Indian Influence on The Beatles



"Hey, Jude", "Here comes the Sun", "Let it be", The Beatles hardly require an introduction. Being the highest selling rock band, they changed music history, making them the most influential band of all time. John, Paul, George and Ringo, the four horsemen of the scene, did not shy away from experimentation. From their music, it is evident that they were inventors. Call them overrated, but it's only fair to agree that their contributions to forming a whole counter-culture, incorporation of niche music styles in their time, and making music ranging from ballads to Raga Rock revolutionized (western) music as we know it today.


By the early 1960s, The Beatles had already made their mark as international stars. Their initial music style- R&B and American Rock and Roll, was in itself original, and extremely catchy. But despite its success, they decided to expand into other music styles, because to them, music was about pushing the realms of possibility and weaving something new out of anything deemed complete.

-The discovery of and venturing into Indian Classical music

During the shoot for a scene in their musical comedy film "Help!", the band found themselves in a restaurant that had Indian musicians playing in the background. This was the time The Beatles had put a hold on live performances, as they were focusing on new compositional techniques and styles, and hearing the sitar, definitely caught Harrison's attention. He was very intrigued by the string instrument and it's reverberating buzz.


With time, his interest in the sitar and classical Indian music, opened a door to meeting with Ravi Shankar.


Ravi Shankar, a brilliant composer, who again does not need an introduction, had made his mark as the most successful musician in not just India, but also the west. Harrison, bought Ravi Shankar 'a records and started truly delving into his compositions and trying to make sense of the very vibrant Indian classical music.


To his luck, an acquaintance had invited him for dinner one night, where Ravi Shankar was to dine as well. This is when Ravi Shankar agreed to teach Harrison the sitar, and he would fly to Mumbai (then, Bombay) for six weeks to learn the instrument.

-The Beatles and The Transcendental Meditation Movement

Harrison's interest in the Indian culture and its music, led him to take his bandmates to a lecture by a famous Indian spiritual leader, in London. In 1967, the band saw Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of "The Transcendental Meditation" speak, which made them enthralled by him and his teachings. They met him in person and travelled to Rishikesh, India, which was where his academy was situated. Here, the learnt more about Transcendental Meditation, and fully immersed themselves in the culture. The mediation was supposedly so powerful that it touched the inner depths of their soul, and they decided to give up drugs and psychedelics- a huge part of the counter-culture in the 60s.


The ashram served as a great source of inspiration for The Beatles. They found their new sound there, and wrote several songs surrounding it. Since they arrived late to the ashram, they received a lot of solo sessions with the Maharishi, to get them up to speed with the teachings. This attention, directly from a spiritual guru, inspired their self-titled album, tracks from their album "Abbey Road", and some of John Lennon's solo tracks.


However, all of this came to a halt after six weeks. Rumours about sexual advances towards the women in the group led Lennon and Harrison to confront the guru. Lennon claimed he had called his bluff and told him they were all leaving, and he knows why.

Despite feeling rejected because of this situation, the band knew it was best to leave for their home.

-What they took back with them

The Beatles took with them the teachings and inspiration, isolating it from the teacher himself, and stitched it into their new music. On the ride back to the airport, Lennon wrote the song "Sexy Sadie", based on the Maharishi.

"Sexy Sadie, what have you done?

You made a fool of everyone"

/

"We gave her everything we owned

just to sit at her table"

The incorporation of Indian classical (music) elements with hard rock led to the creation of "Raga Rock". Although The Beatles did not invent Raga Rock, they were pioneers of the style, alongside the Rolling Stones, the Byrds and the Yardbirds.


But despite all these wonderful additions the Indian culture had to western music, it wasn't received without problematic aspects.


Indian classical music was received as "primitive" and therefore authentic, by several western audience. This felt demeaning, redundant, and even exploitative of the culture. Another reason why it was often deemed problematic, was the association of Indian culture with drugs and psychedelics.


Ravi Shankar himself expressed his concerns on the same. In an interview in 1985, he said, "People would come to my concerts stoned," “I found it very humiliating, and there were many times I picked up my sitar and walked away."


Yes, when you put your art out in the world, it's suddenly not just yours anymore, but it is hard to not sympathize with someone who has slaved all their time working to be the best at something, only to have people show up high to enjoy it.

-Here are some songs by them with elements of Indian classical music that took the world by storm.

  • Within you without you

  • All you need is love

  • The inner light

  • Love you to

  • Dear prudence

  • Norwegian Wood

Putting the good, bad and ugly aside, in an objective sense, it is safe to say the band has paved the way for various new styles in the world of music, and their influence is still evident to this day.


~ Ananya Anand

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