A prominent member of the iconic British band Beatles, George Harrison was one of the main organisers of the Concert for Bangladesh, held at Madison Square Garden, New York, on 1 August 1971 to raise international awareness and funds for Bangladesh’s liberation war. Harrison ended the concert with the song ‘Bangladesh, Bangladesh’. Even today, after listening to it so many hundreds of times, the song still evokes poignant memories of our great struggle for independence. It brings tears to the eyes. No wonder George Harrison is so dear to our hearts.
I had met George Harrison’s wife Olivia Harrison on 15 February 2011 at Sonargaon Hotel when she was visiting Bangladesh and we spent time talking about the Concert for Bangladesh. She said that organising the concert had given George Harrison a spiritual bond with Bangladesh. The genocide had moved him deeply.
Olivia told me that she had heard from George how Bangladesh’s genocide, violence and destruction had deeply affected Ravi Shankar. He was torn. George had been busy with his recordings. With the Beatles breaking up in the 1970s, he was sorting out his life anew. It was then that Ravi Shankar wanted to have a concert to collect funds for Bangladesh. He wanted George by his side for this and George too felt he should be part of this effort. Many would respond to his call.
George contacted Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Leon Russel and others to join the concert. Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton came to New York a day before the concert. A week before the concert, John Lennon, another Beatle famous for his song ‘Imagine’, informed George that he couldn’t make it.
In his autobiographical book I, Me, Mine, Harrison writes about organising Concert for Bangladesh. He had been in Los Angeles in June 1971, working on his Raga album. Ravi Shankar approached him about a concert to collect funds for Bangladesh’s refugees. He sent Harrison newspaper clippings about Bangladesh’s liberation war. Harrison wrote that he gradually began understanding what it was all about and felt the need to come forward. That led up to Concert for Bangladesh.
He said they had very few rehearsals. In fact, they couldn’t even rehearse all together at one time. There were all sorts of impediments but finally the concert was held. All tickets were sold out for the first concert and so they had to hold a second one. It was lucky how everything turned out so well.
It was in the mid-sixties that George Harrison was learning how to play the sitar from Ravi Shankar. He was also into yoga. He visited India a few times and was strongly influenced by Indian philosophy. By 1968 George Harrison realised he’d never be a good sitarist, but his relationship with Ravi Shankar was to remain for the rest of their lives.
This concert to help the refugees and Bangladesh’s struggle for freedom, was the first time in the world that such a concert was held. It was very satisfying for George Harrison. Ravi Shankar was overjoyed.
After that all sorts of concerts were held the world over for hunger in Africa and other causes. Leading artistes of the world took part in these concerts. But none could match the impact of the Concert for Bangladesh.
In I, Me, Mine, George Harrison wrote he had been able to draw attention to the events in Bangladesh. While they were preparing for the concert, America was sending arms to Pakistan. Thousands were dying every day, but the newspapers were very cursory in their coverage. The concert managed to attract a lot of attention. George said he met Bangladeshi waiters occasionally in various restaurants and they would tell him how much it meant to know that people in the outside world were thinking of them while they fought in the jungles.
Bob Dylan and George Harrison were crowd pullers at the concert. Harrison sang eight songs. One was with Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan sang five songs. Ringo Starr and Billy Preston sang one song each. Leon Russel sang one solo and one with Don Preston.
The last song of the concert was that unforgettable number by George Harrison, ‘Bangladesh, Bangladesh’. The song was written by Harrison and he composed the music too. It was a call to the people of the world to stand by the people of Bangladesh. The lyrics touched a deep chord: “It’s something we can’t neglect/It’s something I can’t neglect/Now won’t you give some bread to get the starving fed/We’ve got to relieve Bangla Desh.” He sang the song loud and clear, with a deep humanitarian appeal echoing throughout. The song still invigorates us today.
After this concert, so many have followed, concerts to generate funds for various humanitarian causes worldwide. But this particular concert of 40 long years ago stands apart from all others.
In 2005 the DVD version of the Concert for Bangladesh album was brought out. This set of two DVDs is still available. One disc has the entire concert, the other contains interviews of the artistes and those involved in the concert, behind-the-scene happenings, rehearsal pictures and songs. Procedures from the sales of these DVDs go the the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF. In the DVD Ravi Shankar says this Madison Square Garden concert was the most memorable of all the concerts during his 75 years of musical performances.
In the booklet accompanying the Concert for Bangladesh DVD, USA Fund for UNICEF president Charles J Lyons wrote that about 250 thousand dollars had been collected during that concert. The earnings shot up dramatically with the launch of an album of three records in December 1971 and a film on the concert in March 1972. The proceedings generated in the following decades went to the children’s welfare fund of UNICEF.
No wonder our interests and enthusiasm never fades for Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and the others artistes of that concert. They remain a source of endless inspiration. Every time we see and hear this concert, we are overwhelmed with emotions like the very first time.
Olivia Harrison is one of the main founders of the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF. She came on a three-day visit to Dhaka in 2011 to see the work being carried out by this organisation with UNICEF help. She saw certain programmes for poor children in and outside Dhaka. Certain programmes for children in Chittagong Hill Tracts are also being run with George Harrison’s funds. Olivia has had talks with UNICEF about boat schools for the children in Sylhet’s marshlands and Chittagong Hill Tracts. This was her first visit to Bangladesh. Over the years she has carried on the legacy of her husband’s humanitarian deeds and Bangladesh’s children are benefitted from this too. That is how Pundit Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and the Concert for Bangladesh remain active in Bangladesh down till today.