The Beatles and India Doc Captures More Than One Spiritual Journey

Co-director Peter Compton explains how the local community came forward to tell the story of The Beatles and India.

Copy of 23. Beatles concert for Maharishi

In 1968, The Beatles, the biggest band in the material world, went searching for lesser-known alternatives in the spiritual one. Directed by Ajoy Bose and co-directed by Pete Compton, The Beatles and India is more than just a travelog of the band’s famous trip to Rishikesh, India to study transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The documentary shows how Indian music helped refine the group’s sound and how the country embraced the band as cultural ambassadors with deep roots which continue to this day.

The Beatles impacted India almost as much as the country influenced them. The group was first introduced to Indian music while filming Help!, a comedy which spoofed a Kali cult as a comic book villain. The 1965 film featured Indian musicians in a restaurant scene, and the band noticed the instruments. George Harrison first used sitar on John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” from the Rubber Soul album. Upon hearing it at the time, Ravi Shankar, one of India’s most venerated classical musicians, told a reporter “If George Harrison wants to play the sitar, why does he not learn it properly?” The documentary includes the story of how the guitarist took him up on it.

Harrison met Shankar at a dinner party for the North London Asian Music Circle in 1966. The elder sitar master taught melodic structure and technique, but also noted the importance of the instrument’s part in spiritual discipline. The next time George brought semitones into the studio, it was for the full throttle raga-rock song “Love You To,” from the 1966 album Revolver. The Beatles’ meditational trip up the Ganges is most associated with the song “Sexy Sadie,” Lennon’s beautifully acerbic response to a guru’s folly, but the band didn’t stop practicing the underlying spirituality. This is evidenced in the book Search for Liberation: Featuring a Conversation between John Lennon and Swami Bhaktivedanta.

Silva Screen Records also released a 19-song companion album, The Beatles and India: Songs Inspired by The Film, which features such Indian artists as Shankar’s daughter Anoushka Shankar, Vishal Dadlani, Kissnuka, Benny Dayal, Dhruv Ghanekar, Karsh Kale, and Soulmate. The Beatles and India expands on Bose’s 2018 book Across the Universe: The Beatles in India, which features an extensive interview with Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, the initial spark to the journey to India. With her interview as running commentary, the film expands on the research to retrace the steps to the ashram and beyond.

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Co-director and cultural researcher Pete Compton spoke with Den of Geek about the mystical and musical connections between The Beatles, Hinduism and India.

Den of Geek: This is an extension of the book by your co-director, Ajoy Bose, what roles did each of you fill on this?

Peter Compton: Ajoy did the research when he put his book together. Then we hooked up at a talk on The Beatles White Album at a convention at Monmouth University in New Jersey. We got on well together and decided to put the film together. His groundwork is pretty incredible for this film because he tracked all of these people down, over a dozen people in the film, that were in the Ashram in 1968, which is pretty remarkable really considering that was over 50 years ago.

Have you always had the same interest in The Beatles and with India or was this a learning experience for you?

Always The Beatles for me. The origins of the film came with Reynold D’Silva, the producer. He was born in Brennen, India, and grew up in Mumbai, then Bombay, in the late ‘60s. He became a part of that music scene. He came to live in Britain and launched a record label and hooked up with George Harrison’s company, HandMade Films, in the ‘80s and released a few soundtracks. Every time he returned to India he was always asked about doing a film about The Beatles and of all these people he had met with George Harrison.

He just got stirred to put things together, and my meeting Ajoy Bose was the clincher, really. That started something that was markedly different from the usual Beatles’ documentary. It’s the wider issues. You’ve got The Beatles and the Maharishi, which is a great story, and their effect in India. I don’t think people realize the massive influence The Beatles have there.

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I had never heard the story of George’s mother listening to Indian music while she was pregnant until now, what was the source for that?

Yeah, sure. That’s a bona fide special one. That is from the book [Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison by Joshua M. Greene]. He spoke to the sister of George’s mother, so George’s Auntie. She’s the one that came up with that anecdote, and I have no reason to doubt her. The BBC had a program on Sunday mornings, which I’ve tracked down, at 10:30 in the morning during WWII. It was a program for Indian servicemen stationed in Britain during WWII, and they would play a half an hour of contemporary Indian music, and that is what she would listen to. We were hoping to put some of that music in the film, but it’s pretty ancient. It just wouldn’t stand up in the film at all.

