost soul. The son of a Canadian TV weatherman, he was working as a sound engineer for the National Film Board of Canada in India when he received a “Dear John” letter from the woman he thought was going to be his wife. “I was devastated,” he says. “Then someone on the crew said: ‘Have you tried meditation for the heartbreak?’”

Saltzman went to see the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – the founder of transcendental meditation – speak at New Delhi University. Emboldened by promises of “inner rejuvenation”, Saltzman then travelled to the International Academy of Meditation in Rishikesh. It was closed, due to the arrival of the Beatles.

As explained by Paul McCartney in the Beatles book Anthology, the exhausted group, still coming to terms with the suicide of their manager Brian Epstein in August 1967, had arrived in Rishikesh with wives and girlfriends to “find the answer” through the teachings of the Maharishi, whom Paul, George and John had first encountered at a lecture at the London Hilton. “There was a feeling of: ‘It’s great to be famous [and] rich,” said McCartney, “but what it’s all for?’”

“I didn’t even know the Beatles were in India,” Saltzman says. “I waited outside for eight days and then I was taken to a small room where I was taught transcendental meditation. What replaced the agony [of the breakup] was bliss.”

Saltzman is now 78, and his new film, Meeting the Beatles In India, is one of two forthcoming documentaries on the subject. With narration by Morgan Freeman, and contributions from director David Lynch and Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn, it is expansive and grand, but at its heart is the smaller, affecting tale of Saltzman himself.

He is charming company and there is a trustworthy innocence to his storytelling, his face openly ready to laugh or cry – both of which he does during our talk. You imagine it was something of this openness that led the normally wary Lennon to invite Saltzman to sit with the group, their wives and friends, one warm February morning 53 years ago.

Paul, John and Ringo having a jam. Photograph: 1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All rights reserved/Paul Saltzman

“Maybe being in that altered state from having just meditated for the first time made a difference,” he says. “I think what they picked up immediately was: ‘This guy is not wanting anything from us.’”

Saltzman had arrived at the ashram with few belongings. One of those was a Pentax camera. “In the week I spent with them,” he says, “I never thought of asking for an autograph, and I only took my camera out twice.”

The photos he took during that week of meditation are remarkable. Forgotten about for 30 years, then rescued from storage in the late 90s when his daughter casually asked about “that time you met the Beatles”, they show John, Paul, George and Ringo hanging with fellow ashram guests Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, jazz flautist Paul Horn, Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence, in an unguarded and utterly relaxed state, rehearsing new songs or just gazing contentedly into the middle distance.

“I didn’t even think about the quality of the pictures,” says Saltzman. “Then I took them to Steven Maycock, the curator of rock memorabilia at Sotheby’s and he said: ‘These are the best intimate shots of the Beatles we’ve ever seen.’”

The group returned to London with30 new songs, most of which would end up on the White Album in 1968. But the band soon fell back into a toxic pattern of late nights, drug use and interpersonal fractiousness. Saltzman’s photos – sharply focused and with deep eye contact – show four friends in a rare, late state of carefree contentment.

“You can tell the Beatles’ story so many different ways,” says Indian film director, Ajoy Bose, when I mention Saltzman’s story. “I always felt that the India part of the Beatles saga was bigger than Rishikesh.”

Bose’s film, The Beatles and India, maps a longer saga: a three-year journey, from when George first picked up a sitar on the set of Help!, via their brief sightseeing trip to Delhi in July 1966, to George’s friendship with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar and his recording of Wonderwall Music with classical Indian musicians in the HMV Bombay studios.

Ringo with Paul Saltzman. Photograph: Copyright Larry Kurland/Paul Saltzman. All Rights Reserved

“For me, this isn’t a story about the Maharishi,” says Bose. “It’s about four working-class lads from Liverpool, who got deeply into Indian culture, when George was the de facto leader of the group.” Some got into it more deeply than others; worried about the spicy food, Ringo arrived with a suitcase full of tins of Heinz baked beans to sustain him.

Running parallel to that tale, Bose’s film tells the equally fascinating story of how and why India fell in love with the Beatles. “I discovered them when I was about 12 or 13,” says Bose. “I was from the English-speaking Bengali middle-classes, who had been into Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves and Doris Day, and who were naturally bi-cultural. PG Wodehouse was our sense of humour, and that’s why I think there was an immediate connection with the Beatles: the wit.

“But my father was a bureaucrat who started with the British Raj,” he says. “His problem with the Beatles was that they didn’t behave ‘like Britishers’ – people with a stiff upper lip, who had short hair and didn’t let their feelings show. So the Beatles, with their long hair and jokes, really blew our minds.”

Rather than presenting the Beatles’ relationship with India as one of cultural appropriation, Bose insists it was something closer to cultural exchange. “Osmosis on both sides,” he says. “And look at the paradox. The Beatles were tired of the west’s commercialised capitalist culture and looking for spiritual peace, but we looked upon them as exciting symbols of modern culture.”

Bose’s film tracks down former members of Beatles-influenced Indian “beat” groups such as the Savages and the Jets, but also goes beyond music to look at the political impact of the Beatles presence in India, including the reaction of a KGB spy at the Maharishi’s ashram.

‘In a way, the Beatles never left India’ … George and Patti Harrison with garlands while the other members of the band look on. Photograph: Colin Harrison/Avico

“I went back to Indian newspapers in 1968,” says Bose, “and discovered that communist and socialist Indian politicians were saying Rishikesh was a CIA camp. The KGB even sent their top man, Yuri Bezmenov, to Rishikesh to find out what was going on.” Bose’s discovery results in one of the finest moments of the film, a clip of Bezmenov talking happily in the late 1980s about “Mia Farrow and other useful idiots from Hollywood” returning to the US to spread a message of “sit down, look at your navel and do nothing”.

“The Maharishi was not on the payroll of the KGB,” says Bezmenov, laughing, “but whether he knows it or not, he contributed greatly to the demoralisation of American society.”

“It’s a great clip,” says Bose, “but I do think that Rishikesh was massively important for so many reasons. India gave the Beatles a philosophical state of mind; India matured them, India helped them become individuals. In a way, the Beatles never left India. George’s ashes were scattered on the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The Beatles fan club is still growing in India.”

What do the Beatles mean to a new generation of Indians? Bose says: “Covid has changed our world , our reality over the past 16 months. Everyone is feeling so much more vulnerable and tired and I think the Beatles, in a very fundamental sense, still reconnect us with a sense of romance, a sense of joy and a sense of innocence.”

Saltzman has been left with more than some priceless holiday photos. What memory does he still hold on to from that week? He replies, instantly: “Doing my first 30-minute meditation. It was fun meeting the Beatles, but that was secondary to the transformation of my inner life.”

The Beatles and India (dir. Ajoy Bose, Peter Compton) is the closing film at the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival (6 June, BFI). Meeting the Beatles In India (Paul Saltzman, 2020) is awaiting a release date – for more information go to thebeatlesinindia.com.