Two concerts took place on that date, in the afternoon and evening. They were charity fundraisers in aid of Bengali refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War. The Concert for Bangladesh paved the way for future charity rock concerts such as Live Aid.
The shows starred Harrison, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and Eric Clapton. It marked the first time Harrison and Starr had shared a bill since 29 August 1966, although The Beatles had played live on the Apple rooftop in January 1969.
Other musicians included the members of Badfinger, Klaus Voormann, Claudia Lennear, Jesse Ed Davis, and Jim Keltner.
The borders of Bangladesh had been drawn in 1947 during the partition of the British Indian Empire, which resulted in the creation of two states, India and Pakistan. Eastern Bengal became part of the new state of Pakistan, despite the two regions being over 1,000 from each other and separated by India. The area now known as modern-day Bangladesh was initially termed East Bengal, and later East Pakistan.
Political power was concentrated in West Pakistan, and many in East Pakistan became increasingly aggrieved by perceived economic exploitation. The Bhola cyclone of November 1970 had killed an estimated 500,000 people in East Pakistan and West Bengal, displacing hundreds of thousands more.
In March 1971 an election, won by the East Pakistani party the Awami League, was ignored by the West Pakistani establishment, leading to rising discontent and nationalism, and brutal suppression by West Pakistan.
The violent crackdown led to the Awami League declaring East Pakistan’s independence on 26 March 1971 as the state of Bangladesh. The Pakistani government ordered the military to restore order, beginning the Bangladesh Liberation War. The military crackdown led to widespread atrocities including the genocide of hundreds of thousands of people and the systematic and widespread rape of Bengali women.
There was also sectarian violence by Bengali nationalists against minority groups, mainly Biharis, with up to 500,000 murdered. An estimated 30 million people were displaced during the conflict, and 8-10 million sought refuge in India.
India entered the war on 3 December, following preemptive Pakistani air strikes on the north of the country. The war on two fronts overwhelmed Pakistani forces, who surrendered in Dacca on 16 December 1971.
Ravi Shankar was in Los Angeles during the war, recording the soundtrack to the film Raga. The musician, whose father had been born in eastern Bengal, was both shaken by the unfolding tragedy and perplexed by Western indifference.
I was in Los Angeles, I was staying there then, when all this happened. I was reading and getting news on television about the terrible tragedy, the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to Calcutta, and their plight. The whole thing was so horrible yet almost nobody knew about it. I was in this terrible state of mind when George came to LA for a few days.
Behind The Locked Door, Graeme Thomson
Raga was a documentary about Shankar’s life and music, produced and directed by Howard Worth. The production was beset by financial problems before Harrison enlisted help from The Beatles’ company Apple. Harrison produced the soundtrack album and helped promote the film, in which he also appeared. In June 1971 he joined Shankar in LA to work on the album.
It must have been in 1971 when I was in Los Angeles doing the Raga soundtrack album. Ravi was talking to me and telling me how he wanted to do a concert, but bigger than he normally did, so that he could raise maybe 25,000 dollars for the starving in Bangla Desh. He asked if I could think of some way of helping, say for instance for me to come on and introduce it or maybe bring in Peter Sellers… something to help, anyway.
Then he started to give me cuttings from magazines and newspapers, articles on the war and the poverty and I began to learn what it was about, and I though ‘well, maybe I should help him do it’.
The Beatles had been trained to the view that if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it big and why not make a million dollars.
I Me Mine
Harrison composed and recorded the non-album single ‘Bangla Desh’, to raise awareness and funds for the Bangladeshi refugees. It was recorded in LA on 4 and 5 July 1971, and released later that month, just days before 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