Today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of George Harrison’s triumphant single ‘Bangla Desh’. The impetus for the song, and resulting concert, came from Harrison’s great friend, the legendary Indian Bengali musician Ravi Shankar. He had turned to the former Beatle in desperation, asking for help to alleviate the suffering caused by the 1970 Bhola Cyclone and the destructive Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
Harrison’s response would be the first-ever charity single by a major artist. ‘Bangla Desh’ was released at the peak of Harrison’s solo popularity and has since been described as “one of the most cogent social statements in music history”.
The single was released three days before the Concert for Bangladesh shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The concert was comprised of two all-star shows over the course of August 1st, 1971, featuring the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Billy Preston. It raised awareness and funds for the droves of Bengalis affected by both crises. The concerts preceded the likes of Live Aid, and ‘Bangla Desh’ became a top ten hit across the globe.
Before we delve into this trailblazing song, we must take a brief detour toward understanding how the relationship between Harrison and Shankar came to fruition and how the war in Bangladesh stemmed from largely the same system. When the British East India Company won a decisive victory over the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies at the Battle of Plassey on June 23rd, 1757, it would change the world forever. What would ensue over the following centuries is rightfully categorised as one of the most glaring examples of colonialism world history has to offer – British colonial rule in India.
Before India gained independence in 1947, there would be a considerable amount of toing and froing of goods, ideas, people, and words that would forever make the two country’s inherently interlinked. One only has to note that the most luxurious of the British crown jewels, the Koh-i-Noor, is a traditional Mughal royal stone. It was presented to Queen Victoria in 1850 after the British Empire’s belligerent acquisition of the Indian Punjab province in 1849.
To demonstrate this point further, the British and Western colonial mindset was one of plunder in both the literal and metaphysical sense. We should heed the number of Indian words that have assimilated themselves into the English lexicon since the colonial period. Bandana, Bungalow, Cushy, Khaki, Dungaree, Loot, Pundit, Pyjamas, Shampoo, Thug, (Hot) Toddy, Veranda, the list is endless. Words pertaining to every facet of the English world’s life have been plucked from the traditional Indian tongue. If you would like to delve deeper into this, the largely unknown 1886 dictionary, Hobson-Jobson, is the primary source for this information, with over 2,000 examples of Anglo-Indian words and terms stemming from British rule in India.
An all-encompassing system, colonialism would, of course, affect popular culture too. What do disparate elements such as James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, grunge legends Nirvana, and pop-rockers The Bangles have in common? All owe their names to various Indian origins. It is in this vein then that we will proceed. Colonialism was undoubtedly a terrible thing, a deeply unfair, racialised system that led to the development of the Western world at the expense of the colonised. In this case, focusing on India and Britain, colonialism spawned four modern country’s that owe the majority of their modern history to this anglocentric mode of rule. In addition to the modern UK, these are known today as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
It wasn’t always so. What also stemmed from India gaining independence in 1947 was the partition. Without getting too bogged down in what is a complex situation, the old colonial India split into two different dominions, India and Pakistan, largely based on the long-standing faultlines between the Hindu and Muslim populations. Pakistan was divided into East and West, separated by the vast land border of India. The former Indian province of East Bengal then became known as East Pakistan but would become the country of Bangladesh in 1971. It broke from Pakistan in the bitter war of independence, and it was this that caused Shankar to turn to Harrison requesting aid for his people and homeland.
There exists an argument that, over the years, British colonial rule had held the divided religions together by a thread and that the vacuum left by its rule added to the swelling Hindu and Muslim nationalisms, led to the bloody partition and then the terrible Bangladeshi war for independence. Whilst one may focus on the disturbing racism and unfairness of colonialism, that is not our lot, and there is plenty of discourse out there that is far more qualified to unpick the dense matter. Edward Said, Sanjay Seth, Partha Chatterjee and poet Tagore are just some of the foremost voices on the matter.
