On the first Sunday afternoon of August 1971, an excited crowd of New Yorkers converged at the city’s iconic Madison Square Garden to witness a concert by “George Harrison and Friends”. A small advertisement about the concert had appeared in the back pages of the New York Times a couple of weeks earlier and tickets had sold out so fast that the former Beatle decided to keep a second show on the same day. A poster outside the famous arena’s box office made it clear that a person could only purchase four tickets for the so-called Concert for Bangla Desh (as the name of the country was then spelt).
At a time when Americans knew precious little about South Asia, Harrison wanted to raise awareness about the plight of refugees from what was then East Pakistan. The land that would become Bangladesh faced the full fury of Cyclone Bhola in November 1970 and a few months later the Pakistani Army carried out a genocide in the country when the people demanded their democratic rights. This led to a massive influx of refugees into eastern India. These traumatised and frightened people, believed to number up to 10 million, faced starvation, lack of sanitation and deadly diseases such as cholera.
Harrison’s close friend Pandit Ravi Shankar, who was of Bengali origin, keenly followed the developments in Bangladesh and told Harrison about the humanitarian crisis in South Asia. The sitar maestro was so moved by the plight of the refugees that he wanted to organise a benefit concert to raise money for them. He asked the former Beatle for help and suggestions in June 1971.
“Up until the time we decided to do the concert, there’d been very little that I’d actually read about it…I’d read little pieces and I’d heard little bit on television in England,” Harrison told a packed room full of reporters in New York’s Park Lane Hotel a few days before the concert. When asked by an American reporter as to why the Bangladesh crisis was chosen out of all the “enormous problems in the world,” Harrison answered that it was because of a request from Shankar.
“Really it was Ravi Shankar’s idea,” Harrison said in a 1972 documentary film about the concert. “He wanted to do something about this, and he was talking to me and telling me about his concern and asking me if I had any suggestions. Then after half an hour he talked me into being on the show. Once I decided I was going to go on to the show I organised the things with a little help from my friends.”
After agreeing to help Shankar, Harrison made the concert his top priority. For maximum impact and media attention, the duo chose to keep the event in New York City. They set their sights on a venue that markets itself as the “world’s most famous arena”: Madison Square Garden.
Until that point the world had never witnessed a major fundraising concert. To make sure it was a success, Harrison, who had strong Hindu beliefs, even contacted an astrologer to get auspicious dates, according to British journalist Graeme Thomson.
Although the summer was off season for the New York Knicks of the National Basketball Association and the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League, Madison Square Garden was usually booked for other events. The astrologer apparently told Harrison that the first two days of August were auspicious and coincidentally the arena in midtown Manhattan was free on the first of the month.
The concert was organised over a period of six weeks.
Four days before the concert, Harrison released the song Bangla Desh as a non-album single. It reached the top 25 charts in the US and the top 10 in Britain. It gave music fans in the Western world some idea of the Bangladesh crisis.
“All these musicians came… some of them flew thousands of miles, didn’t get paid for anything,” Harrison said in the documentary film. Rehearsals were held in New York and Harrison was nervous about being the frontman for the concert.
While welcoming the noisy New York audience for the afternoon show, Harrison, who was always known for his modesty said, “We’ve got a good show lined up… I hope so anyway.” The concert began with a Hindustani classical music section. The crowd cheered loudly on hearing Ravi Shankar’s name, who was accompanied on the stage by Ali Akbar Khan on the sarod, Alla Rakha on the table, and Kamala Chakravarty on tamboura.
While requesting the audience to be patient before the second part, Ravi Shankar said they were trying to make people aware of the serious situation in South Asia. He said, “We are artists, but through our music, we would like you to feel the agony and also the pain and lot of sad happenings in Bangladesh and also the refugees who have come to India.”
The Indian section commenced with a Dhun (a light instrumental piece), based on an East Bengali folk tune (named Bangla Dhun) and a Gat (a fixed melodic composition). The performance which lasted less than 15 minutes received a loud round of cheers from a crowd that was by no means familiar with Hindustani classical music.
