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My sweet George

On the 10th death anniversary of George Harrison, Fali R Singara remembers how Mumbai was the one place the Beatle kept coming back to during his lifetime

You know the story. The Beatles are the most successful group of all time; it's estimated that the band has sold close to a billion records worldwide. It's well documented that the Fab Four spent almost two months in India in 1968 with the self-styled Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and ended up writing forty-eight songs. Most of the music on The White Album was written at the ashram, even as George famously complained to the group --
"We're not here to do the next album, we're here to meditate!"


Former Beatle George Harrison is greeted by Sitar maestro Ravi
Shankar's brother Uday Shankar, himself a famous Indian classical
dancer, when he visited the Shankar home in Kolkata in 1972


By George it's Mumbai

What many don't know is that The Beatles' tryst with India began in Mumbai two years earlier with Harrison, who was fascinated with playing the sitar. On September 14 1966, George hopped on a plane with his wife Pattie (who would leave him later for his best friend Eric Clapton), to Mumbai to meet his friend and music guru Pandit Ravi Shankar. Shankar picked him up at the airport, and took him to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. As Shankar's daughter, Anoushka revealed in an interview a few years ago, her dad advised Harrison to cut his hair and grow a moustache so that no one would recognise him while he was staying in Mumbai.


Ravi Shankar and George Harrison Collaboration cover

Too bad it didn't fool an alert bellboy of the Taj when Harrison and his wife checked in under the names Mr and Mrs Sam Wells. Within hours the city had its own outbreak of Beatlemania, as fans and the press besieged the hotel. It made headlines across city newspapers next morning, and the phones at the hotel rang non-stop. As Shankar recalled in his biography "One caller even pretended to be "Mrs Shankar" and demanded to talk to George.

She changed her mind, however, when I took the phone myself." At a hastily convened press conference at the hotel a few days later, Harrison explained that he was in India not as a popstar, but as Ravi's disciple to learn the sitar and asked for the pair to be left in peace.

Two years later he would return to record the first solo album by any Beatle. Wonderwall Music, a soundtrack album, was recorded with over a dozen Indian musicians in January 1968 at the EMI Recording Studios, based inside the Universal Insurance Building, at Fort. The office building exists with the now-defunct studio sign still affixed; the average Mumbaikar passes it a thousand times without giving it a second glance. Harrison recorded The Beatles classic The Inner Light inside this building.

Though he travelled to many parts of India in his lifetime, Mumbai always held a special place in the quiet musician's heart. Harrison returned in February 1974, this time as an ex-Beatle to unwind and meet Shankar about their first album together -- Shankar Family & Friends. Inconspicuous during that trip, George haggled with Colaba's vendors over trinkets, statues and kurtas.

Another memorable stop was in December 1976 with girlfriend Olivia (later his wife) to attend the marriage of Ravi Shankar's niece, en route to Benares. He carried along a satchel filled with Paramahansa Yogananda's book Autobiography of a Yogi; he autographed and handed out these to a few fans during the trip.

Harrison and Ravi Shankar remained close, till Harrison's untimely death due to cancer in November 2001. Following Harrison's final wishes, he was cremated; his close family and friends flew down to India to scatter his ashes in the Ganges.

A major part of Martin Scorsese's recent documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, shows Harrison's time in India and his love and devotion for Indian culture. "India changed George's life," widow Olivia reminisced; she flew into the city recently to show the documentary at a film festival. She seemed pleased to be in Mumbai, the city her husband loved.

Did you know?
* Harrison's Something is the second most covered song of the Beatles with 200 different versions.
* Harrison learned to eat with one hand, Indian-style.
* After The Beatles broke up in 1970, he was the first to top the charts with his devotional My Sweet Lord.
* He named his son Dhani after the 6th and 7th notes of the Indian music scale, 'dha' and 'ni'.

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