The Beatles and Indian Classical Music

Mike Daley

For the English-speaking West, the middle 1960s was a period of great turmoil and social unrest. Marked in its first half by the escalating Vietnam conflict, the Cuban Missile Crisis and a presidential assassination, the 1960s was also a time of optimism and a new social consciousness. For some, the search for personal fulfillment led them to the philosophy and religion of India at the same time that Indian sounds and forms were seeing a vogue in Western popular music. First popular in the London rock scene, the interest in fusions of Indian music with rock music soon spread to North America, and the so-called "raga-rock" trend was born. India was "the most recurrent topos in Rock exoticism in the middle sixties"(Bellman:117). By far, the most prominent of these bands to incorporate Indian musical features into their own music was the Beatles.

Over a three year period in the middle 1960s, the Beatles were to selectively adopt several aspects of Indian music and culture into their personal lives and musical output. These are the bare-bones facts. But these facts have been represented in a variety of ways. In this essay, I will write the story of the Beatles' 1965-1968 engagements with India through its telling by many authors. Through a close reading of some print and video accounts of this series of events, I will investigate the mechanisms of representation that surround this event. Probably the most salient of these is that which has been identified by Edward Said as "Orientalism"

David Reck, in his 1985 article "Beatles Orientalis: Influences From Asia In A Popular Song Tradition," provides a detailed history of Orientalisms in Western culture. Orientalism is a term made famous by the writer Edward Said (1979), defined as "apply[ing] to all manifestations of the Oriental or pseudo-Oriental in Western civilization, the orient beginning in North Africa, through Turkey, Persia, India, Central Asia, China and East Asia"(Reck 1985:83). In Said's words, the Orient "has been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable well as one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other"(Said 1978, quoted in Reck 1985:83). These Western conceptions, "full of stereotypes, overt generalizations and misconceptions" have been both durable and ubiquitous, suffusing every aspect of Western culture - fiction, philosophy, religion, art, fashion, architecture, political theory, film, sport and foodways (Reck 1985:84-85).

Amartya Sen, following Said, delineates three streams of Western understanding of Indian culture in particular. The exoticist stream concerns the aspects of India that are seen as different, strange and spectacular. The magisterial stream refers to India as a formerly subjugated colony of the West, and all of the implications of that relationship. Finally, the curatorial stream encompasses attempts to notate, classify and exhibit Indian culture (Sen :4-5). While generally useful, Sen's conception seems tailor-made to describe most accurately the relationship between India and England.

From the chartering of the British East India company on New Year's Eve 1599 until Indian independence in 1947, colonialism conditioned Anglo-Indian relations. The paternalistic cast of British representations of India was not to disappear quickly, but was to remain a constituent part of the British musical Orientalism of the 1960s. Hindu religious philosophy and poetry, along with Zen Buddhist, Chinese and Tibetan writings, was gaining in popularity. But perhaps the most powerful catalyst to the explosion of interest in Indian thought was the popularity of psychedelic drugs, whose effects were thought by widely-read Westerners like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert to resemble Eastern religious states. The connection was made between Eastern mysticism and drugs. Drugs,

always an important element in the counterculture, now became simultaneously both legitimized (as a tool fro deeper understanding of reality, inner peace, universal love, ultimate enlightenment) and interlocked with many of the by now familiar stereotypical Orientalist Western perceptions of south Asian religions and culture. India, suddenly, was "in" (Reck 1985:91-92).


The India fad was based on romantic images of the guru in an idyllic Himalayan scene, "which had little to do with the complex and multi-faceted reality of modern India in the 1960s" (92). Soon loose fitting, colourful Indian-style clothing, prayer beads, Kalumpur sandals, waterpipes, and posters of Hindu deities became popular Western consumer items. Communes, ashrams and meditation centres sprang up everywhere. Since his soundtrack to Satrajit Ray's "Apu Trilogy" (beginning in 1956) had begun to be noticed in English art-house theatres, Ravi Shankar, a master Hindustani (North Indian) musician, was finding increased popularity in the West. Shankar, Paris-raised and an experienced traveller of Europe and the United States through tours with his brother Uday's dance troupe, was well-suited for Western fame. He circulated in the West with ease and made many recordings, even before his association with the Beatles. But even Shankar's success was to have a stereotyping effect on Indian musical culture, as Shankar's Hindustani music came to represent the entirety of the Indian musical tradition in the minds of most Westerners.

