Imagine it's 1968 and you have just arrived at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh, India. The purpose of your visit is nothing more than to learn meditation and perhaps find some inner peace in the process. Imagine now that upon your arrival, you discover that the ashram has four very well-known guests in residence; The Beatles.

For Beatles fans, this might be the ultimate dream come true; meditating high above the Ganges with the Himilayas serving as the backdrop - John, Paul, George and Ringo by your side. For 21 year old Paul Saltzman, that is exactly what happened.

Paul took many candid photos of The Beatles, as well as other famous faces including Mia Farrow and Donovan during his stay at the ashram. Eventually, his photos ended up stored away, unseen for three decades. In 2000, Paul's first book "The Beatles in Rishikesh" was published and featured many of his beautiful images of that now-legendary time.

In 2005, Paul published a brand-new, limited-edition book titled "The Beatles in India", complete with additional photos and text, as well as a foreword by Donovan. The both the 'Super-Deluxe' and 'Special Edition' books come with a CD and DVD, and the 'Super-Deluxe' version comes with a museum quality, 11x14" limited edition chromagenic print (see details).

In our exclusive interview with Paul, he talks about those days and what they still mean to him.

 


 

Q: Your book actually begins with your return trip to Rishikesh in 2000. With so many memories attached to the place, was it difficult to see the town and, especially, the ashram again?

It wasn’t difficult, at all. It was delightful: To be back in such a gorgeous place, geographically, and a place of such happy memories for me. For anyone going to India, a visit to Rishikesh is very worth it.

Q: How have Rishikesh, and the ashram itself, changed since 1968?

Rishikesh has grown as a town and, to a small extent, there are more tourist shops, especially leading to the river crossing that I took to get to the ashram. There are all the signs of the 2000’s: Internet cafes, river rafting companies and many more travel agents.

Q: Before reading your book, people might have the impression that you went to Rishikesh with the intent of photographing the Beatles, perhaps for a magazine or newspaper. In fact, it was a coincidence that you ended up in Rishikesh at the same time as the Beatles. What brought you there in the first place?

www.thebeatlesinindia.comI woke up one morning in Montreal, where I was working for the National Film Board of Canada, and I had a strange thought: That there were parts of myself that I didn’t like. I asked myself, out loud, “So, what do I do?” and in the silence that followed I heard a calm, deep, inner voice say,

“Well, if you want to look at yourself more clearly you might want to get away from the environment you grew up in.” And I asked, “So where do I go?” and this same, inner-guidance- system-voice said, “India.”

That was the motivation for going to India. Once there, I worked on a film to cover the costs of my air ticket. After 6 weeks on the road, filming, I got to New Delhi and excitedly opened my first letter from my girlfriend, back home. I only remember the first sentence: “Dear Paul, I’ve moved in with Henry.” I was devastated. Someone suggested I try meditation for the heartbreak. That’s what led me to the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh.

I didn’t know the Beatles would be there. At first it was not good news. It was bad news. I couldn’t get into the ashram. It was closed to all press and visitors. But after waiting outside the gates for 8 days, I got in, learned meditation—which was a miracle of relief from the heartbreak—and met John, Paul, George and Ringo. Also Donovan, Mia Farrow, Mike Love, Cynthia Lennon, Patti Boyd Harrison, Maureen Starkey and Jane Asher.

Q: What was your first meeting with the Beatles like?

I was walking through the ashram, just looking around, not even thinking of them, and I saw them sitting at a long table by the edge of the cliff overlooking the Ganges River, below. I walked over, noticing my heart beating faster as I got closer. They were chatting and I waited at the end of the table. When they realized someone was standing there, they paused in their conversation and John, sitting right next to me, looked up. I said, “May I join you?” He smiled and said, “Sure, mate, pull up a chair.” Paul turned towards me and added, “Come and sit here.” And pulled a chair to the table, next to him.”

Q: Did it take a while to penetrate their ‘inner circle’ or did they welcome you from the start?

