Thirty-five long years ago�

 A.H. Jaffor Ullah

Published on April 02, 2006

In my mind the tumultuous year 1971 is just the other year when we became very busy to liberate our motherland from the clutch of Punjabi-dominated military of Pakistan.  I was then a twenty-four year old person living far away from home in America.  Even though many of us were in grad school our studies suffered because of the on-going liberation war.  In articles written about 7-8 years ago I covered the activities that some of us were involved in.  Many of the articles are still there in the Internet.  Therefore, I decided not to write another article detailing our activities; instead, I decided to write something that was very close to my heart then.  The topic is on the �Concert for Bangladesh,� which took place in August 1971 in Madison Square Garden, New York City.

Picture: Concert Ad and Publicity


The concert did not take place just like that.  It was well-planned and a lot of work had gone in the background.  The world learned through media that innocent Bengalis were being butchered and tortured by the murderous military of Pakistan.  Moreover, many Bengali women were sexually assaulted by Pakistani brute.  Consequently, over 10 million Bengalis fled the country to neighboring Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam.  The Indian government headed by a brave lady, Srimati Indira Gandhi, did their best to take care of the displaced people notwithstanding the monumental task that lay ahead.  Many civic groups in West Bengal also helped managed tens and thousands of makeshift tents that housed the bulk of the political refugees.  Money was running out; nonetheless, millions of people were fed days-in days-out.  Pundit Ravi Shankar being a fellow Bangalee felt that more needs to be done to assuage the pain and sufferings of his people.  Ravi Shankar�s family is originally from Jessore district of East Bengal and that was the reason his heart cried for the displaced people.  To internationalize and give exposure to the political issue of self-rule for Bangalees he decided to lobby among western musicians.  Thus, he went to his disciple George Harrison in London and told him with sadness in his eye that his people were experiencing hunger and pain by becoming refugee.  Something had to be done quickly.  George Harrison was a musician of stature.  Just 2-3 years ago, Beatles broke up while it members each went in their own way.  George Harrison had few hits in 1970; the cut �My Sweet Lord� being one of them.  George�s name recognition was there.  He definitely had the clout then.


Picture:  Harrison,  Dylan and Russel in the Concert for Bangladesh


I think Pundit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan were visiting England sometime in the summer of 1971.  Ravi Shankar had received an assurance from his disciple that a benefit concert for the refugee from Bangladesh could be arranged.  In July 1971 the word was out that the benefit concert will be held at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, NYC on August 1, 1971.  The indoor stadium was big enough to hold 40,000 concert-goers. 


In the month of June-July Harrison recorded the single "Bangladesh, Bangladesh" to help raise awareness and requested Apple Records to release Shankar's single "Joi Bangla" in a dual-pronged effort to raise funds.  I purchased the EP record in July 1971 right after it was available in American record store.  I vaguely remember there was one song call �Gahi Bangla Deshe�r Gaan.�  It was sung by Bengali artists who were there in England.  In 1970s someone borrowed the historic album from me but never returned it to me.  It did not seem like big deal but now I repent for not having it in my possession. 


George Harrison took over the project of the benefit concert for Bangladesh refugee and persuaded his friends to join him at a large concert at Madison Square Garden. The event was organized within short five weeks.  America�s legendary folk-rock musician, Bob Dylan, had gone into isolation for few years.  However, he decided to break his silence by joining the concert.  Harrison first asked his fellow Beatles to appear.  John Lennon readily agreed to take part in the concert; however Harrison requested that Lennon�s controversial wife Yoko Ono not perform with him. Lennon agreed, but abruptly left New York two days before the concert following an argument with Ono regarding his and Harrison�s mutual agreement that she not participate.  Paul McCartney when approached declined to join George because of the bad feelings caused by the Beatles� legal problems on their break-up.  Only drummer Ringo Starr readily agreed to appear in the concert.  In retrospect, the �Concert for Bangladesh� gave the venue for Beatles to be reunited but interference from Yoko Ono and Paul (who was very much influenced by his American wife Linda) did not allow it to happen.

Picture: Eric Clapton performing in the concert


Even though Beatles did not reunite one more time for the benefit concert, the concert made history.  The caliber of rock musicians who participated in the program was the best in the world.  Guitarist Eric Clapton, rocker Leon Russell, organist Billy Preston, rock group �Badfinger�, and few others including legendary Indian maestros Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan performed before packed concert-goers.  The concert was started by a light dhun performed by Ravi Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), and Ustad Allah Rakkha playing tabla.  The rest is history.  The concert had received rave reviews in most newspapers published in New York City.  The timing was right.  By George Harrison�s solo effort the name Bangladesh became a very popular word in campuses.  I was there to witness it.  A few of us were planning to go to New York (750 miles away from Cincinnati, Ohio, where I used to live at the time) to attend the concert; however, we were despondent hearing the news that all the tickets were sold in hurry.  Besides, we were busily giving lectures to church groups, schools, civic groups all over southern Ohio to create an opinion in favor of independent Bangladesh.  Thus, I do not regret that I did not attend the concert.     


The entire program was filmed and released a year later in movie theaters all over the western world.  The sales from the double-set album �Concert for Bangladesh� and proceeds from the film were given to UNICEF�s Children Fund.  Not to mention all the publicity the concert garnered for the cause of independent Bangladesh.


On December 16, 1971 Bangladesh was liberated and the album was released right before Christmas to capitalize the gift-giving season.  The double-set album was the talk of the campus. 


Parenthetically, I would like to add here that many of the readers may not be aware that the word Bangladesh used to be spelled �Bangla Desh� all through 1971.  Thus, the billboard for �Concert for Bangladesh� used to read �Concert for Bangla Desh.�  The double set album cover also wrote �Concert for Bangla Desh.�  However, when the movie was released, the title said, �Concert for Bangladesh.�     

Picture: George Harrison singing Bangla Desh


Incidentally, the song entitled �Bangladesh� was the last item of the concert rendered by George Harrison.  It was an emotional composition done by George.  This article will be incomplete if I don�t include the lyric of the historical song.  In the opening line there is a reference about Ravi Shankar pleading for help from George before his country dies.  What an incredible line!


Bangladesh, Bangladesh 

By George Harrison (1971)

My friend came to me, with sadness in his eyes

He told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies
Although I couldn't feel the pain, I knew I had to try
Now I'm asking all of you
To help us save some lives
Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh
Where so many people are dying fast
And it sure looks like a mess
I've never seen such distress
Now won't you lend your hand and understand
Relieve the people of Bangla Desh
Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh
Such a great disaster - I don't understand
But it sure looks like a mess
I've never known such distress
Now please don't turn away, I want to hear you say
Relieve the people of Bangla Desh
Relieve Bangla Desh
Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh
Now it may seem so far from where we all are
It's something we can't neglect
It's something I can't neglect
Now won't you give some bread to get the starving fed
We've got to relieve Bangla Desh
Relieve the people of Bangla Desh
We've got to relieve Bangla Desh
Relieve the people of Bangla Desh
Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from Ithaca, New York