As David Reck has pointed out, Hindustani classical music is well-suited to Western adaptation, in that the forms and materials of the music are to a certain extent syncretic. Hindustani musical performances are traditionally composed of three parts: a slow, meditative alap, a medium-tempo, rhythmic jor, and a climactic, speedy and intricate jhala. This is not unlike the Western pattern of an exposition, development and climactic denouement. Both traditions have an interest in virtuosity and improvisation. The melody-drone-percussion three-part texture of the traditional sitar-tambura-tabla Hindustani combination is similar to the melody-harmony-percussion texture of Western rock and roll. Further to the aesthetics that are shared with rock, the sitar itself must have evoked a kind of buzzing, bending, twangy electric guitar to some Western ears in the 1960s. Perhaps most importantly though, Hindustani classical music's forms and content was well-suited to the drug experience as it was perceived in the 1960s (94).

That is why "acid rock" was one of the most complete beneficiaries of Indian influence. In lyric content, forms, and emphasis on improvisation, groups like the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Doors were to be strongly Indian-influenced. Some of these groups made long improvisations on a single chord a centerpiece of their concerts. Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue (1959) worked in the same territory, with its extended meditations on static harmony like "So What" and "Flamenco Sketches," and John Coltrane made the connection with India more explicit, but the Indian fad in jazz was shorter-lived than that in rock.

Jonathan Bellman (year) points out that other British rock groups like the Kinks, the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones were exploring Indian idioms during and even before the Beatles' George Harrison had begun his study of the sitar. In this way, he breaks from mainstream characterizations of rock history (see, for example, the 1995 PBS Rock and Roll series) and the narratives of the Beatles themselves (see Anthology, 1995), which tend to place full credit and chronological priority on the Beatles for pioneering the use of Indian forms and sounds within rock music.

The Beatles had been exposed to some threads of Indian culture early on, in the home of their first drummer, Pete Best. Best's Anglo-Indian mother, Mona, was a constant fixture of the Beatles' early career, having opened the (exotically named) Casbah Coffee Club as a music venue. Her home was filled with Indian mementos. But perhaps more importantly, the Beatles had grown up in a complex cultural environment with many musical styles - British music hall, classical music, country, Tin Pan Alley, West Indian calypso, the urban folk revival (including, crucially, skiffle music), and of course American rock and roll. From the beginning of their recording career in 1962, the Beatles had an ally in their catholic tastes with their producer George Martin, who had begun his career recording all types of music, and whose approach to rock and roll was not preconditioned by a great deal of experience with it. Another key figure in the Beatles' apprehension of Indian culture was the film director Richard Lester, who cast the Beatles in their second full-length film, Help! The film was "brimming with mid-1960s Orientalism"(Reck 1985:99), featuring faux-Indian music and the sitar. On the set of the film in 1965, George Harrison picked up a prop sitar and became interested in the instrument. He subsequently bought a sitar in London and began playing it like a guitar.

It was this development that led to the first appearance of a sitar on a Western pop record, "Norwegian Wood" from Rubber Soul, released in December 1965. Though his sitar makes a prominent appearance in John Lennon's evocation of an extramarital affair, there is nothing particularly Indian other than this timbral presence. This is nonetheless an auspicious beginning to the Beatles' involvement in Indian music, which was to continue in fits and starts to 1965. Unmistakably Indian idioms appear again on the Beatles' 1966 single "Rain," which lyrically expresses John Lennon's conviction, later stated more explicitly in interviews, that "the outward manifestations of the material world are all nothing more than a 'wall of illusion'"(Schaffner 1997:289). This sentiment is echoed in traditional Eastern religions, especially Buddhism and Hinduism (Reck 1985:100). Nonetheless, "Rain" does not contain any Indian instruments per se. It is heavily invested with the sounds of drones, and a characteristically Indian vocal shake on the words "rain" and "shine" in the chorus.

