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George in Mumbai

George in Mumbai
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First Published: Fri, Sep 03 2010. 08 43 PM IST
Updated: Fri, Sep 03 2010. 08 43 PM IST
I confess to being an incorrigible iTunes hoarder, and if that description confuses anyone, it’s meant to denote a music lover who buys music voraciously, transfers the tracks to iTunes, carries them round on her iPod for indefinite periods of time, and finally listens to the tracks only much later when there’s time for careful listening, reading about the tracks and gazing at album artwork. My iTunes stash recently revealed an album titled Wonderwall Music composed by George Harrison and recorded in 1967-68. The 1968 leg of the recordings was made in Mumbai at the HMV Studios, and became part of the soundtrack for the film Wonderwall. For fans of the Beatles and of Harrison in particular, this must be a sort of “so what?” moment, given that they probably have information on the colour of the shirt he wore during the recording. For me, it was a happy discovery about a segment of Harrison’s work that I wasn’t familiar with.
Of the 19 tracks included in the soundtrack, 11 were recorded in Mumbai with a host of Indian musicians, including santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma, Mahapurush Mishra playing the tabla and pakhavaj, and Aashish Khan on the sarod. Peter Lavezzoli in his wonderful book, The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi, informs us that Joe Massot first approached the Bee Gees to score the music for the film, but was turned down. He later approached Harrison, who agreed to score the music for the film, which he found greatly intriguing. But unsure of how to go about the task, he decided to adopt the following strategy. Harrison explains how he “used a regular wind-up stop watch…” as he watched the film “to ‘spot-in’ the music with the watch”. He would then write the timings down in his book, go to the studio, first at Abbey Road, and later in Mumbai, “make up a piece, and record it”.
I have not seen the film, and it sounds like a strange tale of delusion and hallucination according to the IMDB synopsis. Apparently, the plot centres on a lonely English professor’s obsession with spying on a gorgeous young model living next door, and her steamy escapades, seen through a small hole in his wall. Track names such as Fantasy Sequins, Dream Scene, Love Scene and On the Bed suddenly felt appropriate. Lavezzoli also mentions that Harrison recorded the Mumbai tracks hastily at the HMV Studios, “mixing each piece as he went along on HMV’s primitive two-track machine”.
For the track titled In the Park, Harrison gets santoor great Sharma to play a melody that is easily identifiable as the Raga Chandrakauns. He is joined on the track by surbahar player Chandrashekhar Naringrekar and tabla tarang artiste Rij Ram Desad. The surbahar seems overdubbed on two tracks, unless Harrison got a sitar player to perform on the track. So did Harrison actually write down the Chandrakauns phrases and improvisations for the track, and ask the artists to play them? Or did he merely select Chandrakauns, santoor, surbahar and tabla tarang for the track and then let the artistes improvise within certain given parameters of the raga, and the eight beat groove on the tabla tarang? Many of the tracks on the album throw up similar questions about the composition/writing.
Wonderwall Music has the distinction of being the first ever album released on the Beatles-owned Apple Records. It managed to reach No. 49 on the US charts in early 1969, but did not make the charts at all in the UK. The first ever Apple record to be deleted, it was reissued once again on CD in 1992. It is now available for downloading on digital stores for those who want to hear a more classical Indian soundtrack than most others written by Indian composers for any Indian film. Write to Shubha at musicmatters@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Sep 03 2010. 08 43 PM IST