Did Ravi Shankar’s Raag Parameshwari lead to Live Aid’s creation? Hollywood to Bengal via George Harrison

Parameshwari is an idiosyncratic modern raga, brought into being by Pandit Ravi Shankar in the late 1960s. Full of dark, pensive momentum, the new creation enraptured listeners worldwide – and also seems to have played a hidden role in catalysing the first global wave of ‘benefit concerts’: starting with George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, continuing through fourteen years later to Live Aid and beyond.

While it might be a stretch to claim that Bob Geldof directly owes his latter-day fame to Parameshwari’s sparse, austere melodic motions (or that Ravi Shankar is to blame for Do They Know It’s Christmas?), the raga’s role in the overall tale is intriguing, and seemingly significant. Shankar’s wife Sukanya recounts the raga’s origin in the liner notes to a 1971 LP release:

“The inspiration for this raga goes back to Chengali, a little village near Kolkata. During the filming of his autobiographical film, Raga, Ravi-ji travelled to Chengali…in March 1968. While riding in the car, he conceived the nucleus of a melodic form, that he later developed and called Kameshwari. By [rotating the scale] he discovered three more ragas…and Parameshwari was one of them.”

Such a precise origin story sits in stark contrast to the abstruse, mythological histories of most ragas. While it’s difficult for me to imagine what the great Tansen may have been up to at Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century durbar (royal court), we’ve all run tunes through our head to idle away long hours stuck in transit. Doubtless, this has been going on since the dawn of organised human locomotion.

The raga proved popular with concert audiences around the world. In 1971, three years on from its inception, Shankar performed a baithak (house concert) at the home of a Hollywood friend, playing Parameshwari as the soundtrack to a broader mission. Sukanya describes the scene: “It was during this gathering that he spoke about his distress over the plight of the people of East Pakistan [soon to become Bangladesh] in the aftermath of Cyclone Bhola. Being Bengali himself, he talked about wanting to do something to alleviate the suffering”.

The vicious tropical storm had killed over half a million inhabitants of the Ganges Delta the previous year (as if everyone living in Edinburgh, Lisbon, or Abu Dhabi had been wiped from the map). It devastated many of the same communities he had passed through while filming, including the region around Chengali – the site of the raga’s seemingly prophetic inception. (See the footage below, shot in East Pakistan, for some of what Shankar was taking about – warning: graphic scenes).

The Pandit discussed the human impacts of the crisis at length, seeking to raise awareness – and hard cash – from his star-studded living-room audiences. Sukanya explains how he would “invite friends over, and then all the four Beatles, and people like Marlon Brando, Zubin Mehta, and Peter Sellers would drop by…”. 

The occasion of Parameshwari’s 1971 Hollywood performance seems to have provided the necessary spark, via George Harrison (always my favourite Beatle…although I’m probably biased due to also being an English guitarist/sitarist called George). In Sukanya’s telling, “Harrison, in attendance that day, listened – and from those conversations the seed was sown for what would later become the Concert for Bangladesh”.

Once their intentions were set, the pair wasted little time, organising and hosting the mega-concert just a couple of months later. On Sun 1 Aug 1971 (a date cited as auspicious by Harrison’s Indian astrologer), Madison Square Garden saw a 40,000-strong crowd gather to witness a stellar selection of artists – including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, and Harrison himself. Ravi Shankar teamed up with sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to play the show-opening set.

The extravaganza would eventually raise over $12 million dollars via tickets, donations, and a wildly successful triple-album, while also bringing genuine Bengali melodies to the adulation of a massive global audience: rather than Parameshwari’s measured tension, Shankar and Khan, both musicians with Bengali familial roots, chose to play a joyous Bangla Dhun (folk tune):

While generally appraised as a pioneering humanitarian effort, the project – like all such large-scale philanthropic enterprises – was not without serious mistakes and blindnesses. Though founded to fundraise for the all-too-recent aftermath of Cyclone Bhola, it would take over a decade for the majority of the money to reach the region, locked up by the Inland Revenue Service in a tax-deductibility dispute with the Beatles’ Apple Corps over how it should be classified (yeah, death and taxes go hand-in-hand…).

And, though administered via UNICEF, the eventual funds were put to somewhat chaotic use on the ground (overlapping with issues Harrison was already singing about – e.g. in Miss O’Dell, he speaks of “rice that keeps going astray…on its way to Bombay”). Organisers also met with resistance from record companies, who were disinclined to allow their contracted artists to appear – and it is rumoured that John Lennon pulled out at the last minute when Harrison refused to allow Yoko to appear on stage with him (“her performing didn’t meet his standards”).

So – did Parameshwari lead to Live Aid? Well…such a simple narrative would certainly be a stretch. But the Concert for Bangladesh definitely did help inspire – and provide an operational blueprint for – future benefit shows such as Live Aid and Live Earth. However, while the raga seems to have have soundtracked a pivotal social moment in the concert’s origin tale, I feel like Shankar’s obsessive drive and energy would have found a way through without it. Parameshwari’s fabled living room performance was far from the only time he pushed the issue forward.

Then again, it’s no stretch to imagine that such an event could have turned out very differently without a few key conversations and chance meetings (Shankar originally envisaged only a modest-sized classical sitar recital, but with Peter Sellers as guest compère…). Looking back, the Pandit himself was clearly pleased with proceedings, proclaiming that “in one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh. It was a fantastic occasion”.

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