In July 1966, the Beatles made an unexpected stopover in Delhi on the way back from an ill-fated visit to the Philippines. They spent four days sightseeing and avoiding crowds of fans; this visit may have further piqued the Beatles' growing interest in Indian culture. "Love You To," one of George Harrison's three songwriting contributions to the album Revolver, released in August of 1966, is the most explicitly Indian Beatles recording up to that point. Featuring an ensemble of sitar, tambura and tabla played by musicians from London's Indian Music Association, "Love You To" is based on the kafi that raga, which is roughly commensurate with the Western mixolydian mode. The piece begins with a type of brief alap that quickly turns rhythmic, with frequent metrical changes in the instrumental section. This song, which strongly reflects Hindustani form and instrumental timbres, is "absolutely the history both of popular music and of European orientalism" according to David Reck (1985:102). "Tomorrow Never Knows," a John Lennon composition that closes the Revolver album but was the first to be recorded, is lyrically influenced by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert's interpretation of the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, as explicated in their book The Psychedelic Experience. Here, in Lennon's "psychedelic temple chant" (Schaffner 1997:306) is the strongest connection to date between Eastern thought and the drug experience.

George Harrison met Hindustani sitar master Ravi Shankar in the fall of 1966 at a dinner party. They soon began private sitar lessons; these were the first formal music lessons of Harrison's life. Harrison followed Shankar back to Bombay for six more weeks of study, then continued to Kashmir for more of the same. Harrison was, by this point, "filled with India's infinite wisdom and mystery, having perceived nothing of its equally infinite mundaneness" (Norman 1981: 213). Harrison's interest in Indian culture and the sitar was well-publicized, and it went a long way towards defining Harrison's public image after Beatlemania, when he was pigeonholed as "the quiet Beatle." From later 1966 to the winter of 1968, Harrison was to practice the sitar two to three hours a day.

The Beatles' next album, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, was to feature Harrison's most Indian-styled composition to date, the ambitious "Within You Without You." Using a large ensemble of dilruba, sitar, three tamburas, tabla, suvar mandal, eight violins, and three cellos (the musicians again drawn from the Indian Music Association), Harrison created an authentically complex five-minute composition, with lyrics that urged the listener to seek the deeper reality behind maya (the "wall of illusion") and to find divine love that could "save the world" (Reck 1985:108). The fast paced call-and-response between the dilruba and sitar in 5/8 time is a highlight of the Sgt. Pepper album.

In February of 1967, Harrison's wife Pattie had become a member of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Spiritual Regeneration Movement. The Maharishi had begun missionary work in Los Angeles in 1959 and by 1968 had built his Movement to be an international concern with 150,000 members (ibid.). He promulgated mainstream Hindu ideas, while eliminating the complexity of Hindu polytheism. The more abstract "Science of Creative Intelligence" resonated strongly with Western ideas of medicine, psychology and philosophy (ibid.). David Reck is quite critical of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, noting that an American or European devotee could enjoy his affluence "but with transformed awareness and perspective made possible with minimal effort" (Reck 1985:110). Furthermore, the Maharashi, with his long hair and beard, flowing clothes and twinkling eyes, confirmed popular Western stereotypes of the Eastern guru (ibid.).

On August 24, 1967, the Beatles attended a lecture by the Maharishi at London's Hilton Hotel. They left the event energized, announcing their spiritual awakening to the press and planning further study at a weekend retreat in Bangor, North Wales. They planned a longer visit to India to study with the Maharishi, but this visit was delayed by their manager Brian Epstein's sudden death and further recording commitments. Meanwhile, George Harrison travelled again to Bombay to record with Indian musicians for a film soundtrack project. He also recorded the instrumental track to "The Inner Light," a setting of verses from the 6th century Chinese scripture Tao Te Ching as translated by Juan Mascaro, a Sanskrit scholar at Cambridge who corresponded with Harrison. The "sophisticated, delicately exquisite" "The Inner Light" (Reck 1985:114) paired Harrison for the first time with a group of professional Indian musicians. The lyrics preached of the treasures to be found in the "simplicity of human language and experience" (Womack 2001:214).

