Srinagar, Dec. 13: Listening to Ravi Shankar play the sitar in a houseboat on a placid Dal Lake for a whole week would be any music lover’s dream.
Ghulam Rasool Dar has little interest in music but the maestro’s death has brought the memories flooding back to the frail and elderly Dal Lake boatman.
Dar was just 19 when, 46 years ago, “Panditji” and Beatle George Harrison checked in at the shikara where he still works.
“I was shocked when I learnt about his death yesterday and so was my uncle Rahman (a fellow employee of the houseboat owner),” said Dar, 65, who is lovingly called “Lassa” by his guests.
“They stayed at our houseboat for days and we got to see their human side. They were polite, down to earth and behaved so well with all of us.”
The year was 1966. Harrison had initially come to Mumbai, along with wife Pattie, to seek Ravi Shankar’s tutelage but when crowds of fans came to see the pop star at Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the trio decided to move to a quieter place.
So they landed up in Srinagar’s Naseem Bagh locality and moved into Clermont, a fleet of five houseboats owned by Ghulam Mohammad Butt.
“I enjoyed my stay in the Clermont houseboat with all the peace and beauty around,” Ravi Shankar wrote in the visitors’ book after the weeklong stay.
Harrison’s entry reads: “To Mr Butt — with thanks, a very peaceful stay at Clermont. Special thanks to Rahman — served us exceptionally well. Wife and I were whelmed by all.”
Dar vividly remembers how the guests spent their days in the shikara.
“They would sit for hours plucking the strings of their sitars. During sunrise and sunset, they wanted to enjoy the more peaceful settings —and what better place than the middle of the Dal Lake?” he said.
“I would row the boat every morning and evening, sometimes for an hour and sometimes for two, and they would be busy with their sitar. All they wanted from me was that I row the boat gently so that they were not disturbed.”
Dar did not then realise how famous Ravi Shankar was. “But later I would see him often on television and would proudly tell my family that I spent a lot of time with him.”
Manzoor Butt, grandson of Ghulam Mohammad Butt and co-owner of Clermont, said his grandfather took care of all the visitors’ needs during their stay.
“This place (Naseem Bagh) was like heaven those days. There was hardly any traffic on the roads nearby and the water of the Dal was crystal-clear,” he said.
“Panditji would meditate in the mornings. He asked my grandfather to take him to any spiritual person in the Valley. He then took them all to Sufi saint Lassi Sahib’s residence at Ladhua (south Kashmir). My grandfather would often tell me how much the guests enjoyed the visit.”
The song Within You Without You in the Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is believed to have been inspired by Harrison’s Dal Lake trip. For years afterwards, many Beatles fans from abroad would come and visit Naseem Bagh and stay at Clermont.