In 1971 when the people of Bangladesh were fighting her name was being written in the history of world rock music. Concert for Bangladesh was organized in the 70s, before the large benefit concerts like Live Aid, Farm Aid, and Concert for Kampuchea, etc. It is considered to be the first large-scale charity concert. Through the Concert for Bangladesh, countless people came to know the crisis in Bangladesh overnight. This concert played a great role in shaping world public opinion for Bangladesh, during the war of liberation. The men behind this noble act were Sitar player Pandit Ravi Shankar and the Quiet Beatle guitarist George Harrison.

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at the press conference of the Concert for Bangladesh
George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at the press conference of the Concert for Bangladesh; Source: Scarry Thoughts

Due to devastating storm and cyclone at Bhola in 1970 as well as war and genocide in 1971, there was scarcity around the country, and this made millions of people flee to seek refuge in neighboring India. About one crore people took refuge. Most of the refugees were women and children, where there was a lack of adequate food and medical care. Diseases like Cholera took the form of epidemics; people were dying every day and the infant mortality rate was increasing gradually. Despite this situation, the government of the United States helped Pakistan (then West Pakistan) in all ways, including arms.

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s ancestral home was in Norail, a south-western district of Bangladesh. During his stay in the United Kingdom, Pandit Ravi Shankar came to know about the situation of Bangladesh, from various newspapers and magazines. He could not hold steady at this critical situation of his native land. And so he wanted to do something for Bangladesh. His plan was to organize a charity concert to raise at least 25,000 USD. He told his friend and disciple George Harrison about the crisis in Bangladesh and his plans for a concert. He asked for Harrison’s help in organizing it.

The miserable situation in Bangladesh also moved Harrison. So he responded to his friend’s call and started working for the concert. In his book, I, Me, Mine; Harrison has written about how he confirmed the presence of musicians for the Concert for Bangladesh by telephone over the next three months. Only the Ringo Starr attended the concert among the former Beatles. John Lennon was supposed to join but did not. Harrison invited more artists, including Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, and rock band Badfinger, to attend the concert.

When the preparation was almost at the end, Harrison and Ravi Shankar announced the Concert for Bangladesh at a press conference on July 27. On the same day, Harrison released his song Bangla Desh, informing the world about the crisis in Bangladesh.

Lyrics of Bangla Desh by George Harrison
Lyrics of Bangla Desh by George Harrison; Compilation: Tanvir Ahmed Abir

On August 1, 1971, the historic Concert for Bangladesh was held at Madison Square Garden in New York. Two concerts were held that day – the first at 2:30 pm and the second at 6:00 pm. The line-up of famous stars at the Concert for Bangladesh was called ‘Super Group’. The lineup included George Harrison, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Alla Rakha, Kamala Chakravarty, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, Badfinger, Bob Dylan, and many more musicians. An amazing thing happened outside Madison Square that day. Where the US government was providing financial and military assistance to Pakistan in the war, the people of that very country were raising money for Bangladesh of their own accord, outside the concert venue.

Harrison thanked the audience for attending the Concert for Bangladesh and then the concert began with the performance of Indian classical music by Pandit Ravi Shankar and his team. They played Bangla Dhun and other performances specially made for the concert. They were given a short break after a 45-minute performance. During the break, footage of atrocities and natural disasters in Bangladesh taken by a Dutch TV channel was screened. This footage gave the audience a practical image of the crisis in Bangladesh. This was followed by a performance by Harrison, accompanied by 18 other musicians, including Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton (who was ill), Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Klaus Voormann, and Jim Keltner. It was the first concert performance by Harrison and Clapton after a break of several years. Then there was the almost uncertain Dylan’s performance. The first concert ended with Harrison’s song ‘Bangla Desh’.

Within a few hours all the tickets for the first concert were sold out and everyone, including Harrison and Dylan, did the second concert with great enthusiasm. The second concert had some changes in the performance list. But again, all the concert tickets were sold out, and at the end of the concert, Dylan told Harrison, “Maybe we could have done one more concert.”

Poster of Concert for Bangladesh DVD
Poster of Concert for Bangladesh DVD; Source:

Pandit Ravi Shankar thought it would be possible to raise at least 25,000 USD from Concert for Bangladesh, but at the end of the two concerts, 243,418.50 USD was raised. The fund raised from the concert was handed over to UNICEF on 12 August, which was used to distribute relief supplies to the refugee camps. Not only has it been possible to raise money from the Concert for Bangladesh, but the concert has played a huge role also in shaping world public opinion. The concert drew the attention of the world, where there were only a handful of reports in the international media. Ravi Shankar said about the concert, “Everybody knew the name of Bangladesh overnight- it was a miracle.”

George Harrison, Pandit Ravi Shankar, and all the artists of the Super Group stood together for humanity. If this concert had not been arranged millions of refugees might have to die in a foreign land with the dream of returning to an independent land of their own. Without this concert, Bangladesh might not have grained any support from the western world in the liberation war. When I was in school, I first came to know about Concert for Bangladesh through a tribute show. It has been several years since any such event. Today many of our generation have forgotten what Concert for Bangladesh is. And many of this generation do not know about it. Will we let this huge contribution of music in our struggle of freedom fade away?

Translation: Aliduzzaman Biswas
Student, University of Dhaka
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