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The Indian Enigma on American TV

Television shows and performers supposedly showing the “real” India fed Americans’ fascination for the country in the 1950s and ’60s.

In the 1960s and 1970s young Americans by the thousands became fascinated with India, taking up meditation, studying the sitar and finding myriad ways to approach the subcontinent. What was their first, real-time exposure to India? What did that generation see that led to a fascination with India? For many, it was when they were watching television as children. Young Americans throughout the 1950s and early ’60s were introduced to India while sitting at home watching television. But what India were they getting to know?

Television was one of the wonders of the time. Before TV, the average American seeking to be entertained by motion and sound had to go to the cinema. There, they watched the newsreels for information and movies for entertainment. Television sets meant people could watch the world in their own homes. The screens might have been small and black-and-white, but Americans could now see all the places they had only heard and read about in their living rooms, as they sat on their sofas, eating a newly marketed TV dinner. To have India on TV was like waving a magic wand over the collective American imagination. India had captured that imagination centuries ago.

Yankee traders had visited India since 1785, less than a decade after the United States declared independence from Britain. The voyages became more frequent and in the 1860s, trade with India was a major source of income for many American ports. The Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts has more than 300 log books from sea voyages to India. Despite these ties, for most Americans in the middle of the 20th century the only Indians they had ever “seen” were Mohandas K. Gandhi on a newsreel and Sabu, a film actor.

Sabu, son of a mahout from Mysore, first appeared in the British film Elephant Boy in 1937. He went on to appear in more than 20 films, taking time out from acting to enlist in the U.S. Air Corps during World War II. He served as tail-gunner on a number of combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Unfortunately, he passed away aged just 39 in 1963. Even so, by that time television was providing millions of Americans with a variety of Indian characters. The only problem was that none of them were Indian.

One of the earliest television shows to feature an Indian theme was the children’s show “Andy’s Gang.” Most episodes would see the host settling into an easy chair and reading from a large book titled Andy’s Stories. Most of them were set in India, sort of. The stories revolved around two young friends, Gunga Ram and Rama. The context was supposed to be the India of the 1950s, but the more discerning viewer would have said it appeared more like 1850s India. The stories would typically feature Rama and Gunga Ram having various adventures and eventually solving some problem or the other for the local ruler, the Maharaja of “Bakore.”

“Andy’s Gang” provided the children of America with what was purported to be a view of contemporary India, but Gunga Ram and Rama’s adventures had little to do with the real India.

Both characters were played by Italian Americans—Vito Scotti and Nino Marcel. Scotti had spent most of his childhood in Naples, Italy. Lou Krugman played the Maharaja of Bakore.

Clearly, Americans who watched “Andy’s Gang” weren’t seeing much of India when they were treated to the adventures of Gunga Ram and Rama. Most of the action scenes were shot just outside Los Angeles, though the show also used some stock footage from the real India. The overall impression young Americans would have come away with was of a country where people harvested teak with elephants. India was portrayed as a country sans modern conveniences, with multiple maharajas’ palaces guarded by mounted lancers. It was undoubtedly exotic but hardly a total picture of India circa 1955.

For the American who wanted to see life in the India of the late 1800s, there was the TV program “Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers.” The show revolved around the adventures of three officers in a fictional Indian cavalry regiment during the British Raj. But the storylines and plots were the same as a western. The clue lay in the way it was described—as an eastern—or, as one reviewer said, “a western where the cavalry wore helmets and the Indians wore turbans.” But at least one of the leading characters was the nationality of the character he played. Colonel Standish was played by Patrick Whyte, an Irishman who had served in the Indian Army in the last days of the Raj. That was as close to authenticity as the series would get. The two lieutenants were played by Americans, one whose character was supposedly Canadian, perhaps because the actor who played him was from New Jersey and could not be coached to produce a credible British accent. The Indian characters were probably played by American actors of Italian, Greek, Jewish or Native American origin.

The production quality was fairly high for a TV show of its time. Screen Gems Productions supposedly spent $120,000 on reconstructing a period fort. At today’s prices, that would be more than $800,000. This was a substantial sum to spend on the setting for a weekly television show. But the fort wasn’t in India; it was near Vasquez Rocks, a park in northern Los Angeles County. The Vasquez Rocks have often been used as a film set (for the Star Trek movies and the 2009 film A Single Man), for television programs and music videos, (including “Rehab” by Rihanna and Justin Timberlake). Twenty-six episodes of “Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers” were produced and broadcast during the 1956-57 season. A respected series, it was nominated for an Emmy. For many young Americans the program represented the exotic East, but at least it never purported to show the real India. Viewers knew that it wasn’t filmed in India, any more than “Gunsmoke,” a popular western, was filmed in 1870s Dodge City.

