How The Beatles baffled the KGB – and why Ringo Starr filled a suitcase with baked beans

Two new documentaries offer intriguing insights into the band’s escape to India in 1967

Meeting the Beatles in India: ‘These are the best intimate shots of The Beatles we’ve ever seen.’ Photograph © Paul Saltzman. All rights reserved

Meeting the Beatles in India: ‘These are the best intimate shots of The Beatles we’ve ever seen.’ Photograph © Paul Saltzman. All rights reserved

 

In 1968 Paul Saltzman was a lost soul. The son of a Canadian TV weatherman, he was working as a sound engineer for the National Film Board of Canada in India when he received a “Dear John” letter from the woman he thought was going to be his wife. “I was devastated,” he says. “Then someone on the crew said: ‘Have you tried meditation for the heartbreak?’”

Saltzman went to see the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – the founder of transcendental meditation – speak at New Delhi University. Emboldened by promises of “inner rejuvenation”, Saltzman then travelled to the International Academy of Meditation in Rishikesh. It was closed because of the arrival of The Beatles.

As explained by Paul McCartney in the Beatles book Anthology, the exhausted group, still coming to terms with the suicide of their manager Brian Epstein in August 1967, had arrived in Rishikesh with wives and girlfriends to “find the answer” through the teachings of the Maharishi, whom Paul, George and John had first encountered at a lecture at the London Hilton. “There was a feeling of: ‘It’s great to be famous [and] rich,” said McCartney, “but what it’s all for?’”

‘In the week I spent with them,’ says Paul Saltzman, director of Meeting the Beatles in India, ‘I never thought of asking for an autograph, and I only took my camera out twice’

“I didn’t even know the Beatles were in India,” Saltzman says. “I waited outside for eight days, and then I was taken to a small room where I was taught transcendental meditation. What replaced the agony [of the breakup] was bliss.”

Saltzman is now 78, and his film Meeting the Beatles in India is one of two new documentaries on the subject. With narration by Morgan Freeman, and contributions from the director David Lynch and the Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn, it is expansive and grand, but at its heart is the smaller, affecting tale of Saltzman himself.

He is charming company, and there is a trustworthy innocence to his storytelling, his face openly ready to laugh or cry – both of which he does during our talk. You imagine it was something of this openness that led the normally wary Lennon to invite Saltzman to sit with the group, their wives and friends, one warm February morning 53 years ago.

“Maybe being in that altered state from having just meditated for the first time made a difference,” he says. “I think what they picked up immediately was: ‘This guy is not wanting anything from us.’”

Saltzman had arrived at the ashram with few belongings. One of those was a Pentax camera. “In the week I spent with them,” he says, “I never thought of asking for an autograph, and I only took my camera out twice.”

The photographs he took during that week of meditation are remarkable. Forgotten about for 30 years, then rescued from storage in the late 1990s when his daughter casually asked about “that time you met the Beatles”, they show John, Paul, George and Ringo hanging with fellow ashram guests Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, the jazz flautist Paul Horn, and the actor Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence in an unguarded and utterly relaxed state, rehearsing new songs or just gazing contentedly into the middle distance.

“I didn’t even think about the quality of the pictures,” says Saltzman. “Then I took them to Steven Maycock, the curator of rock memorabilia at Sotheby’s, and he said: ‘These are the best intimate shots of The Beatles we’ve ever seen.’”

The group returned to London with 30 new songs, most of which would end up on the White Album in 1968. But the band soon fell back into a toxic pattern of late nights, drug use and interpersonal fractiousness. Saltzman’s photos – sharply focused and with deep eye contact – show four friends in a rare, late state of carefree contentment.

“You can tell The Beatles’ story so many different ways,” says the Indian film director Ajoy Bose when I mention Saltzman’s story. “I always felt that the India part of the Beatles saga was bigger than Rishikesh.”

Bose’s film, The Beatles and India, maps a longer saga: a three-year journey, from when George first picked up a sitar on the set of Help!, via their brief sightseeing trip to Delhi in July 1966, to George’s friendship with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar and his recording of Wonderwall Music with classical Indian musicians in the HMV Bombay studios.

“For me this isn’t a story about the Maharishi,” says Bose, whose film has just closed the UK Asian Film Festival. “It’s about four working-class lads from Liverpool, who got deeply into Indian culture, when George was the de facto leader of the group.” Some got into it more deeply than others; worried about the spicy food, Ringo arrived with a suitcase full of tins of Heinz baked beans to sustain him.

Running parallel to that tale, Bose’s film tells the equally fascinating story of how and why India fell in love with The Beatles. “I discovered them when I was about 12 or 13,” says Bose. “I was from the English-speaking Bengali middle classes, who had been into Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves and Doris Day, and who were naturally bicultural. PG Wodehouse was our sense of humour, and that’s why I think there was an immediate connection with The Beatles: the wit.

“But my father was a bureaucrat who started with the British Raj,” he says. “His problem with the Beatles was that they didn’t behave ‘like Britishers’ – people with a stiff upper lip, who had short hair and didn’t let their feelings show. So The Beatles, with their long hair and jokes, really blew our minds.”

Rather than presenting The Beatles’ relationship with India as one of cultural appropriation, Bose insists it was something closer to cultural exchange. “Osmosis on both sides,” he says. “And look at the paradox. The Beatles were tired of the West’s commercialised capitalist culture and looking for spiritual peace, but we looked upon them as exciting symbols of modern culture.”

Bose’s film tracks down former members of Beatles-influenced Indian “beat” groups, such as The Savages and The Jets, but also goes beyond music to look at the political impact of the Beatles’ presence in India, including the reaction of a KGB spy at the Maharishi’s ashram.

“I went back to Indian newspapers in 1968,” says Bose, “and discovered that communist and socialist Indian politicians were saying Rishikesh was a CIA camp. The KGB even sent their top man, Yuri Bezmenov, to Rishikesh to find out what was going on.” Bose’s discovery results in one of the finest moments of the film, a clip of Bezmenov talking happily in the late 1980s about “Mia Farrow and other useful idiots from Hollywood” returning to the United States to spread a message of “sit down, look at your navel and do nothing”.

“The Maharishi was not on the payroll of the KGB,” says Bezmenov, laughing, “but whether he knows it or not, he contributed greatly to the demoralisation of American society.”

“It’s a great clip,” says Bose, “but I do think that Rishikesh was massively important for so many reasons. India gave the Beatles a philosophical state of mind; India matured them, India helped them become individuals. In a way, the Beatles never left India. George’s ashes were scattered on the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The Beatles fan club is still growing in India.”

What do The Beatles mean to a new generation of Indians? Bose says: “Covid has changed our world , our reality over the past 16 months. Everyone is feeling so much more vulnerable and tired, and I think The Beatles, in a very fundamental sense, still reconnect us with a sense of romance, a sense of joy and a sense of innocence.”

Saltzman has been left with more than some priceless holiday photos. What memory does he still hold on to from that week? He replies, instantly: “Doing my first 30-minute meditation. It was fun meeting The Beatles, but that was secondary to the transformation of my inner life.” – Guardian

Meeting the Beatles in India can be seen at gathr.com

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.