Was Indian music more known at the time in England than in America?

I don’t think so. I think the whole Indian thing is entirely spurred by the Ravi Shankar/George Harrison connection, which expanded everything. Before that it was all classical recitals. Shankar had come to Britain and did recitals that you could put off as a middle-class clique type of thing.

I was amazed. With The Beatles, you would find out something like that every week. In this new Ravi Shankar biography [Indian Sun], we find out that he recorded at Abbey Road studio five years before The Beatles, which I never knew. There was that kind of undercurrent. It was good for us to find the one person who is still alive who was at the meeting with Ravi and George. It would have been great had he taken photos or something like that, but of course, there’s no, absolutely no photographic evidence of that meeting.

I also didn’t know Paul McCartney was at that first meeting until I watched your film.

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Yes, exactly. He didn’t want to be left out. I think that things moved fast. Within a few months, George is being guided on a tour of India by Ravi Shankar. George and Patty, as we highlight in the film, go to every major site in India. He’s completely immersed in it almost immediately. [The Beatles 1966] stopover in Delhi was quite limited, but all four Beatles did get out of the suburbs of Delhi to the villages. Everyone thinks it was like a 24-hour turnaround, but they were there for two or three days. Unfortunately, most of the photos were all by George, so we couldn’t use them.

Do you happen to know if George Martin was on the session on Abbey Road, as an engineer or anything, when Ravi Shankar recorded there?

It’s difficult to say. The other twist to that story is, Bhaskar Menon, who became the president of Capitol Records, started work on that day as an apprentice at Abbey Road. The connections to The Beatles, the serendipity is phenomenal, it really is. And of course, he’s the man who traveled by train to Calcutta to Mumbai to transport the four-track recorder when George was recording there in January ‘68. They only had like two-track machines Then they load up the equipment and head west to help.

Unlike a lot of musicians, The Beatles were never accused of musical colonialism in India, is there any easy answer as to why?

I think it’s just their kindness and generosity. The footage in the film with George recording Wonderwall, everyone is having a fantastic time. He has his arms around the musicians, and they’re laughing and joking etc. And it shows through in Get Back as well. Everyone in the studio is an equal in Get Back. The tea lady gets a welcome. There’s that great scene with the clapper boy, when Paul was telling him how he writes songs.

When Mataji Nirmala Devi first brought Hindu spiritual practices to England she was rudely dismissed. How was Maharishi seen in England prior to The Beatles association?

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He appears in the British consciousness, obviously, because of The Beatles. There’s a British newsreel in the film, which is very comedic, about the Maharishi. He is seen as this sort of funny guy that’s entranced The Beatles. The story was big, really, all around the world at the time. There’s very little new information that came out about that time. This is the sort of thing that is being uncovered now. The main people that got in are the RAI, the Italian TV company. They got extensive black and white film in there when they all went down on the beach, singing on the beach. They kind of got lucky, they got an invite into the Ashram, which was closely guarded.

I was thinking about the poster you show of Maharishi promising levitation on command.

I think that’s a story to note, because that’s Maharishi appearing at a Howard Johnson in the American Midwest somewhere in ‘61. A lot of Beatles locations in America and the U.K. have disappeared very fast. Liverpool has completely changed. The bizarre thing is that the Ashram, those Gerry-built buildings still stand today, and it’s just an incredible place. These guys saw a real magic about it, completely. Maharishi’s plush bungalow, and the Beatles’ bungalow, have been gutted when it fell into disrepair, everything was nicked and all the video stolen, all of the art there, that’s all gone. But you can walk around. It’s pretty much as it was.

You really capture the bond between Harrison and Ravi Shankar. Was it your intent to show that his study of music was as serious as his study of spiritualism?