It happened very quickly. After a moment, they finished their conversation and John turned to me. “So, you’re American, then?” he asked. “No, Canadian.” I responded. He turned to the group and in his dry and playful wit announced, “Ah! He’s from one of the colonies!” Everyone broke up, me included.

The laughter continued, as I quipped back, “Actually, not any more.” At which point Paul and Ringo started teasing me about still having the Queen on our money. I came back with, “Well, we may have the Queen on our money but, hey, she lives with you guys!” and everyone broke up again. The banter and the laughter continued for several more moments and, as it trailed off, John turned to the others again and with his same dry, teasing wit said, “Ah! You see! They still have a sense of humor in the colonies!” And with a final crest of laughter, I was taken into their small band of seekers.

Q: Looking at your photos in the book, I was struck by one series where at first you are photographing them at a distance through a fence, and then you gradually get closer and closer. Did you feel intimidated photographing them at first and did they ever give you a hard time about it?

I didn’t feel intimidated and they didn’t give me a hard time. I had already noticed that, as we sat around, George and Patti had a camera, as did Mal Evans, their ‘roadie’, and Ringo. They would take snap shots of those of us around the table, casually, like any family outing. Over the next day I asked each of John, Paul, George and Ringo, individually, if they minding my taking photos.

“No problem.” they each said.

Q: One of my favorite passages in your book describes the time you spent one on one with George Harrison in his bungalow as he played the sitar and discussed spirituality and meditation with you. What are some of your impressions of him as a person?

Interestingly, when we were all sitting around, George was the quietest of the group. But, one-on-one he was so dear-hearted, open, intimate, sharing and as interested in knowing me as I was in knowing him. He was a humble and humorous. As we sat together, he was 24 years old, yet infused with a spiritual and emotional wisdom far beyond his years.

Q: The public perception of John Lennon ranges anywhere from a crusader for peace to a sarcastic, caustic person. Having spent time with him, how would you describe him?

In the week I spent with John, he was kind, friendly and playful. When we sat alone together, he was generous and sharing of himself, on an intimate level. There were no signs of a caustic or sarcastic person. His humor was beautifully tart, though.

Q: It sounds like you spent a good deal of your time at the ashram with the Beatles. How well did you get to know some of the other celebrities like Mike Love, Donovan or Mia Farrow?

I got to know Donovan better than Mike or Mia. Mia wasn’t around much in those days and Mike wasn’t very friendly with me.

Q: There were many other people at the ashram at that time besides the Beatles. Did you get the feeling that most were there because they were genuinely searching for something or were there some who were there, celebrities or otherwise, because it was ‘the thing to do’ at that time?

I didn’t get the feeling from anyone there that they were there for any reason other than a genuine desire to learn and grow, on a personal and spiritual level.

Q: What was your impression of the Maharishi? He has had his critics and defenders over the years, but given your personal experience with him, did he seem more like a spiritual leader, businessman, or both?

I didn’t have any personal contact with the Maharishi, really. While I was waiting outside the gates he would come out every afternoon and give a press conference for the many radio, television and print journalists who came from all over the world. I got to know his public response to their questions. In the week I spent inside the ashram I sat in on some of the evening lectures he gave to the 60 or so people there to become teachers of meditation.

On the second or third day I was in the ashram, as I finished meditating, Raghvendra came and said it was time for me to meet the Maharishi. I followed him out into the intense Indian sun and walked to the Maharishi's whitewashed bungalow. His house sat in a grove of trees at the edge of the cliff. We walked up the stone path, crossing the well-kept lawn between two small fountains, past flowerbeds filled with yellow and orange marigolds. Several steps led up to a wide porch where we left our sandals. We entered a small, bright meditation room, separate from his private quarters, in back. There was a low dais for the Maharishi and the floor was covered with white futons.

We sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the dais and waited. A few minutes later, voices approached from outside. The door swung open and, after removing their shoes and sandals, John, Paul, Ringo, George, Cynthia, Patti, Maureen, and Jane all came in.

"Hi, Paul, how are you?" asked Ringo.

"Excellent," I said.

"That's what happens here," said George, smiling, as we all sat cross-legged on the floor.

After a moment the Maharishi came in from his room and sat on the dais. He put his palms together and said, "Namaste." with a giggle of joy. We returned the greeting. After some general words of welcome, hoping we were all getting along well, he asked George about the small black tape recorder he'd brought with him. "Is it a new song, George, or shall I recite the Vedas?" the Maharishi giggled again. "A new song," George answered, "I just recorded it in Bombay last month."

George pressed the play button and began to sing along with his recorded voice and music, smiling shyly like a new father as his song, The Inner Light, filled the room. The Maharishi, rolling his prayer beads between his fingers, laughed approvingly.

The Maharishi never did notice me but I didn’t mind at all. Sitting right beside George, listening to him sing, I felt blessed.

Q: Have you had any contact with the Beatles or the Maharishi since 1968?

Last summer, Ringo let me know through his friend, band leader and record producer, Mark Hudson, that he would like one of my photos: The one where he’s wearing his gold Nehru jacket, titled, ‘To The Nines’. My wife, Patricia, and I met Ringo in a rehearsal studio in Manhattan and I presented him with the photograph. He was very dear, friendly, fit and full of fun.

Q: In your book, you describe being present as they worked on songs that would later appear on albums like the White Album and others. Do you still feel a special connection to those particular songs or has that subsided over time? Has it grown over time?

I certainly feel a special connection to all the songs on the White Album that were written in India. At the same time, I love all of their music and that connection has grown over time.

Q: Why did it take so long to tell your story, and what made you decide to produce the gorgeous Limited Edition books you’ve now published?

www.thebeatlesinindia.comWhen I got home from India, I was so blown-away by the magical tool of meditation that I wanted to tell others about it. I was also broke and needed to make some money. So, I wrote one magazine article in Canada about meditation and my experiences meeting the Beatles. I used a few pictures and then felt I didn’t want to do anything else with them. I put the pictures away and literally forgot about them—out of sight, out of mind.

My daughter reminded me of them 30 years later and I did a first book in 2000. For many reasons, including using new photos and new text, including a wonderful Foreword by Donovan, and a beautiful Preface by Tim B. Wride, a celebrated museum curator of photography, as well as using the finest methods to print the pictures as beautifully as they could be done, we decided to do a top-quality, Limited Edition book, ‘The Beatles In India’. We decided to self-publish, even though we had offers from publishers, to give us the freedom to create it as beautifully and with the best fabrics we could find.

The Super-Deluxe version is limited to 350 copies and comes with a museum quality Limited Edition 11x14” photograph as well as an original CD and an original DVD. The Special version is limited to 1968 copies and comes with the CD and the DVD. The CD is exquisite: 11 Beatles songs done instrumentally on Indian sitar and other complementary instruments. The DVD is 90 minutes of material with myself introducing the photos, a slide show, a gallery section, and so on.

Q: Besides meeting the Beatles and other celebrities, what else from that experience has stayed with you?

So much has stayed with me, beyond the Beatles and others I met. I still meditate, though with a different and much more powerful technique. And George truly changed my life when he said, while talking about life, “Like, we’re the Beatles after all, aren’t we? We have all the money you could ever dream of. We have all the fame you could ever wish for. But, it isn't love. It isn't health. It isn't peace inside. Is it?” His words have stayed with me and help me to maintain perspective to this day.

Q: I know that in the past few years, you have once again crossed paths with Donovan. Did the two of you have a chance to reminisce about the experience in Rishikesh and do you keep in touch now?

Yes, Donovan and I are friends now and we have talked about Rishikesh; and, yes, we keep in touch.

