In the 1960s, India wasn’t really on the minds of people in the West. After Independence and being seen as a leader of the ‘Third World’ in the 1950s, India appeared fatigued and overburdened by her problems in the 60s. The demise of the high-profile PM Jawaharlal Nehru (one could argue he made more news than India in those days) had snapped what little interest the West had in India. If at all India figured in the news, it was always for the wrong reasons: crippling famine and unending poverty. And when the news appeared, it was buried in the inside pages in small bits.
It is in this scenario that Ravi Shankar entered the globe’s consciousness, and changed the way the world looked at India. Of course, much of the credit for that must go to George Harrison, who met Ravi Shankar in 1966 in London. In the mid-60s, the Beatles were, simply put, a global phenomenon. Whatever they did caught the attention of millions of fans and thousands of media personnel. George Harrison was mesmerised by Shankar’s music and became a lifelong fan and friend. India reaped the benefit.
Suddenly, in the gloomy 60s, India was giving out good news. Harrison using the sitar (a word that so closely rhymes with guitar as to indicate a karmic connection), and his growing fascination with India and things Indian was making waves and wooing an entirely new generation to look up for India on the atlas. And while earlier most people who came to hear Indian music performances abroad would be Indians or diehard Indian music fans, post the Harrison-Shankar phase, thousands more turned up to learn about the magic of classical Indian music.
In 1968, with the world at their feet, the Beatles arrived in India to visit the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to learn meditation. Sure, the Beatles were not playing here, but for any top music group to visit India at the height of their fame remains an unmatched feat (even now, most rock groups come visiting past their prime), bringing the media in tow. The fascination with meditation itself was a result of Shankar’s awesome influence over Harrison.
Thousands of Americans and Europeans followed the Beatles to India. They came as hippies or as tourists; they came to find music and meaning in life. India was not just drought and poverty, it was music, ashrams, and mediation . Forty years later, these charms continue to lure people, even as India’s middle-class and IT talent now draw businessmen and investors joined their ranks. In the late 60s and early 70s, one such visitor was a young Daniel Ellsberg, who had proposed to his girlfriend while taking a boat ride on the Ganges. Ellsberg was also reading up the works of Mahatma Gandhi. A few years later, he would leak out what came to be called the Pentagon papers, revealing that the US was not winning in Vietnam and ending a protracted war.
Today, India is the toast of the West. It wasn’t always so, it certainly wasn’t in the 1960s. But if back then thousands across the world began to see India differently, credit for that belongs Ravi Shankar.