In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how the legacy of this spiritual freedom enables artists to make creative work as part of their practices.
The year is 1949, and the place is a housewife's home in suburban Los Angeles. On a local TV channel, a sexy, mysterious man in a turban soulfully plays the organ, wooing viewers while wordlessly delivering notes of the distinctly American sounds of early "exotica" music. Yet while he was known as Korla Pandit, the man in the turban was not, as he claimed, the New Delhi-born son of a Hindu Brahman and a French soprano. Instead, he was John Redd, the Missouri-born African American son of a reverend growing up in the midst of segregation. A new documentary called Korla tells Pandit's fascinating story, and illustrates just how someone with charisma, talent, ingenuity, and conviction can transcend his epigenetic inheritance by forging a new identity, ultimately becoming who he believed he was all along.
For 35 years, John Turner worked in the news department at a San Francisco TV station. After retiring, he set out to work on a feature documentary with co-director Eric Christensen about Korla Pandit, which took nearly four years to make. The film includes a variety of intimate interviews with original Pandit fans as well as scholars and contemporary musicians who continue to be influenced by Pandit's legacy. Yet as the film reveals, behind the carefully crafted persona of Korla Pandit was a sincerely spiritual man who not only used music as a force for unity, but was also deeply influenced by LA's spiritual heritage.
"Korla devoted much of his time on and off the stage to promoting what he called 'the universal language of music,' a harmonic blessing from spirit sources, expressing universal love through tonal vibrations from an ethereal place," Turner tells The Creators Project. "Korla's spiritual side, drawn from being raised in a Baptist household, congealed in Los Angeles, where he became friends with Manly Palmer Hall, the founder of the Philosophical Research Society. Korla often lectured there, stressing the blending of cosmic and musical unity. There were quite a few people I talked to, from record producers to fans, who were impressed with Korla's sincerity and his devotion to his message."
Though Korla Pandit became the musician's final identity, it was not the first he created. In the mid-40s, he played the organ on local radio stations and in various clubs as Juan Rolando.
"In the beginning, when I started out on television, the organ did not have much approval in the entertainment industry," Pandit is quoted in the film. "It was something like the harmonica. There were few exceptions. They either associated it with church and weddings and things, or they thought of it as a soap opera or skating rink. So I said, 'The organ can do anything that the orchestra can do [...] And we made it an entertainment unit."
Author of The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance, R.J. Smith was conducting an interview with Sir Charles Thompson when he made the surprising discovery that Korla Pandit was actually John Redd from Columbia, Missouri. "There are a lot of reasons for reinventing yourself in Hollywood," Smith says in the film. "Maybe your name was too ethnic, or too Polish or something, and you wanted to appeal to mass audiences in a way that studios felt comfortable—the way Bernie Schwartz became Tony Curtis. Maybe you had a history that you didn't want people to know about. Maybe you just wanted a fresh start. But Hollywood was the place where you could get a fresh start."
After he married Beryl June DeBeeson, Korla Pandit was "born," perhaps partially in an effort to avoid the hateful stigma behind interracial marriage at the time. As Korla Pandit, the musician was able to comfortably appear in public with with his wife and have a family, all the while making music and hobnobbing with the likes of Bob Hope and Errol Flynn.
"With his hypnotic Svengali look, reaching through the television into housewives' homes—white housewives' homes in Southern California, then other places in the country—he was establishing an emotional, intimate connection, as an Indian," Smith says. "If an African American man had established that kind of connection, he would have been beaten, thrown into a police car. Bad things would have happened."
So Pandit wore a turban and maintained that he was a Hindu. But in India, only Sikhs wear turbans, and not with a big fat jewel dangling from the proverbial third eye. Pandit would also make it a point to avoid people who were really from India for fear of discovery. The real persona lay beneath, but few bothered to look for it while he was alive. Still, it seems the fact that he was able to take this secret to his grave, and may or may not have hidden it from his own children, is eclipsing his true legacy as an unofficial yogi who proselytized the power and vibration of the universal language of love and music.
Over the course of his music career, Pandit issued over 20 albums, 15 of which were recorded in five years. But in the 1970s, Pandit found himself working odd gigs in places such as grocery stores and pizzerias. In 1994, he appeared as himself in a cameo in Tim Burton's biopic, Ed Wood. But throughout his life, Pandit never lost his love for music or his devotion to Paramhansa Yogananda, who once wrote the liner notes for one of Pandit's songs, and for whom Pandit performed at the guru's funeral.
"While it was the Beat writers who brought Buddhism to a wider American audience, it was Paramhansa Yogananda who introduced the sister religion of yoga to Hollywood through his teachings at the Self-Realization Temple of All Religions," Turner says. "It was there in 1953 that Korla gave a concert at which Yogananda said, 'It has been my great dream from childhood to see the best of Eastern and Western music given to the world so that they can find that there is a universal music which can interpret all. When I saw Korla Pandit playing on television, I was so happy, I rejoiced like a little child that the contact had come.'"