Q: In addition to your book, your photos have been widely exhibited, including recent shows in Liverpool, Paris and Milan. What has the reception been like?

The response to the photos has been just wonderful. People often come into the gallery and walk around looking at the Collection with a big smile on their faces. And if they know that I took the pictures, they often come over and share how the Beatles also impacted their lives, and the joy they still feel when they listen to the Beatles.

Q: At your photo exhibits and other public appearances, do the crowds tend to be those who were around during that time or have you also noticed many younger Beatles fans as well?

To me, it’s great to see many, many younger Beatles fans—from 10 years, up. In fact, I’d say we see folks from 10 to 80 years old with many at either end of that spectrum.

Q: In addition to your Beatles-related projects, you are also a filmmaker. What are some of your recent projects?

Right now I am preparing several projects for filming. Between 1975 and 1980 I did a documentary series of 26 shows in 22 countries, focusing on creativity in young people and the passing down of creative traditions from one generation to the next in different cultures. Each film focused on one teenager: From a 16 year-old Chinese gymnast in Shanghai to a 13 year-old photographer in Florida. I am now looking for the funding to go back and film each teenager, now adults, to explore how their creativity, their lives and their cultures have changed.

Q: I know you recently had an opportunity to meet Astrid Kirchherr, famous for her friendship with and photographs of the Beatles. Can you tell us about that experience?

Meeting Astrid was a real treat for me. I have admired her work for many years. We met at a Beatles festival in Berlin 3 years ago. We shook hands and I said, “I’m honored to meet you. I love your photographs of the Beatles.” She smiled very sweetly and said, “I love your photographs, too.” I was a bit shocked. She laughed and said, “Why does that surprise you?” and I said, “I didn’t know you had seen them.” She responded, “Oh, I’ve seen your pictures and I think they’re wonderful”. We continued to talk and she was most lovely, gracious and humble.

Out of respect, I offered her a gift of any of my photos, as many as she wanted. She said her favorite room in her home is her kitchen, and she keeps her favorite things there. She asked for the close-up photo of George, titled, ‘George—1968’ in a modest size. I was very touched and delighted for her to take it home and put it up in her favorite room.

Q: Thinking back, did it ever occur to you while you were having this experience in Rishikesh that more than 35 years later, that event would still be so much a part of your life?

The cool thing is that meeting the Beatles was such serendipity. And, that soon after meeting them I stopped thinking of them as ‘the Beatles’ and truly saw each of them as individuals. Because of this I was experiencing my time at the ashram ‘in the moment’ and never thought of the experience from the outside. So, no, it never occurred to me at the time to actually ‘think’ of what was happening, rather, I was just experiencing it.

Q: I have seen your photos displayed in person and they are stunning, especially the larger prints where the subjects appear larger than life. They are printed using the giclée process. Can you tell us what that is?

Yes, the giclée is a high-quality, archival ink-jet process that gives the image a ‘painterly’ feeling. It is made using a very expensive printer with 360 microscopic ink jets on one mechanical arm. It makes 5 passes, using 8 colors and, in a sense, is like painting the photograph in layers of high quality, archival inks.

We also print small sized editions as Dye-Coupler, or Chromagenic, prints, which are more directed to the serious photographic collectors.

Q: Do you have any upcoming exhibits or public appearances planned?

Thanks for asking. Yes, we will be at the Fest For Beatles Fans in New Jersey, the weekend of March 31 - April 2, 2006. From there I open a gallery show in Argentina in the first week of April. At the beginning of May I’ll be lecturing on ‘The Beatles in India’ at the University of Oklahoma, Music Faculty; the on Memorial Day Weekend we’ll be at Abbey Road on The River in Louisville, Kentucky.

In July we have a show on Long Island and in August we’ll be at the Fest for Beatles Fans in Chicago, followed by taking our show to Beatles Week in Liverpool. Then in September, we have the Beatles Convention in Toronto.

  Photos from 'The Beatles in India' © Paul Saltzman