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The Beatles song that Ravi Shankar secretly thought was terrible

The Beatles undertook a dramatic transformation over their eight years of existence; the most significant changes began to occur in 1966, around the time they had decided to visit India to seek spiritual enlightenment outside of hallucinogenic drugs. Beginning with their first visit to the country in 1966, their odyssey in India under the mentorship of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught them the powers of Hindu teachings and the benefits of transcendental meditation. Over this period, the Beatles brought eastern beliefs and values to the Western culture, incorporating Indian influences into their music through the use of the sitar and lyrics inspired by Hindu incantations.

The most spiritually enlightened of the Beatles was George Harrison, who became involved in the Hare Krishna movement and formed a close friendship with Ravi Shankar, who taught him to play the sitar as well as becoming his guru and spiritual leader. Before The Beatles had become fully enamoured with Indian culture in 1966, they had included the sitar in ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, which appeared on their 1965 album Rubber Soul. The classic Beatles track marked one of the earliest inclusions of the sitar in western pop music.

The song is widely regarded as one of The Beatles’ finest and certainly one of their most important as it marked the beginning of their creative explosion into psychedelic music and Indian influence. However, one person who wasn’t so keen on the track was Ravi Shankar. He loved that it brought eastern music to a new audience, but he didn’t like it and thought that George Harrison had a lot to learn about the sitar.

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It appears that Ravi Shankar had kept his thoughts about ‘Norwegian Wood’ to himself for fear of hurting his friends in the Beatles. Harrison decided to meet Shankar in 1966 after hearing one of his records; he once described the effect of the record, “I put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can’t explain, but it seemed very familiar to me,” George explained. “The only way I could describe it was: my intellect didn’t know what was going on and yet this other part of me identified with it.” Without even knowing it, George felt something very important in Hinduism and he often insisted that he felt as if he knew Shankar from a past life.

After the two had met, they appeared to have a spiritual connection, and Shankar wanted to become Harrison’s mentor. Shankar once told Rolling Stone, “I had heard of the Beatles, but I didn’t know how popular they were. I met all four, but with George, I clicked immediately. He said he wanted to learn [sitar] properly.”

Adding: “I said it’s not just learning chords, like the guitar. Sitar takes at least one year to [learn to] sit properly because the instrument is so difficult to hold. Then you cut your fingers to this extent [shows tips of two fingers – purple, with calluses]. He said he would try. He seemed so sweet and sincere that I believed it.”

Shankar would keep his thoughts about ‘Norwegian Wood’ to himself during their friendship. “To tell you the truth, I had to keep my mouth shut,” Shankar continued to Rolling Stone. “It was introduced to me by my nieces and nephews, who were just gaga over it. I couldn’t believe it because to me, it sounded so terrible.”

He recalled his first meeting with Harrison, “[George] appeared to be a sweet, straightforward young man. I said I had been told he had used the sitar, although I had not heard the song ‘Norwegian Wood.’ He seemed quite embarrassed, and it transpired that he had only had a few sittings with an Indian chap who was in London to see how the instrument should be held and to learn the basics of playing.”

He continued: “Then George expressed his desire to learn the sitar from me. I told him that to play sitar is like learning Western classical music on the violin or the cello. It is not merely a matter of learning how to hold the instrument and play a few strokes and chords, after which (with sufficient talent) you can prosper on your own, as is common with the guitar in western pop music.

“We fixed it that he would come to India to learn in more depth. I felt strongly that there was a beautiful soul in him and recognised one quality which I always have valued enormously and which is considered the principal one in our culture—humility.”

Shankar concluded, “Considering that he was so famous—part of the most popular group in the world ever!—he was nevertheless quite humble, with a childlike quality that he has retained to this day.”

Watch rare footage from one of George Harrison’s 1968 sitar lessons in India with his mentor Ravi Shankar below.