Philip Norman
Graffiti painted on the walls of a hall at the ashram in Rishikesh where The Beatles famously learned to meditate. STR/AFP/Getty Images

By Reena Kumar

Travellers often arm themselves with a concoction of pills in a bid ease symptoms of the dreaded Delhi belly if it strikes, but it was baked beans for Ringo Star who took a tin with him on his sojourn in India back in 1968.

Accompanied by fellow Beatles, Star visited Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Rishikesh Ashram in a bid to seek spiritual enlightenment when the pop stars where at the height of their fame.

The trip was to significantly influence their music and open up Indian mysticism and music to the West.

Leading music historian Philip Norman spoke to Eastern Eye about the strong relationship the Beatles forged with the Maharishi and the effect the trip had on their lives.

“For two or three years, they’d been the most adored band in the whole world, and with that they’d had every sort of success and received every sort of reward and they got bored and started wondering and feeling there should be something more to their lives,” Norman said.

He will be speaking at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival later this month in conversation with Indian journalist Ajoy Bose, and will reveal the story of the Beatles in India.

It all started when George Harrison’s wife at the time, Pattie Boyd, saw an advertisement for a talk by the Maharishi about his transcendental meditation technique in London – which John, Paul, Ringo and George attended.

Philip Norman

The Maharishi, who often laughed in TV interviews and was sometimes referred to as the “giggling guru,” then invited them to a weekend retreat in north Wales.

“While they were there, they discovered that their manger Brian Epstein had been found dead in London. He was supposed to go with them, they were suddenly without him and the Maharishi was very comforting. They felt that he really helped them, they were attracted by this idea that death was less terrible than they thought it was,” explained Norman.

The close knit quartet were looking for another mentor and the spiritual leader filled that role at the time, explained Norman who has penned Shout!, a definitive biography of the Beatles, first published in 1981 and which has sold more than one million copies.

The allure of the spiritual world greatly appealed to the Liverpool lads who were made to work “inhumanly hard” in the fleeting industry. Little did they and those around them know that their music would last the test of time.

“What the ashram did was give them a rest, they didn’t have to rough it and they had a nice healthy diet and it did them good, but Ringo Star was so afraid of foreign food that he took a tin of baked beans with him. George really went for life on a spiritual level.”

During their time there, their creativity flowed and they penned around 40 songs, including some featured on Abbey Road and The White Album.

Norman told Eastern Eye that the prestigious journey was a “fantastic advertisement” for India in the west.

“It (Indian culture) went into the pop culture, it was all very chic suddenly, and influences were in the most commercial music suddenly, it was in the hip parade. Even Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones played the sitar in quite an early Stones track. People suddenly new Ravi Shankar and wanted to appreciate his music.”

Shankar famously taught Harrison to play the sitar, and it was during this period that the English musician began to be noticed in the band.

“George was the one who really took it on and he became a disciple of the transcendental meditation movement and was a donor to the cause,” said Norman.

 The Beatles in India: The Rishikesh Trip will take place on May 20 at 11:30.

 

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