Tragedy struck the land of Bangladesh in 1971. Previously known as East Pakistan, the region was mired in a struggle for liberation from Pakistan while slowly recovering out of the pain and disaster caused by the Bhola cyclone just a year before. And the monsoonal storms and floods meant that the entire situation was only going to become worse. Deaths, displacements and diseases made the situation even direr than they were. Pakistan’s tyrannical military crackdown on the Bengalis calling for self-determination rights, genocidal rapes justified by religious leaders, and internal conflicts between the civilians had made it certain that this crisis had transgressed the region’s concerns and had become a cause of concern for international bodies. An estimated 30 million people didn’t have a place which they could call their home. This humanitarian disaster caught the attention of many across the globe yet it amounted to little involvement in improving the conditions.
Elsewhere at George Harrison’s Friar Park mansion, Ravi Shankar was having dinner with the former Beatles member. As Beatles’ artwork maker and musician Klaus Voormann recalls, Shankar was disheartened and requested Harrison to assist him in doing anything to provide aid to the people stuck in this situation. Harrison took note and assured Shankar that he may “be able to do something”. While this concern had been communicated sometime during April and Harrison, who was always on the move recording albums, was kept updated by Shankar on the events taking place in the region, very little progress was made towards materializing the concert. The final straw was an article published by Pakistani reporter Anthony Mascarenhas on 13th June 1971 in the British paper Sunday Times which exposed the brutality of Pakistan’s suppression of the Bangladeshi uprising and which played a crucial role in forming the international opinion against Pakistan, preparing ground for India to play a decisive role and finally in ending the war itself. The article which had moved Indira Gandhi into taking action also caused Ravi Shankar to express himself yet again to Harrison in the last week of June 1971. After that, Voormann recalls, the preparations for the concert took off quickly.
With Shankar’s determination and the resources available to Harrison, the concert was assured to happen and to be, aside from being a grand scale humanitarian effort, a blend of western rock and Indian classical music. Taking heed from an Indian astrologer’s advice, the 1st of August was chosen as the concert date and the likes of Billy Preston, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russel, Ringo Starr, Voorman and Don Preston were set to perform on stage. The grand cause deserved a befitting stage for the show and New York’s Madison Square Garden was chosen. Out to introduce the west to Indian classical music were Ravi Shankar on the Sitar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on the Sarod, Ustad Alla Rakha on the Tabla and Kamla Chakravarty on the Tamboura.
Finally, the concert took place on the prefixed date but the entire setup went through tumultuous times as Clapton and Dylan had the entire event on a wire due to their personal problems. Fortunately, the event did take place with them – it was even divided into a matinee and an evening show for the same day – drawing considerable attention to the events that had taken place in the land of Bangladesh. The performances were iconic in many ways. For starters, Indian classical music was introduced to the western audience in the form of a concert for the very first time. Moreover, it was the first time that Harrison and Dylan were performing for such a large crowd – Dylan had even claimed it to be “not his scene” before the show. But above all, it was the first show of its kind – a benefit concert for those living under unimaginable conditions that led to former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan claiming that “George and his friends were pioneers”.
Nothing else would provide a better insight into the concert than these lines from Harrison’s track ‘Bangla Desh.’
“My friend came to me, with sadness in his eyes
He told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies
Although I couldn’t feel the pain, I knew I had to try
Now I’m asking all of you
To help us save some lives”