However, what colonialism certainly did, was set the wheels in motion that would in equal parts lead to the veneration of Mahatma Gandhi and the meetings of the Beatles guitarist George Harrison and legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar. Like the elements of popular culture that we touched on earlier that have been peppered by Indian influence, the convergence of Harrison and Shankar would, in a sense, change the face of popular culture forever. The impact Indian music and the sitar had on the Beatles’ music was profound, to say the least. They remain the biggest band on Earth, even though they split in 1970 and two of the members are dead. This is because the Beatles paved the way for almost every fundamental principle of alternative culture, specifically in music, fashion and ideals – a topic extensively discussed that needs no real mention.
A significant factor behind the Beatles’ later success, particularly starting with 1966’s psychedelic experiment Revolver, was the deep friendship of ‘The Quiet One’ Harrison and Shankar. They would meet in 1966 in London via the Asian Music Circle (AMC), a group formed by curious Anglo-Indian couple The Angadis, who exposed Indian musicians to Britain and vice-versa.
Harrison first encountered the sitar while filming the iconic Beatles flick Help in 1965. According to Ray Newman, Harrison had taken a punt on an old, cheap sitar from an Indian store in London, not knowing much about the provenance of the hallowed Indian instrument. Regardless, he would use it to great effect providing the unmistakable drone carrying Lennon’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ from 1965’s Rubber Soul.
It was during the Abbey Road recording sessions for Rubber Soul that Harrison and the AMC would first come into each other’s orbits. Harrison broke a string on the sitar and was at a loss of where to find a replacement. Allegedly, there are two varying reports of what ensued. Firstly, the Indian Embassy was contacted who offered up the AMC as a possible source for the string. Alternatively, according to Newman, esteemed producer George Martin pointed Harrison in the direction of the AMC, as he had been in contact with them in 1960 while recording Peter Sellers’ tasteless ‘Goodness Gracious Me’.
Either way, before too long, Harrison would become a regular at the AMC, and the Angadis would receive an invitation to visit the Fab Four during one of their Rubber Soul recording sessions. Prior to the recording of Rubber Soul, in mid-1965, Harrison had been introduced to the majestic work of Shankar by none other than Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds while on tour in the US. This sonic awakening would define the next chapter of the Beatles’ career and also that of Harrison and Shankar’s lives.
Eventually, in June 1966, Harrison and Shankar would meet at an AMC dinner party, where the latter was a special guest. This fateful meeting would have a transformative effect on Harrison. Under Shankar’s tutelage, Harrison would learn to master the sitar and develop the elementary sound he started on Rubber Soul. This friendship exposed Harrison to Hinduism, mediation and all things karmic. One only has to regard the difference in the quality of sitar playing between Rubber Soul and Revolver to feel Shankar’s stark influence.
In many ways, one can observe the relationship between Harrison and Shankar as the embodiment of – and product of – the colonial system and the absolute Hadron Collider of the musical world. The atom-splitting, genre-bending partnership literally rocked music. This amalgamation of styles set alternative culture on its merry way for the decades to come. It proved that one does not have to be confined by social mores and constructs as the colonial attitude maintained.
The Eastern influence would completely take Harrison forevermore; Shankar would also release an album with influential American minimalist Philip Glass in 1990. Harrison and Shankar, over their lifetimes, showed that disparate musical disciplines could be, when appropriate, fused together as the results aid progress and abet stagnation.
Harrison’s widow, Olivia, succinctly described the effect Shankar had on the six-string legend: “When George heard Indian music, that really was the trigger, it was like a bell that went off in his head. It not only awakened a desire to hear more music, but also to understand what was going on in Indian philosophy. It was a unique diversion.”
Shankar’s influence and legacy would also pinpoint many of the memorable highs of Harrison’s post-Beatles career. The tenets of Eastern philosophy coloured a vast amount of his solo work and is most clearly heard on his magnum opus 1970’s All Things Must Pass. The chants of “Hare Krishna” in Harrison’s most successful solo single, ‘My Sweet Lord‘, are perhaps the most obvious example of this.
It is clear, then, that Harrison owed a lot to his friendship with Ravi Shankar. However, the debt would not go unpaid. Being by all accounts one of the kindest men to have ever lived, Harrison paid his debt to Shankar by writing the incredibly effective ‘Bangla Desh’ and hosting the subsequent multi-media aid event. Harrison was spurred on by the fact that the humanitarian crisis was barely known outside of Asia. His efforts certainly woke the rest of the world up. Allegedly, it was the first time many in the west had even heard the word “Bangladesh”.
