The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh

My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes
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

It’s been 48 years and a day since George Harrison crooned “Bangla Desh” over his guitar at a pair of benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden. Forever memorializing both his friendship with Ravi Shankar and the image of the recording artist as a good global citizen.

The harrowing backgrounds

In November 1970, the Bhola cyclone had ravaged East Pakistan and West Bengal. Killing 500,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Then, as if to conspire with nature, the Pakistani army launched one of the most brutal military slaughters in modern history against the people of the East. Machine-gunning crowds of civilians, destroying whole villages and putting the torch to the dense slums of Dhaka.

An artist’s call of duty

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh

Helplessly staring at the events from afar, Ravi Shankar set about to raise around $25,000.

First through the sale of his album, Joi Bangla, and then through a charity concert of his own. In the depth of his melancholy, he reached out to his friend George Harrison one day in Los Angeles.

“I was in a very sad mood, having read all this news, and I said, ‘George, this is the situation. I know it doesn’t concern you, I know you can’t possibly identify…’ But while I talked to George he was very moved, he felt very deeply, and he said, ‘Yes, I think I’ll be able to do something.’” Harrison himself later reflecting on the momentous occasion said, “The Concert For Bangladesh happened because of my relationship with Ravi … I said, ‘If you want me to be involved, I think I’d better be really involved,’ so I started recruiting all these people.”

As Shankar himself recounted in an interview published in the Rolling Stones magazine in 1971

The project began in earnest during the last week of June 1971, five or six weeks before the event took place on 1st August with Harrison as the principal mover, gathering musicians, making the phone calls, getting the commitments and setting up the show.

Concert for Bangladesh

Around the middle of July, the upcoming concert by “George Harrison and Friends” was announced, via a minuscule ad buried in the back pages of the New York Times.

On Sunday, August 1 1971, Shankar, Harrison and those “friends” – among them Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr and the band, Badfinger – staged rock’s first mass act of philanthropy, for the 400,000-capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden, New York.

Steering clear of the complex geopolitics that was behind the near radio silence of the American media, Harrison chose instead to focus on the human face of the crisis. His audibly distraught voice was an appeal to the basic humanity of the people listening, a call for solidarity that defied the limitations of human compassion.

Red tapes

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 3
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Marty Lederhandler/AP/REX/Shutterstock (6596757a) Harrison Shankar Former Beatle George Harrison, left, is shown at a press conference at the Abkco Industries offices in New York.

Hosting the concert might have had its difficulties. But getting the nearly $243,000 it raised to the people it was intended for was a monster of a task in its own right.

Despite Harrison’s noble intentions, Pattie Boyd, his first wife, reported that Harrison believed that some of it “went walkabout”. “It was uncharted territory, the scale of it,” said Jonathan Clyde, of the Beatles’ Apple group in an interview with The Guardian in 2011. “The money did eventually reach Bangladesh, although perhaps not in time to help the refugees at that point. The big mistake was that Unicef wasn’t chosen beforehand, and so the IRS [the US tax service] took the view that because the charity wasn’t involved in the mounting of the concert, they’d take their cut. This distressed George hugely, it really angered him. There was an ongoing tussle for years, but I’m afraid even now the IRS still take their slice.” 

The legacy

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 4

But the legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh did not end there; rather, it expanded. The concert and subsequent album and film have since raked in millions for Unicef. It went on to fund projects not only in Bangladesh but in trouble spots from Angola to Romania, and even in the Horn of Africa. According to music journalist Mikal Gilmore, Harrison drew heavily from his experience from his entanglement with the IRS. He gave Bob Geldof “meticulous advice” to ensure that Live Aid’s estimated £50 million found its way, as intended, to victims of the Ethiopian famine.

The enduring legacy of the Concert for Bangladesh 5

Even more critical than the money that was raised from the concert, however, was the widespread support it garnered for the fledgeling nation of Bangladesh.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about a nation that had for so long been desperately seeking to break-through the near radio silence of the media.

Equally important, was how the endeavour redefined the role of the artist from one who was bound by a sacred contract with the audience to produce art that was good, to one who was expected to stand against injustice and use one’s voice to proclaim the unspoken truths of the world aloud.

In a year in which the press was rightfully decrying “the motives of the musicians and the level of the audiences, with each neo-Woodstock more avaricious than the last”, the Concert for Bangladesh, -was –to paraphrase the editors of Rolling Stone – through the sheer splendor of its music and the wholesomeness of its motive,proof that the spirit of music was well and alive.

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