When the stage was being prepared for Harrison and the western musicians, the crowd was shown Dutch TV footage of starving and impoverished Bengali refugees walking through a wet landscape while carrying their belongings on their heads, as well as other disturbing visuals from Bangladesh and West Bengal.
Little help from friends
Harrison then walked on stage to a roaring applause with more than 20 of his friends including Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and Leon Russel. They started the Western part of the concert with Harrison’s Wah Wah, followed by The Beatles’ Something.
Other popular songs performed included Ringo Starr’s It Don’t Come Easy and the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin Jack Flash. The concert also featured the first live performance of Here Comes the Sun.
Clapton, who was a very close friend of Harrison, was battling heroin addiction at that time. His then girlfriend made desperate and eventually unsuccessful attempts to get him the exact composition of uncut heroine, so he took Methadone, a synthetic opioid, before the concert. Clapton, who really was not himself, played the wrong guitar for The Beatles’ evergreen hit While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The crowd did not seem to notice any flaws in Clapton’s performances, but some fellow musicians felt he should not have been on stage in that condition.
One of the most electrifying moments of the concert was when Harrison made an announcement saying he would “like to bring on a friend of us all, Mr Bob Dylan”. The crowd, as expected, gave him a thunderous standing ovation in a scene that looked similar to the celebration when the 1970 New York Knicks became the basketball champions at the same venue.
Most of the crowd was unaware of the backstory of how reluctant Dylan was to even agree to participate in the concert. Media reports from the time indicated that such a large occasion intimidated the modern American bard, who did not even turn up for the rehearsals. Getting Dylan to come for the concert took a lot of persuasion from Harrison, who was himself nervous since he had never performed for such a major event in front of a large crowd as a solo artist. Dylan did, however, believe strongly in the cause. “Dylan, he was really into the whole idea of it for the refugees,” Harrison said in the concert film.
Dylan’s performances were considered the icing on the cake. He sang A Hard Day’s Rain A-Gonna Fall, Blowin’ in the Wind, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, Love Minus Zero/No Limit and a slow version of Just Like a Woman.
The afternoon concert was capped with some of Harrison’s songs including My Sweet Lord, which he started with a “Hare Krishna” and Bangla Desh.
The musicians were so energised and thrilled with the way the concert went that they decided to slightly tweak the order of songs in the second show, which was at 8 pm on the same day. Critics widely agreed the evening concert was better than the afternoon edition.
Unfortunately, in the evening concert, there was a microphone failure on Alla Rakha’s tabla and that affected the way the crowd heard the Hindustani musical performance.
After the second show, the performers went and celebrated at a then-famous Manhattan nightclub called Ungano’s. Dylan, one of the most reluctant performers before the concert, famously hugged Harrison at the nightclub and remarked that he wished they played three shows instead of two.
“The concert made $250,000, which actually is really very small in terms of the amount of money from the record… that way we can feed the starving people, and that’s it, it just snowballed,” Harrison said in the film.
The proceeds from the concert were given to UNICEF to aid the Bangladeshi refugees.
The release of The Concert for Bangladesh live album was delayed for a few months over rights issues, as the artists who performed at the concert had agreements with different labels. Capitol Records was the US distributor for The Beatles’ Apple Corps organisation, while Dylan was signed up with Columbia Records. The matter was solved after tough negotiations. The album was finally released in the US in December 1971 and Britain a month later. It was a bestseller and won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1973.
The documentary film was released in 1972.
More than $12 million was raised for the refugees as a result of the concert, film and record sales, but a big part of the money was tied up for years in a US Internal Revenue Service account over tax disputes.
The greatest impact the concert made was in creating global awareness about the Bangladesh genocide and refugee crisis. “After this performance, it was like overnight everybody knew the name of Bangladesh all over the world because it came out in newspapers everywhere,” Ravi Shankar said years later.
Harrison added, “It was a lot of kids, who having had the inspiration to go and do something, all started collecting money and donating things, banging on UNICEF’s doors saying, ‘What can we do to help?’”
The Concert for Bangladesh was also the inspiration for the 1985 Live Aid concert organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure for those affected by the famine in Ethiopia.
The George Harrison Fund for UNICEF continues to support refugee causes around the world and is now helping Rohingya children access shelter, food and clean water in Bangladesh.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.
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