George Harrison’s Mystical, Fisheye Self-Portraits Taken in India (1966)

Harrison Fisheye1

The Bea­t­les’ sojourn in India can seem like a bit of a stunt, as much a rock n’ roll cliché as Led Zeppelin’s trashed hotel rooms or Fleet­wood Mac’s coke binges. Eas­i­ly par­o­died in, for exam­ple, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Sto­ry, the band’s turn East­ward looks in hind­sight like fad­dish spir­i­tu­al tourism. That impres­sion may not be so far off. As one writer puts it:

By the late 1960s, The Bea­t­les had engi­neered anoth­er pop cul­ture rev­o­lu­tion (at least in Europe and North Amer­i­ca) by wear­ing Indi­an-style cloth­ing, spout­ing reli­gious and philo­soph­i­cal apho­risms that seemed to bor­row from ‘East­ern’ thought, and lat­er even vis­it­ing India for a high­ly-pub­li­cized train­ing ses­sion to learn Tran­scen­den­tal Med­i­ta­tion with the fraud­u­lent ‘mys­tic’ Mahar­ishi Mahesh Yogi.

But while for John, Paul, and Ringo, “inter­est in Indian/Hindu cul­ture was rather fleet­ing and tem­po­ral […] for George, India com­plete­ly over­hauled and changed his life per­ma­nent­ly.” As Har­ri­son him­self would lat­er recount of his first jour­ney in 1966, “it was the first feel­ing I’d ever had of being lib­er­at­ed from being a Bea­t­le or a num­ber.” The rest of the band wouldn’t make the trip until two years lat­er.

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Har­ri­son had prin­ci­pal­ly embarked to study sitar under Ravi Shankar and learn yoga, but this was also a peri­od of self-dis­cov­ery and escape from, as he says, the “mania.” Trav­el­ing, as he always did, with a cam­era, he doc­u­ment­ed his jour­ney. His pic­tures are far from ordi­nary tourist images.

While he describes in writ­ing the “mix­ture of unbe­liev­able things” he saw, he just as often turned the cam­era on him­self, his pho­to­graph­ic intro­spec­tion made even more pro­nounced by his use of a fish­eye lens.

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Inter­est­ing­ly, in his rec­ol­lec­tion of the trip, Har­ri­son ref­er­ences the sur­re­al cult, sci-fi show The Pris­on­er as a prime illus­tra­tion of life as “a num­ber.” One of the show’s most mem­o­rable devices involves a huge, mys­te­ri­ous white bub­ble that cap­tures or kills any­one try­ing to escape the sin­is­ter orga­ni­za­tion that holds the main char­ac­ter cap­tive. In Harrison’s pho­tos, the bub­ble becomes a para­dox­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of his way out of fame’s fish­bowl, of the prison of Beat­le­ma­nia and an iden­ti­ty that felt con­trived and alien­at­ing.

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Behind his steady, seri­ous gaze open up vis­tas that presage the breadth and depth of his immer­sion in Indi­an spir­i­tu­al prac­tices. What­ev­er one thinks of his con­ver­sion, there’s no doubt it was sin­cere, and life­long. Not long after this first trip, at the age of 24, he wrote to his moth­er, “I want to be self-real­ized. I want to find God. I’m not inter­est­ed in mate­r­i­al things, this world, fame.” Har­ri­son expressed the very same mys­ti­cal aspi­ra­tions in his final, 1997 inter­view, still play­ing and singing with his men­tor Ravi Shankar.

Harrison Fisheye 5

via Shoot­ing Film/Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ravi Shankar Gives George Har­ri­son a Sitar Les­son … and Oth­er Vin­tage Footage

Watch George Harrison’s Final Inter­view and Per­for­mance (1997)

Phil Spector’s Gen­tle Pro­duc­tion Notes to George Har­ri­son Dur­ing the Record­ing of All Things Must Pass

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • AJJ108 says:

    The unat­trib­uted ref­er­ence to Mahar­ishi Mahesh Yogi as a ‘fraud­u­lent mys­tic’ is both mis­guid­ed and mis­placed. George per­formed ben­e­fit con­certs for the Mahar­ishi inspired Nat­ur­al Law Par­ty and prac­ticed TM through his final years. Also, Paul and Ringo are strong sup­port­ers to this day of the David Lynch Foun­da­tion, which is lead­ing the efforts to bring Tran­scen­den­tal Med­i­ta­tion to thou­sands of peo­ple, world­wide.

  • das says:

    The Sexy Sadie song was about their Mahar­ishi dis­il­lu­sion. They decid­ed to change the name.
    George spent his last days with his Hare Krish­na friends Shya­ma­sun­dar and Mukun­da.

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