On August 14, 1969, a girl sat at the back of an SUV driving out of New York. The highway was jammed and the destination for everyone on that road seemed to be a farm in Bethel Woods, an hour-and-a-half away. Thirty two bands from around the world were about to participate in the three-day Woodstock festival, which the youth had decided would be able to address, if not fix, the problems of the Sixties, starting with the US foreign policy – Vietnam, the Cold War – and civil rights.
Four Indians were part of that zeitgeist. Three were in that car with their musical instruments when young Americans went looking for hope in America. The fourth, a swami, gave a speech.
Maya Kulkarni was on a scholarship at New York University to study economics. She knew Pandit Ravi Shankar, the sitar maestro, from her Bombay days, where she had been assisting actor Vyjayanthimala in the production of a dance drama. “Ravi ji had given its music,” says the artist and academic Maya Chadda (formerly Kulkarni) talking over the phone from New Jersey. “So when his regular tanpura player, Kamala Chakravarty, fell ill just before Woodstock, and there was need for a quick replacement, I stepped in. Alla Rakha ji was accompanying him on the tabla. There was no question of saying no. Besides, for me, Woodstock was always more than rock ‘n’ roll….”
Singing and protesting
Woodstock’s importance was not how many original numbers were sung in between August 15 and 18, but that it was in the background of exploding history. “Young people responded, resisted to the best of their understanding and came out on the streets…it was in that context that they connected to Ravi Shankar’s music. Students had his LPs. The young were on a quest, they were testing how far they could go in challenging authority figures, Indian music seemed to take them inward,” says Chadda who, after the death of Ravi Shankar and Allah Rakha, is now the only one left of the trio to interpret that history.
There was a rumour the US government had refused John Lennon, the Beatle, an entry visa. Shankar, seen as the Beatles’ guru, had the audience “roaring their approval” when the trio went on stage. Shankar, Alla Rakha and Chaddha went on stage on Day One close to midnight, and played a 35-minute set as sheets of rain fell around them.
Joan Baez, the famous folk singer also sang on the first day. Baez brought her anti-warism to Woodstock; she spoke about her husband, in jail for draft dodging, and sang, ‘We Shall Overcome’, a gospel song that had become the civil rights movement’s key anthem. The young artist from India recalls meeting Baez at Woodstock, and her “serene, beautiful face”.
What is, however, imprinted in her memory is the image of a musician caught in an unmusical moment. “We had to be air-lifted from our motel to the venue by helicopter. As we were waiting for the helicopter, I saw a man chasing chickens and so completely stoned that he was pulling the hair off his chest,” says Chadda, adding, “it was a tremendous sight for a young girl new to America…” And that is how she first met Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix and the “raw vocals” of Janis Joplin, she says, will always remain with her. Both belonged to, what is known in rock legend, as the Club of 27. Both died, aged 27, the year after Woodstock, an event that was a coming together of hope, art and beauty but much ambivalence as well. Because a rock concert had been pulled off, didn’t mean that the hierarchies that ruled the world were coming undone. Not everyone in the ’60s could be a hippie radical.
“Not too many minorities were having as much of a blast during such concerts, or the Sixties in general. The circle of pleasure was small,” music historian Saul Austerlitz has said in his book, Just a shot away about Altamont, the rock festival that followed three months after Woodstock. The chaos and violence, including the death of a young African-American at Altamont, unravelled the hippie era of America whose cultural high point was Woodstock.
The biggest irony is that Ravi Shankar is also believed to have been taxed by the hippie enthusiasm for his music. A report in The Telegraph, London, quotes the artist’s autobiography in which he referred to his appearance in festivals such as Woodstock, as an ordeal, where the audience was “shrieking, shouting, smoking, copulating – all in a drug-crazed state…. I used to tell them, ‘You don’t behave like that when you go to hear a Bach, Beethoven or Mozart concert’.”
But on its 50th anniversary, you don’t have to remember it like that. To revisit it, here are the options: watch the Oscar-winning 1970 documentary, Woodstock; listen to the album named after the festival, or just YouTube ‘Ravi Shankar at Woodstock’. As for the fourth Indian, Swami Satchidananda, he is on YouTube too, giving a calm-down speech to the restive audience about “America helping everybody”.
For Maya Kulkarni, 22 in 1969, all grown up in a red silk sari while taking stage at Woodstock, it naturally remains a big deal. “It’s the day,” she says now, “they let the music speak.”