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Their guitars gently wept for Bangladesh

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on August 20, 2021

Heal the world: The Concert for Bangladesh wasn’t a walk in the park for Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, but the event highlighted how music can make a difference   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison pulled off a coup of sorts when they managed to get Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and other stars to play a healing note for a new and anguished nation

* George Harrison, Bob Geldof and Quincy Jones have given object lessons on how music can make a difference in the real world

* The first substantial name on the list of collaborations that helped raise a nation out of despair is the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971

* The venue was to be the most iconic in America — the Madison Square Garden

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As both nature and man attack the human race, as wildfires, floods and armed strife burn, inundate and ravage the world, it is perhaps time to hark back to the times when discordant notes being struck all around us were assuaged by the melody of music.

Music as the soundtrack of hope has been played across time; when cries of help have sounded out from any corner of the world, artistes have risen to make themselves heard above the din of despair. The likes of George Harrison, Bob Geldof and Quincy Jones have given object lessons on how music can make a difference in the real world.

Note alert: A poster outside Madison Square Garden in July, 1971   -  IMAGE COURTESY: WIKIPEDIA

 

Though, the resounding words of ‘We Are The World’ are perhaps the best known among benefit concerts, arguably the first substantial name on this list of collaborations that helped raise a nation out of despair is the Concert for Bangladesh. The year 1971 had seen strife in the Indian subcontinent, and the independence struggle of Bangladesh had entailed a humanitarian crisis of gigantic proportions.

Pandit Ravi Shankar, then possibly the best-known exponent of Indian classical music with his mastery of the sitar, was deeply disturbed by the anguish of a nation to which he traced his ancestry. He also firmly believed in the power of music to change circumstance. Thus germinated the idea of a concert whose proceeds would help ease the pain of a nation. His initial expectations were modest; he hoped to raise $25,000 by the end of his effort.

But he had forgotten to count on the generosity of fellow greats. His association with Harrison, formerly of The Beatles, had been cemented by mutual respect for each other’s sonic talent. The scope of the concert grew, and a supergroup was on its way to change the way music would be looked at — as an agent for change. To say Harrison was enthused would be an understatement. He got on overseas calls to try and convince Bob Dylan to join. Eric Clapton’s name was added to the marquee soon after. A boat ride ensured Memphis legend Don Nix pledged his support, and brought backing singers along. Former Beatles Ringo Starr and John Lennon agreed too, though Lennon’s dramatic exit is a story for a little later. Paul McCartney was the only one to issue an outright refusal, saying the friction within the ex-Beatles would not make him comfortable being a part of the effort.

The venue was to be the most iconic in America — the Madison Square Garden.

An astrologer was also consulted, to find out when the stars would align for, well, the stars to take the stage! He suggested August as the auspicious month. As it turned out, August 1, 1971 was the only day the Garden was unoccupied. The day was set, as was the line-up. It was to be a series of two concerts on the same day, one in the afternoon, and another in the evening. But getting the music industry to agree to surrender terms so that every big name could come together on one stage was not as easy as getting the stars to agree. Much squabbling later, the Western music part of the show was decided. Shankar, meanwhile, had gathered the Indian greats. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan with his sarod and Ustad Alla Rakha on the table would lend their names to the growing set list. The show would open with an Indian classical piece, the Bangla Dhun. Harrison would then take over. Rehearsals went on in New York, and Harrison’s custom written charity single ‘Bangla Desh’ was released on July 28, 1971. Smooth sailing was a phrase that started coming to mind. But problems were ready to rear their heads. An argument with Yono Ono led Lennon to storm out of the room he was sharing with her, and consequently of the show itself. Clapton, recovering from heroin addiction, was ill enough to threaten his stint on stage. August 1 dawned, bringing with it dark clouds of uncertainty. The notes of Indian classical music played by its most famous exponents drew respectful reactions from a crowd of about 40,000. Then Harrison, as master of ceremonies, launched into a set that would see an iconic guitar trade-off with a severely ill but brilliantly melodic Clapton on the song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. The crowd was in raptures, the association with the tragedy of Bangladesh had been underlined in the most poignant of ways.

But there was still a question that was written large on the piece of paper that bore the show’s set list. Beside the name of Dylan was a giant question mark. Would the bard take the stage? Looking to the left wing of the stage, Harrison saw Dylan, nervous, but with his guitar slung across his shoulder, and ready to perform. The show was set to gain iconic proportions. The evening show was equally well attended, and well received. When the sun went down on the stage that day, ₹243,418 had been raised to help Bangladesh out of its moment of crisis. This was given to UNICEF to administer. An album that was released, and a documentary made as well. By June 1985, according to an article in Los Angeles Times, 12 million dollars had been sent to Bangladesh. This was also the year that Harrison passed on rich advice to Geldof, who was planning Live Aid, a concert to aid those who were suffering the ravages of famine in Ethiopia. One good deed did, indeed, deserve another.

It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for Shankar and Harrison to prove that music could make a tangible difference. There was tax trouble, there were allegations of misappropriation against the team which were later proven unfounded. But what it did prove was that no matter how cacophonous the time, the sound of humanity standing up to be counted would always ring loud, and true.

Sarthak Kaushik   -  BusinessLine

 

(Mad About Music is a column on contemporary music)

Sarthak Kaushik is a broadcaster and music programmer

Instagram: @sarthakfromradio

Published on August 20, 2021

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