When an unlikely rock star in sari and bindi redefined The Beatles nostalgia at a George Harrison concert

Poignant Song
The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar
Book Excerpt 

The deafening roar of thousands of music fans echoes through Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum, overwhelming Lakshmi’s ears as she stands on stage, poised at the mic, with only the curtain between her and them. In close to twenty years of performing, nothing has prepared her for this, not even regularly performing alongside her superstar brother-in-law, Ravi Shankar. The grandest music halls can’t compare to this vast stadium arena and the liveliest Hindustani music fans can’t compete with these boisterous rock fans. While adjusting the pallu of her sari and arranging her hair, she laughs at the notion of herself as a rock star. A forty-eight-year-old rock star clad in a sari and bindi. The only exception she’s made to her usual attire is to wear her hair loose, her raven tresses flowing down both sides side of her face, grazing her back.

She knows that the real rock star, one of the biggest the world has seen, will soon be at her side. But he is so much more, and she is one of the few people who has caught a glimpse of the real persona of former Beatle George Harrison. In him she found a soul she recognizes, an Indian soul, otherwise why else would she be here, onstage at a rock concert? Why would any of them be here?

On the other side of the curtain, the fans are going wild in anticipation of what lies ahead. It’s 2 November 1974 and this is the kick-off concert for the eagerly anticipated tour in support of Dark Horse, George Harrison’s third solo studio album, and the follow up to his popular and critically-acclaimed Living in the Material World. This is also his first tour since the devastating breakup of The Beatles in 1970, and also the first tour of any member of The Beatles since the band stopped touring together in 1966. Although Beatlemania is no longer raging as fervently as it had while the band was still together, American audiences and Beatles fans have been clamouring for the opportunity to catch a live performance by a Beatle, hoping to once again hear the music that they fell in love with. Now, they finally have their chance; or do they?

Instead of creating a tour designed to showcase the hits of The Beatles or even his own hits as a solo artist, George Harrison defied the expectations of critics and fans alike by creating something that has never been seen before: an intercultural hybrid tour with his great friend and collaborator, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, featuring Indian music and rock ‘n’ roll inventively fused.

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Lakshmi watches as Ravi take his place in front of the audience, getting into his conductor stance. She looks over and sees beautiful twenty-two-year-old Viji also standing ready at the mic across the stage. Behind her stands thirty-year-old Kumar, tambourine in hand. The past several months of recording and rehearsing with George and his rock band in the lead up to this tour seem to be a blur. Now, she and George will sing a Hindustani pop song for thousands of screaming rock fans. Lakshmi wonders what they will think of this new-fangled genre of music, one that Ravi and George dreamt up and one to which she’s giving voice.

The curtains open, the stage lights flash and the cheers of excited fans reach fever pitch as George walks out on stage. She sees Ravi raise both his arms and hears the keyboardist play the opening chords. Then somehow above the din, she hears her own voice and George’s come together soulfully, harmoniously, to sing this Hindustani pop song about their beloved Lord Krishna. Lakshmi brings out the sentiment behind the melody, but instead of being accompanied by tabla, flute or harmonium, she is buoyed by keyboard, saxophone, guitar and drums.

I am missing you,
Oh Krishna, where are you?
I am missing you,
Oh Krishna, where are you?
Though I can’t see you,
I hear your flute all the while.
Though I can’t see you,
I hear your flute all the while.
Please come wipe my tears,
And make me smile.
Please come wipe my tears,
And make me smile.
I am missing you,
Oh Krishna, where are you?
I am missing you,
Oh Krishna, where are you?

As the song comes to a close, the crowd bursts into thunderous applause and appreciative cheers. After many bows and waves, the curtains close on the Dark Horse tour’s inaugural concert. Now, they will get on their private plane, emblazoned with an Om symbol and repeat this performance close to fifty more times in nearly as many cities over the next two months.

[Excerpted from the chapter ‘One Sweet Harmony’]

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