I think so. We don’t really highlight it in the film, but he kind of deserted his guitar-playing for a long period after meeting Shankar, and put the effort into his sitar. But it is a life’s work, and he didn’t have that dedication, so he went back to rock guitar. I think that’s one of the great mysteries in The Beatles’ story. You have someone who was just going to become an electrician, and then five years later, he’s imbued with, I suppose you could call it Indian influences. His spirituality just shines through. It affected a lot of people.

I kept replaying the three sitar-based songs The Beatles did while I was writing these questions. The two songs George Martin produced were Hindustani, northern Indian music, but “Within You Without You” are southern Indian modes.

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Ajoy would be the one to ask about that. “Within You, Without You” is slightly different because they used Indian session players. Whereas before, it was in-house playing. As far as I know, that was actually the first time they brought Indian musicians in to create that amazing sound. 

We hear this with Ajit Singh, [the owner of Pratap Music Shop in Dehradun, who brought a bunch of instruments and musicians to play Pattie Harrison’s birthday party]. I love the fact that he played “Within You Without,” and George gives him a big smile. That’s the humility there again. He got so much respect, and he was a very accomplished Indian musician as well. We have some archive footage of him playing which we couldn’t put in the film. He was highly respected in the Indian musical community.

A lot of these people in the industry have died. The helicopter pilot died last year, and Ajit Singh died last year, so it’s great that we got to them and got their stories or they would have just faded away.

The helicopter pilot told a really funny story.

It’s just amazing. His story is kind of fantastic, everyone thinks John was going to ask the big question about “what’s the meaning of life.” He told me off camera, that with the plexiglass and noise, you just couldn’t have a conversation, it just couldn’t happen, because it’s just like thunderous engine noise.

That was also the trip where Maharishi said the villagers were praying for his death. I interviewed Susan Shumsky a few years ago, she opened my eyes about the Four-Star Film production. Can you expand on the competing media promises Maharishi was giving?

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In the film, George and Paul go to Sweden in October 67 to tell Maharishi to cool it off. So, he’s already got something going on there.He’s already filming. We got this footage, high-quality color footage, of the Ashram and Maharishi with his followers. That’s from a documentary. That film was never seen. We got that on our trip in 2019. The Indian government took exception, they didn’t want so much Western influence, which is what happened in the end, with the Hippie Trail, etc. But that [documentary] was a clincher on the departure.

The Beatles never paid the Maharishi a percentage out of their salary. Of course, the Maharishi went on that Beach Boys’ tour shortly after, which was a complete disaster. You got Maharishi doing the first set, and then the Beach Boys, and then they didn’t give him any dates, and it kind of collapsed. In the end, it did all right, the Ashram, you’ve got a massive hotel, which is still standing today. They certainly changed it around. Rishikesh is the center of meditation and yoga now in India. It’s a completely mad place. It’s everywhere.

I’d heard about CIA accusations, but how did you get that interview with the KGB agent?

Someone put us on to that. [Yuri Bezmenov] had done that interview, a right-wing commentary. It’s very difficult to get access to footage. It was Ajoy that had found the questions that were asked in the Indian Parliament. Unfortunately, Bezmenov died about ten years ago, so there is no way of getting in contact with him. This was very serious, though, with the Indian Government, who invited the Russian Prime Minister to come and visit India at that time, the West definitely felt threatened by the communist influence in India. 

Could you just tell me a little bit about the demoralization of American society?

I suppose it still goes on today. The government is pulling the strings every day now. I think it’s the same thing with Bezmenov. He talked about Mia Farrow and American actors and actresses coming to the Ashram and being put under the spell of the Maharishi. But he seems to have gotten on quite well with him, there’s quite a few photos with him with the Maharishi. 

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Were you part of the process of compiling the musicians for the accompanying CD?

No, that was done by the producer, Reynold D’Silva. He always wanted to do that, and he kind of gave them all free range. They chose the tracks in there and then they just got on with it. And a lot of them appear in the film in that final section, talking about how The Beatles influenced them. When the film premiered in Spain, in October, we got three of them to come over and do a short set before the screenings. It turned out really well.

The Beatles and India: Songs Inspired by The Film is available from Silva Screen Records. The Beatles and India is available to stream exclusively on BritBox.