But this honesty was absent from another show, “Korla Pandit’s Adventures in Music.” It claimed it was hosted by a real Indian, who represented the mystery and mysticism of India. Pandit claimed he was born in New Delhi and was the son of a Brahmin priest and a French opera singer. He claimed he had been educated in England and moved to the United States. He appeared to personify all that America expected of an Indian musician, a mix of Deepak Chopra and Ravi Shankar. His program consisted of him staring dreamily into the camera while he used the piano and organ to perform “Favorites of yours and mine, played on the ‘Heartstrings of Time’.” Mostly, he relied on the “universal language of music” to communicate with his audience. He never spoke during the program, but his aphorisms were collected, including his observation: “In India we believe that music never dies, but ever materializes into beautiful forms.”

He became one of early television’s first superstars. Female admirers would send him pianos and millions of viewers would tune in to watch him perform his “music of the Exotic East” along with a blend of waltzes, tangos, cha-cha-chas and tunes of the ’40s and ’50s, with the occasional classic such as Claire de Lune or The Swan thrown in for good measure. Pandit was known for playing both his favorite instruments—the Hammond organ and piano—simultaneously, working the piano with his right hand and the organ with his left.

An adept performer, he had started out composing theme songs for radio programs like “Chandu the Magician.” He also performed on a number of other artists’ recordings, including records by the Sons of the Pioneers, a group once led by one of TV’s famous cowboys, Roy Rogers. But Pandit’s real calling was presenting the East to the West. As he said: “Music is the golden union of East and West.” For millions of Americans he presented a taste of India’s mystical traditions. In some ways, he prepared people for the New Age that was to follow, with his philosophical exhortation: “Love and respect yourself, and be aware of yourself. Then we can begin to visualize the state we are seeking and feel the reality of it. Then relax, and it will come to pass. Let go, let God, and you can be changed.”

Pandit’s teachings arguably paved the way for the Beatles to sing “All You Need is Love” and the popularity of the maharishis, gurus, pirs and rinpoches who attracted a whole generation of young Americans. Another expression attributed to Pandit, “I do not like to use labels, because labels become liable,” might have been a clue to the Pandit mystery. He had no connection to India at all.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri his real name was John Roland Redd. That was probably as far east as he had traveled. He belonged to a family of musicians and ministers and as a young man, elected to follow his musical side. By the time he was 17, he was making a living as an organist in Iowa. Soon after, he followed his sister to California, where like so many young people before and after him, he reinvented himself.
It was in California that Norma Jean Baker became Marilyn Monroe, Ramon Estevez was reborn as Martin Sheen, Marion Michael Morrison found fame and fortune as John Wayne, Allen Konigsberg metamorphosed into Woody Allen and Thomas Mapother IV wowed the world as Tom Cruise. John Redd was no different. Soon after he arrived in California he started to remake himself.

Racism was endemic at the time, so he may have had more reason than most to reinvent himself. In the 1940s Los Angeles, opportunities for African Americans were extremely limited. Redd first changed his name to Juan Rolando, implying a Hispanic background. Shortly after that, he married and created the Pandit character with his new bride. They concocted more than the name. They created the history and the story of Pandit, the turban-wearing, musical mystic from India. Perhaps it was the ingenious craftsmanship, perhaps it was an unslaked American thirst to be entertained by India, but Pandit became a huge success, performing on more than 900 television programs, continuing to perform right up to his death.

It wasn’t until 1967 that an American television show was produced in the real India, using real Indian actors. Titled “Maya,” it was about an American boy who teams up with an Indian friend and his elephant (Maya) to find his missing, presumed dead, father. It offered American audiences a look at the real India and real Indians—actors Sajid Khan, Iftekhar, Prem Nath and I.S. Johar. Unfortunately, it lasted just 18 episodes because of production costs.

But by the time “Maya” was broadcast, young Americans did not need television to explore India. Both the Beatles and Rolling Stones had used a sitar on popular recordings. The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” featured the instrument on the LP “Rubber Soul” in 1965. A year later, Rolling Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones used the sitar in “Paint It, Black.” By then Ravi Shankar had played at the Monterey Pop Festival in California and “head shops” all over the country were selling sandalwood incense, Indian print bedspreads and Rajasthani mirror work. There was a steady stream of young people headed to Rishikesh and Goa, looking for enlightenment, drugs and themselves.
The stream hasn’t stopped since, broadening into a river that takes in academics, artists, businesspeople and seekers of all kinds. But the start of America’s fascination with India was neither so promising—nor real.


Michael Macy is the cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.