“My friend came to me, with sadness in his eyes
He told me that he wanted help before his country dies,
Although I couldn't feel the pain - I knew I had to try;
Now I'm asking all of you to help us save some lives...
Where so many people are dying fast, and it sure looks like a mess
I've never seen such distress;
Now, won't you lend your hand and understand?
Relieve the people of Bangladesh…”
Ever since The Bittles-famed English rockstar George Harrison sang these lyrics in front of 40,000 people, live at the world-famous Madison Square Garden (MSG) in New York City in the United States - so many things have changed in history. That aforementioned country, ‘Bangladesh’, snatched its glorious victory over its Pakistani oppressors after brutal warfare in 1971, and slowly but surely became an emerging force in the South Asian region. The country became known to many for a handful of reasons - its readymade garments, its golden fiber, its Muslin fabrics, its Hilsha fish or its status as one of the top cricket-playing nations, and much more. All these things were still there when the country was a part of the greater Pakistan, which did not wish to witness any success that Bangladesh could achieve - thus, orchestrated a heinous series of chaos and a forced exodus across the country then known as East Pakistan, despite being politically defeated. As a result, millions of refugees either had to escape from their motherland to West Bengal or embrace the unfortunate circumstances as the war victims. Besides, the refugees especially children and women also had to face starvation and suffer from the outbreak of diseases such as cholera and the devastating natural calamity known as the Bhola Cyclone on November 11, 1970, which claimed half a million lives.
During that unprecedented time, one Indian sitar virtuoso was deeply worrying about the fate of Bangladesh and its people, as the land was his very own ancestral motherland. Ravindra Shankar Chowdhury, or popularly known as Pandit Ravi Shankar, was born in the Uttar Pradesh of India, but his ancestral roots are in the district of Narail in the Khulna division. George Harrison, on the other hand, became a friend of Shankar and was learning about Indian music from him after the disbanding of The Beatles - one of the best and most popular bands in the history of world music where Harrison played as the lead guitarist alongside music legends John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr. During the late ’60s, the West became familiar with the names of the sitarist Ravi Shankar, sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, Kamala Chakravarty on tamboura, and tabla player Alla Rakha - as these musicians were prominently working to popularize Indian classical and they were being featured in musical events across the United States.
Shankar and Harrison were working together at that time of June 1971 in Los Angeles for the recording of ‘Raga’, a documentary on the sitar maestro Shankar's life. Upon learning about the ongoing situation in Bangladesh, Shankar shared his worries and expressed his sorrow for the people out there and their exodus to India. Shankar mentioned to Harrison about his desire to organize a benefit concert, a rare idea of that time, through which he targeted approximately 25,000 USD - and Harrison immediately empathized and volunteered to help.
After getting on board to organize the concert, Harrison prepared the single "Bangla Desh" (this was the spelling then) and Shankar wrote the lyrics of "Joi Bangla" which became a Bangladesh benefit record EP. The venue was fixed at the Madison Square Garden in New York City which could not offer any other day except for Sunday, August 1, 1971. The concert itself also became a testing ground for Harrison as a solo act, who at that time had not played live in front of a crowd since August 29, 1966, after the last live performance of The Beatles at San Francisco. George Harrison was understandably pretty nervous about the concert project. Nonetheless, the saga of political conflict and crisis, the horrific scenario regarding the exodus, and the circumstances of the oppressed Bangladeshi people kindled a fire in his heart and he decided to illuminate the soul of the music lovers by sharing the fire. The country named Bangladesh was already born and then it was bravely fighting for its independence, and his magical creation of the song ‘Bangladesh’ became a cult hit as well as an audio-visual narrative of the existing scenario. And that happened exactly 50 years ago this past week, the very first day of August in 1971.
The motif was kind and clear, however, the process was not very easy. Harrison was questioned - why, out of all the world's difficulties, he put together a benefit for refugees from what was then East Pakistan, at a press conference before the Concert for Bangladesh. His answer was clear that he wants to support the refugees of Bangladesh as per his friend Shankar’s plea based on a solely humanitarian perspective, but he put himself at risk as the then-existing President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, vigorously supported the Pakistani rulers, the killers and tormentors of the Bangladeshis. Harrison could have faced some serious trouble, but his and Shankar’s willpower slowly formed a solid hype for the concert at MSG during that time. The venue was sold out soon and two concerts were arranged in the end on the same day at 2:30 pm and 8 pm.
Indian music was gaining momentum in the Western world slowly but surely, and there was a constant demand for a possible ‘Beatles Reunion’. The latter could have been possible, very much possible - if half of the band members would not cancel their individual appearances at the concert. Paul McCartney did not come to mutual understanding or agreement as he was not in favor of a reunion within that short time frame of their breaking up and John Lennon had to refuse at the very last moment due to a personal situation. Harrison’s other superstar invitee Bob Dylan was in a dilemma after not appearing in live concerts for years. Other celebrities including Harrison’s Beatles’ mate drummer Ringo Starr, the guitar sensation Erick Clapton, American musicians Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Klaus Voorman, Jim Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis, Jim Horn, Chuck Finley, Ollie Mitchell, Alan Beutler, and the members of the Welsh band BadFinger (Peter Ham, Tom Evans, Mike Gibbins, and Joey Molland) performed their heart out at the concert for free and to everyone’s surprise, not only Dylan came and participated - he regained his lost momentum through presenting his one of the best performances of all time. These superstars captivated the audiences in the second half of the event, while the first half was fully dedicated to Shankar and friends’ entourage of Indian melody in a “Bangla Dhun”.
A live album of the concert came out on December 20, 1971, right after the victory of Bangladesh in the Liberation War; and a film documentary was also released in 1972. The live album topped albums charts in several countries and went on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1973. The two Madison Square Garden shows raised a total of 243,418.50 USD which was given to UNICEF to administer on August 12, 1971. But most importantly, the Concert for Bangladesh is acknowledged in history as the first such charity concert for a humanitarian cause, that paved the way for many later events such as BandAid, LiveAid, and more. A common charity practice available these days was grounded through the collaboration of some of the best and iconic performers in the world through the Concert for Bangladesh on that Sunday, August 1, 1971, at MSG. This year’s August 1st was also a Sunday, coinciding with the glorious day 50 years ago - the day, for which, Bangladesh is forever grateful.