Imagine India

Tel Aviv hosting series of candid photos of 'Beatles' when they ended up in an ashram 40 years ago.

beatles india 88 248 (photo credit: Paul Saltzman )
beatles india 88 248
(photo credit: Paul Saltzman )
There are a lot of momentos that people store away inside cardboard boxes in their closets for 30 years. But Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman just might take the cake for the most original content. In 1998, Saltzman dug out a box containing dozens of pristine photographs he had shot of The Beatles 30 years earlier at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh, India. The incredibly candid and intimate photos of the Fab Four taken in one of their most private periods are part of Imagine Liverpool - a new photo exhibition opening on Sunday at Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv. The exhibit, sponsored by Liverpool's tourism association, is aiming to encourage Israeli tourism in Liverpool by highlighting the two mythological symbols of Liverpool: The Beatles and the Liverpool Football Club. But with all due respect to soccer fans, it's the photographs of John, Paul, George and Ringo that are going to attract everyone from anal-retentive Beatles historians who thought they had seen every photo of the band to casual, "Yesterday"-humming fans. In January 1968, The Beatles, their wives, girlfriends and assorted famous friends - like Donovan, Mia Farrow and Mike Love from The Beach Boys - traveled to India to spend seven weeks at the ashram of Yogi, who they had met the previous year. The band was in a state of turmoil, still reeling from the death the previous year of its manager, Brian Epstein, and exhausted from a two-year accelerated period of psychedelic drug-induced creativity resulting in generation-defining projects like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In need of a respite from Beatlemania, they retreated to India to regain their center. And while Saltzman's photographs present a riveting bird's-eye view of the privacy-hungry cultural icons letting their guards down, the photographer's back-end story of how a 22-year-old hippie backpacker ended up hanging out with the most famous group in the world is equally captivating. "I was a pretty successful 22-year-old kid. I was working for the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal, and I had my own TV show on CBC. I had my own sports car," said the 63-year-old Saltzman from his home in Ontario. "But I woke up one morning and had a shocking thought - there were parts of myself I didn't like. So I listened to an inner voice and left for India, a place I previously had no connection with." Saltzman got a job in India working on a film for three months, and following its completion he arrived in Delhi to find a letter from his girlfriend back home breaking up with him. "I was heartbroken. Someone suggest that I should go to an ashram and learn meditation to help me cope," he recalled. SALTZMAN TRAVELED to the Rishikesh ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had already achieved worldwide fame through his contact with The Beatles over the previous year. However, when he arrived at the gate, he was turned away. "Someone came down and told me, 'sorry the ashram is closed. We have special guests.' I didn't even know The Beatles were there," said Saltzman, adding that he, like most people his age at the time, was a huge fan of The Beatles and had seen them in Toronto in 1964. Having nowhere else to go, Saltzman pitched a tent outside the ashram and camped there for a week and sulked. "I wasn't even thinking that The Beatles were inside and I was out here, I was thinking about the agony of heartbreak. The guard would come outside and talk to me, and finally he must have realized I wasn't there to meet The Beatles and they let me in." The first thing Saltzman did was seek out spiritual guidance, and after receiving a primer, he went off and meditated for a half hour. "It was like a miracle. The agony and heartbreak were gone. Afterward, I was walking through the ashram, which was about the size of four football fields, and I was just elated to not be in emotional agony," he recalled. Then he saw them. Sitting at a long table were The Beatles and their entourage. "I asked if I could join them, and John said, 'Sure, pull up a chair.' I heard a voice inside screaming, 'Eeek, it's The Beatles!' But then I heard another voice saying 'hey Paul, they're just ordinary people like you.' "Before I knew it, John was saying, 'So you're American then?' And when I told them I was Canadian, Paul and Ringo started teasing me about the Queen being on our currency. We were just joking and laughing. That was the magic, I was just part of the group." According to Saltzman, who stayed at the ashram for a week, everyone was taking photographs. So when he pulled out his camera, nobody protested or asked him to refrain from photographing. "I wasn't a photographer, I was a kid with a camera. I had the least expensive Pentax 35 mm. with two lenses. I was just taking them for myself. It never even crossed my mind to get a photo with them and me in it," he said. Legend has it that the group, but mainly Lennon and McCartney (Starr left the retreat early because he didn't like the food), wrote 48 songs in the seven weeks they were at the ashram, many of which ended up appearing on their celebrated White Album. And Saltzman recalled that he was privy to some of the Beatles magic. "One of my photos 'Ob-La-Di' was taken while they were working on that song. John and Paul kept singing the refrain over and over again, changing tempo and feeling," said Saltzman. "A second after I took that particular photo, Paul looked up at me and with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes, he said: 'That's all there is so far. We don't have any of the words yet.'" "They played a lot, but also meditated and just hung out chatting at the long table by the edge of the cliff overlooking the Ganges, far below, and the town of Rishikesh, across the river." WHEN SALTZMAN returned to Canada, he was so excited about his experience that he wrote a story about it for McLeans magazine. But something didn't sit right with him. "The day I finished writing it, three weeks after I got home, I wasn't feeling good, and that same inner voice of mine told me I was talking about my experience too quickly. I needed to put some distance in there, so I took all the photos I had taken and put them away for a while," he said. "A while" turned into 30 years. In the interim, Saltzman moved on and lived his life, raised a family and enjoyed a successful career as a filmmaker. But about 10 years ago, when his daughter was 18, she reminded him about the photos. "I guess when she was about seven, I told her a bedtime story about my trip to India and meeting The Beatles. So years later, when she had become a Beatles fan on her own, she came in and asked to see the pictures," said Saltzman. "The first thing I was grateful about was that they weren't moldy or damaged. They were in pristine condition. When we finished looking at them, she said that they were great and I should do something with them." In 2000, Saltzman published The Beatles in India, a coffee table book that he criticizes as being printed poorly. Three years ago, he self-published a better quality high-end limited edition, which he sells via the Internet. In addition, there have been gallery exhibitions of the photos around the world, and Saltzman, who has visited Israel many times, is pleased that they're finally going to be shown here. "I've always wanted to find a gallery in Israel to show them, because I know there are a lot of Beatles fans there," he said. At the exhibit's opening on Sunday evening, which costs NIS 10, the guest of honor will be Julia Baird, Lennon's half-sister, and musical entertainment will be provided by the accomplished Beatles tribute band the Magical Mystery Tour. Saltzman, who has returned to India some 50 times since that first time in 1968, said that he's not surprised that there's still so much interest in The Beatles and that subsequent generations have adopted the group's music as their own. "I've thought about it a lot and I can think of two reasons. One is that their music is filled with joy. If I'm riding in my car and a Beatles song comes on, I find myself smiling. And it has nothing to do with meeting them," he said. "Secondly, they wrote about their own journey. Lennon, in one of his last interviews, said if you want to know about us, listen to our music. Their music was about their personal journey looking for inner peace and harmony. It resonated with me and certainly changed my life." Imagine Liverpool will be open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the third floor of the Dizengoff Center's southern building, with entry via gates 1, 3, 5 or 7. Entrance is NIS 10.