In the 1950s, a 15 minute programme, called “Adventures in Music” ran all over the US. In it, a dusky man, wearing a turban, played music, saying not a word but just staring at the camera. It was a mesmerizing stare that won him countless fans, both women and men, who found him exotic and mysterious, with a foreign sounding name.
The performer was Korla Pandit, apparently the son of a French opera singer and a Brahmin man from New Delhi, who had studied music in Chicago and had come to the US. Except that none of this was true. Pandit was much later exposed as being John Roland Redd, an African American born in St Louis, Missouri, who had invented the Indian persona to break into the music business.
“At that time (1949), if you were from India, you were classified, according to immigration, as Caucasian, which meant you could work in the white musicians union, which offered more opportunities than those available in the black musicians union,” says John Turner, director of Korla, a new documentary on the mysterious musician. (www.korlathemovie).
“I was creating new and unusual sounds on the (electric) organ” Pandit says in an interview on the film. These were mainly faux “Oriental”, the kind of snake-charmer music in films set in the humid and tropical East, about which Americans were ignorant. He also played “table drums and conga drums”, all of which were completely new sounds for his audiences. In the background, as he played, were undulating dancers in the shadows—the effect was hypnotic for his viewers, “mainly stay at home housewives”.
The direct stare
“He wore a turban with a jewel in the middle and was very mysterious, as he never talked during any of his 900 shows, yet stared directly into the camera and into the hearts of his female viewers. At that time, most Americans knew nothing of the true culture of India, except for the cultural stereotypes they saw in movies that portrayed Indians as rope climbing magicians and men of mystery”, Turner told the Wire. Pandit played the stereotype to the hilt, giving interviews about India and Indian philosophy. “In India we believe that music never dies,” he is quoted as saying.
Korla Pandit’s fame lasted for over a decade, but slowly the novelty of the act wore off and he was replaced by a younger, talented keyboard player, called Liberace. For years after, Pandit claimed Liberace had stolen his act and his flamboyant style. Pandit then began giving talks throughout California; he felt he was a musical and spiritual guru and at one point was friends with Paramhansa Yogananda, says Turner. In the last few years of his life he was playing in restaurants, department stores, seminars and gave private music lessons.
Turner tracked him down in 1990 and stayed in touch with Pandit till his death in 1998. Pandit’s secrets came out only after he died, and his relatives were reluctant to talk about him. Turner says he wanted not just to honour Redd but also give him his due as the “Godfather of Exotic Music,” a blend of faux Indian, African and Polynesian.
Turner’s documentary is also a film about American cultural politics of the time-“the practice of light skinned Africans ‘passing’ into white culture, which has happened in this country since the time of slavery.” For an African American, being an exotic foreigner was a better option than owning up to his own real background. It allowed him to enter restaurants where African Americans were otherwise forbidden, for one thing. The economic opportunities too were vastly better.
Turner, who is from Berkley, California has visited India several times and is quite impressed with the scale of the film industry; he wants to show the film here, “to give Indians an idea of the racial and cultural ignorance of the majority of Americans during that time. Much has changed since then and more Americans have been exposed to India and Indian culture, to Ravi Shankar, Indian films and real Indian food,” he says.