The opening lyrics of the song are a direct reference to friend and mentor Shankar:
“My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes,
Told me that he wanted help before his country dies,
Although I couldn’t feel the pain, I knew I had to try,
Now I’m asking all of you to help us save some lives.”
The interesting thing about ‘Bangla Desh’ is that in addition to it being a resounding success, Harrison only played the song as his encore at both shows at the Concert for Bangladesh, then never played the song again – although it was one of his most successful hits. This can be attributed to the fact that the situation was grim and very time-specific, as the lyrics describe, “Bangladesh, Bangladesh/ Where so many people are dying fast/ And it sure looks like a mess/ I’ve never seen such distress”. No wonder that today it is one of Harrison’s lesser-known tracks.
In fact, just like the aid concert, the line-up that recorded ‘Bangla Desh’ was equally as all-star. It features contributions from Leon Russell, Jim Horn, Jim Keltner and none other than Ringo Starr. Keltner and Horn would become enduring mainstays of Harrison’s career after this session. Furthermore, even though Harrison is the only credited author of the song, it is said that Russell, who also performed at the Concert for Bangladesh, was the one who suggested the opening lines of the song to set up the story and pitch to Western audiences effectively.
Harrison was also clever in the way he took an apolitical position in the lyrics, focusing mainly on the suffering. This endeared the track to what would have otherwise been a disconnected audience. This simple, yet effective stance, is hailed as laying the framework for future charity singles, including Live Aid’s smash ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’. In this sense, Harrison can also be seen as somewhat of a forefather to music’s resident good Samaritan, Bob Geldof. Geldof’s Live Aid would take what ‘Bangla Desh’ and the resulting concert, film and live album achieved and upscaled it to an unprecedented level. Even more interestingly, the single was produced by none other than the murderous ‘Wall of Sound’ brainiac, Phil Spector.
It is calculated that Harrison’s aid spectacular raised around $11 million, which is worth almost double that in today’s money. This would not be the last charitable mark Harrison made, as throughout his life, he would continue to exercise his influence for good through his Material World trust.
In 1991, Harrison claimed that “even now I still meet waiters in Bengali restaurants who say, ‘When we were in the jungle fighting, it was great to know somebody out there was thinking of us.'” This provides a critical point. The single was so effective that it was even accepted by the people it claimed to help – people who before had had no interest in “Western” music. Shankar himself was uneasy at many of the Western mores in popular music, he was particularly perturbed by his experience at Woodstock 1969.
However, instead of being a Western-centric exercise in ego-massaging like the one’s we see today, it achieved its desired effect by being as true to the cause as possible. In conjunction with Harrison retiring the song after the concert, it tells us a lot about the man behind the song. A 1971 review of the show from The Village Voice sums it up perfectly: “I have no quarrel with John Lennon’s endless clattering around inside his psyche, or Paul McCartney’s search for sweetness and light, but at the moment I have to have stronger feelings about George Harrison’s active efforts to do something about the misery in the world around him. How surprising that the most introspective of the Beatles should be the one who, in the long run, takes the most effective actions.”
In the interview included in the 2005 reissue of the Concert for Bangladesh film, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan labelled Harrison and Shankar as “pioneers” in their charitable efforts. He showed his admiration for the way the song’s opening verse personalised the crisis by revealing “the man behind the music”.
It is clear then that Harrison repaid his debt to the Bengali-born Shankar. He used his status, some of which can be put down to the transformative effect of his friendship with Shankar, to the best possible use. Both were from worlds apart but were drawn together as an effect of the deeply-entrenched colonial system that had tied their two homelands together for generations.
In the most ironic of ways, the unlikely duo successfully reacted to the emergency in Bangladesh, which had emerged in the shadow of the colonial structure. They traversed borders and brought two diametrically opposed peoples together by using all mod cons to achieve their charitable ends. Thus, they set an example for generations to come. It is unlikely we will ever again get a pair as game-changing as Harrison and Shankar.
Listen to the magnificent ‘Bangla Dash’ below.