Today (August 1) marks the 50th anniversary of ‘The Concert for Bangladesh,’ a pair of benefit concerts organised by former Beatles guitarist George Harrison and Indian sitar legend Ravi Shankar. The shows took place at the prestigious Madison Square Garden in New York City, to raise international awareness of, and fund relief for refugees from East Pakistan, following the Bangladesh Liberation War-related genocide.
The idea of such an event first came to legendary Indian musician Ravi Shankar who had ancestral roots in Bangladesh’s Jessore district.
Appalled at the situation affecting his homeland Ravi Shankar first brought the issue to the attention of his friend George Harrison in the early months of 1971, over dinner at Friar Park.
In late June of 1971, the Sunday Times in London had just published an influential article by Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas, which exposed the full horror of the Bangladesh atrocities, and a distraught Shankar approached Harrison again for help in trying to alleviate the suffering.
Harrison later talked of spending "three months" on the phone organising ‘The Concert for Bangladesh,’ implying that efforts were underway from late April onwards. Then the star-studded event took place on August 1 of 1971.
Decades later, Shankar told the press of the overwhelming success of the event: "In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh. It was a fantastic occasion."
In a 1992 interview, George Harrison told the press: “The money we raised was secondary. The main thing was, we spread the word and helped get the war ended ... What we did show was that musicians and people are more humane than politicians.”
The charity event was the first of its kind benefit in such a magnitude and featured a supergroup of performers that included Harrison, fellow ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger.
In addition, Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, both of whom had ancestral roots in Bangladesh, performed an opening set of Indian classical music.
‘The Concert for Bangladesh’ was even satirised in the globally popular animated show ‘The Simpsons.’ Season 10’s episode 14 titled "I'm With Cupid" showcased Apu's record collection contains ‘The Concert Against Bangladesh,’ which features a picture of a mushroom cloud on the cover, reflecting Indian−Pakistani nuclear rivalry in the region.
This was highly criticised by Bangladeshis residing in the US at that time.
The concerts were attended by a total of 40,000 people, and the initial gate receipts raised close to $250,000 for Bangladesh relief, which was administered by UNICEF.
Eric Clapton performs in 'The Concert for Bangladesh' | Photo: IMDb
‘The Concert for Bangladesh’ is recognised as a highly successful and influential humanitarian aid project, generating both awareness and considerable funds during the Bangladesh Liberation War crisis as well as providing valuable lessons and inspiration for projects like Live Aid.
From left, George Harrison and Bob Dylan perform in 'The Concert for Bangladesh' | Photo: IMDb
By 1985, through revenue raised from the Concert for Bangladesh live album and film, an estimated $12 million had been sent to Bangladesh, and sales of the live album and DVD release of the film continue to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.
Ravi Shankar performs a raga at 'The Concert for Bangladesh' | Photo: IMDb
American music magazine Billboard described the artists' performances as "their best music ever" and commented on the concerts: "there is no politics involved. What is involved is starving children and for once, relief through 35 musicians who should represent the feeling of anyone who loves their music."
After 50 years, Bangladeshi people still fondly remember and honours the contribution Shankar and Harrison made. The global press coverage of 'The Concert for Bangladesh' put the country's name and its humanitarian crisis during the Liberation War across the planet. It will always remain a shining example of what a few people's goodwills can achieve.