An American niche tour operator organised a 17-day journey across India in 2018 celebrating the country and its culture with award-winning American photographer and filmmaker Paul Saltzman, who was a friend and photographer of the Beatles. This tour, which was conducted exactly 50 years after Saltzman first met the legendary British band in India, dedicated three whole days to Kerala.
The band’s love affair with India has been well documented in books, documentaries and iconic photographs, but while this is mostly centred around Rishikesh, the Beatles and in particular George Harrison had strong links with Kerala.
Over a decade before he would teach the Beatles transcendental meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his followers congregated in what was the princely state of Cochin for a massive event. In Across the Universe, The Beatles in India, Ajay Bose writes about how Mahesh Yogi would be given the title of Maharishi. “Speaker after speaker, after briefly hailing Adi Shankara and Brahmananda Saraswati, went on to praise to the skies the monk from the Himalayas whom they all proclaimed from the stage to be a Maharishi,” Bose wrote. It was the shortcuts to spiritual bliss that the yoga guru offered that attracted the Beatles and Saltzman to India.
On the 1968 trip, the Beatles lived in Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh. The experience had the deepest impact on George Harrison who wanted to stay back in India for a longer time. In Saltzman’s book titled The Beatles in India, Harrison’s then wife Pattie Boyd mentions in the foreword that the couple actually spent a small holiday in Kerala. “George was not yet ready to face the real world, and especially not the eager press,” Boyd wrote. “So, he and I travelled to Kerala in the South and stayed in a sweet, simple guesthouse where he completely relaxed before returning to London and to the madness that surrounded the Beatles and their new venture (Apple Records).” Saltzman probably knows the exact name and location of the guesthouse and might have even taken people there on the 2018 tour.
The Kerala sunshine may have in some ways inspired Harrison to write the famous song ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ but that’s just a bit of speculation from an ardent admirer of the singer. A conversation with Boyd would reveal a lot more about the singer’s impressions of God’s Own Country. Harrison, who died in 2001, was just 27 when he holidayed in Kerala.
Harrison would stay connected with Malayalis as his individual career progressed. Palakkad-born music industry executive Bhaskar Menon released the live recording of the famous Concert for Bangladesh that was Harrison's initiative along with Pandit Ravi Shankar in 1971. The album managed to turn into a bestseller and helped raise awareness of the plight of refugees who fled a state-sponsored genocide in the erstwhile East Pakistan. Unfortunately the relationship between Harrison and Menon soured when there was a dispute over reimbursement costs for the distribution of the album. “Sue me, Bhaskar,” Harrison once famously said during a television show in the United States.
Remains an inspiration
The music of Harrison and the Beatles has continued to inspire people from all walks of life in Kerala. Last year, the Kannur district police had a novel road safety promotion idea. Local artists in the district painted a zebra crossing in what looked like a three-dimensional format and took a picture of police cadets crossing the road, the same way the four Beatles crossed the road in their Abbey Road cover. The image, which was also a tribute to the Beatles, was tweeted by Kannur Collector Mir Mohammed Ali. “Initiative taken by the Station House Officer (SHO) at Kannavam Police Station, collaborating with local artists to promote road safety in a remote part of the district. Good work,” the collector wrote while posting the tweet.
A few years earlier, a popular British Beatles tribute band called the Counterfeit Beatles chose Kochi as one of its venues for a concert. Touristy places in southern Kerala are also seeing Beatles-themed restaurants and cafes. There’s some potential in turning a small coastal village into a hub for Beatles fans from around the world.