In early 1968, the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh, India, a holy city on the banks of the Ganges backgrounded by the Himalayan mountains to join Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram. Arriving with an entourage including their wives and girlfriends along with Pattie's sister Jenny Boyd, pop-folk singer Donovan, Beach Boy Mike Love, jazz flautist Paul Horn, actress Mia Farrow and Beatles hanger-on Magic Alex (along with "twenty other noncelebrated students, an assortment of discontented Americans from California, and some again Swedish widows"(Brown and Gaines 1983:250), the Beatles expected a spartan retreat. Instead, they found something resembling a luxury resort, with a swimming pool, laundry, post office and lecture hall. The Beatles' drummer, Ringo Starr, left after ten days citing a disagreement with the spicy food. Paul McCartney lasted six weeks and seemed to treat the Rishikesh jaunt as an extended vacation more than a spiritual quest. George Harrison was, predictably, the most serious student of meditation and philosophy. John Lennon was, at first, evangelical about his experiences at Rishikesh. He announced shortly after arriving that "we're going to build a transmitter powerful enough to broadcast Maharishi's wisdom to all parts of the globe - right here in Rishikesh" (quoted in Womack 2001:217). He further suggested to his wife, Cynthia, that they move their son to Rishikesh to continue studies indefinitely. But Lennon's opinions were to change suddenly at the eight-week mark, when, spurred on by suggestions by Magic Alex, Lennon began to question the purity of the Maharishi's missions and the altruism of his intent. Shortly after, he and George returned to England. As McCartney commented, "we made a mistake...we thought there was more to him than there was. He's human. We thought at first that he wasn't" (Reck 1985:115).

The Rishikesh trip was to bring a quick close to the Beatles' overt uses of Indian culture and music. Having returned to London, Lennon penned "Sexy Sadie," a thinly veiled attack on the Maharishi. Harrison was to continue to promote Indian music in general and Ravi Shankar in particular. Even though he gave up his sitar studies in early 1968 upon realizing that he would never be a great sitarist, he did feature Shankar prominently in his high-profile Concert for Bangladesh (1971) and as a featured performer on his 1974 tour of the United States and Canada.

As Wilfrid Mellers (1974) has argued, the Beatles' innate compositional techniques were well-suited to Indian treatment, with a reliance on pentatonic and heptatonic scale materials, modal harmony, pedal points and ostinati. "The music convinces us not because it is 'like' genuine Indian music," Mellers asserts, "...but because it is an extension of the anti-Western, anti-materialism, anti-action theme endemic in 'Beatle music'(77). Ned Rorem, the American composer, is less kind in assessing George Harrison's grasp of Indian music: "[He] seems to have adapted only the frosting [of Indian classical music], but in pretending to have adapted also the structure, his...big pieces end up not hypnotic but merely sprawling...Harrison's orientalism is undoubtedly sincere, but it sounds...fake"(quoted in Reck 1985:103). David Reck argues that "their absorption of Indian elements in their songs and arrangements, though related in many ways to the orientalism of previous popular and classical music, was - like so much of their music - usually delightful, often surprising, always highly creative" (Reck 1985:96).

The Beatles' flirtation with Indian music has been largely seen by commentators like Reck, Mellers, Womack and Schaffner as one that transcended facile Orientalism with true enthusiasm and love for the music and respect for the artistry of Indian musicians. Ned Rorem stands out as a naysayer, arguing that the Beatles' uses of Indian music were superficial, and Bellman asserts that the Beatles were just one of many British rock groups of the middle 1960s incorporating Indian sounds into their music. David Reck's research on this topic is by far the most thorough, and his understanding of Indian music and culture the most sophisticated. This alone may give his opinion more credence. In any case, the Beatles went farther than any other mainstream Western musical act before and since in presenting the music and culture of India to a global audience.


Bellman, Jonathan.(year). "Indian Resonances in the British Invasion, 1965-1968". The Journal of Musicology.

Brown, Peter and Steven Gaines. 1983. The Love You Make: An Insider's Story of the Beatles. New York: Signet.

Mellers, Wilfrid. 1974. The Twilight Of The Gods: The Music Of The Beatles. New York: Viking Press.

Norman, Philip. 1981. Shout: The Beatles In Their Generation. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Reck, David. 1985. "Beatles Orientalis: Influences From Asia In A Popular Song Tradition". Asian Music 15/1:85-149.

Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

Schaffner, Nicholas. 1997. The Beatles Forever. Chicago: Fine.

Sen, Amartya. "Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination". 1-23.

Womack, Kenneth. 2001. Long and Winding Roads. London: Continuum.