Turban image by Shadan Ali from Pixabay
Turban image by Shadan Ali from Pixabay

How the “Indian Liberace” Korla Pandit Swept Hollywood

Were it not for Hollywood credence Korla Pandit – who could only realize himself by pretending not to be who he was – would have been little more than Missouri snake oil.

Time was when the name “Korla Pandit” would rouse nearly indecent excitement from any Southern Californian housewife of a certain age.

He was one of six children born in 1921 in New Delhi to a Brahmin government official and a French opera singer. He hailed from the lofty Pandit family, related on his sister’s side to Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. When his father spied him playing his own piano compositions at age three, he was shuttled between tutors to England and to the University of Chicago. He liked the organ for the range of moods it could convey.

As an adult he moved to Los Angeles and worked the clubs in an ever-fresh suit and turban. He played with Roy Rodgers’ faux-hillbilly group, Sons of the Pioneers, under the name “Cactus Pandit”. By 1948 he was playing the Novachord on a revival of the 30’s radio drama “Chandu the Magician”.

That year, playing a furrier’s fashion show at Tom Breneman’s restaurant he met Klaus Landsberg, a cracked-out and entrepreneurial German electrical engineer. Landsberg developed the first televised Olympic games (Berlin, 1936) and telegraphic radar; he leaked a classified Nazi secret about navigation to the American government. He designed the television in New York in 1939 and ran a Paramount-funded experimental television station in Los Angeles in the early ’40s (W6XYZ, later KTLA). He invented televised pro wrestling and the helicopter car chase. Indeed, Landsberg was a founding father of television entertainment in the days when it was regarded merely as visual radio. He offered Korla his own show on two conditions: he would play gratis on Landsberg’s puppet show Time for Beany, and he wouldn’t speak a word.

Korla Pandit’s Adventures in Music aired in 1949. It was the first all-music television program. There are over 900 episodes and nothing like it before or since. Korla was unquestionably and unusually gifted: he played viewer-requested supper-club show-tunes, Hawaiian war chants, and reeling ragas while pounding the organ with open palms for percussive effect. The organ then was authoritatively akin to the harmonica, suited only for weddings and roller rinks. At a time when the only Indian personality the country had seen was the actor Sabu, Korla looked, sounded, and acted just different enough to attract and just engaging enough to suspend viewers.

In the early ’50s, television shows appeared on small screens and were blurred. As in no other program, the lens sustained extreme closeups to establish a dramatic arc, panning slowly, tensely, and clearly back from the jewel on Korla’s turban, to his bedroom doe-eyes, to his frenetic, flowing fingers, to dancers appearing over his shoulder. There were chains of vaguely “ethnic” women swaying tasseled saris like opiated Rockettes. There was dancer Bhupesh Gupta (no relation to the Indian Communist Party head), a shirtless and gilded loincloth-bound performer whose rocking, extremity-extending, spine-rolling whirls uncannily foretell Merce Cunningham‘s dance repertoire 20 years later. Korla could have made no better choice than silence; his high voice squeaked and soiled the mystique. By and large, his fans were bored white housewives. For a sacred and stupefying 15 minutes every weekday afternoon, he stirred them to a hazier, sultrier place far from their kitchens, prams, and ironing boards.

By 1951 he was so loved that he played on an organ covered in flowers on his own Rose Bowl float. He befriended Bob Hope and Errol Flynn. Any swinging Hollywood party likely saw him. Despite his sparse filmography (typecast as a Hindu in George Stevens’ Something to Live For (1952) ,and later in Michael Schultz’s Which Way is Up? 1977), his fabricated legend held early-’50s Southern California in thrall. One woman on the edge of killing herself saw him on television and was so moved she sent him a piano. However kitschy the tunes, he shot American pop with a visceral rhythm and non-Western counterpoint for which there was no room on the rest of the charts. A biopic released in 2015 deems him the “godfather of exotica”.

When he began playing above his pay grade, he left KTLA for Louis Snader. Snader produced proto-MTV syndicated “telescriptions”, 4-minute 16mm musical films sent to televisions stations to plug or use as filler. His other clients numbered Nat King Cole and Lionel Hampton, who was lauded in a July 1950 issue of Billboard as the first musical icon on video film. Korla’s name spread nationwide. Landsberg and later Snader replaced Korla with another gaudy nightclub keyboard player: Liberace. He had the same sets, the same crew, the same fourth-wall-piercing stare, and a shared repertoire. Korla deemed him a ‘bordello player” who had “stolen his act”.

An act it was. In 2001 the writer RJ Smith published “The Many Faces of Korla Pandit” (Los Angeles Magazine), detailing findings inadvertently bared while researching a book about Black musicians in the ’40s Los Angeles tiki-lounge scene. A bebop pianist he interviewed, Sir Charles Thompson, mentioned a musician he had grown up with in Columbia, Missouri named John Roland Redd. Twenty years later he switched on the television and saw him with a turban, a suit, and a Hammond B3. Smith went to Columbia, pulling records. He discovered that Redd was one of six kids in a family of reverends and musicians. He had hypnotic eyes and an acute reserve in all things but boogie-woogie piano. A head Ku Klux Klan member was so enthralled by his music that he had Redd, age six, play a gathering.

One of his sisters, Francis, was a Los Angeles actress. She starred in George Randal’s Midnight Shadow (1939), an all-black film in which an African American man played a turbaned Muslim Indian. Redd followed her to flee Jim Crow and seek fame. Barred from the well-paid white musicians’ union, he was limited to Central Avenue clubs. Mexican acts, however, were up for grabs during the Latin lounge craze. He grew a mustache and played under the name Juan Rolando (John Roland). His soft mien drew you, if only not to miss a note.

He met his wife Beryl in 1944, who was rooming with his sister. They got hitched in Tijuana; interracial marriage was illegal in California. She worked in the special effects department at Disney. And she made Korla. He professed Hinduism (never mind that Hindus don’t wear turbans, and Sikhs wear none with a jewel front-and-center). When Indians greeted him, he’d apologetically refrain: it was long since he’d been home and his dialect had degraded. He insisted that Beryl do his blank and kohl-eyed makeup (arrestingly like a Bad-era Michael Jackson) and keep him from the madding crowd. They had two sons: Shari and Koram; the latter renamed himself John. Korla’s family insisted on the lie down to his obituaries. Necessity verged on the somewhat unnecessary and surely unethical: he kept his children in the dark as to their identity.

Consequently, he had no network. When Korla’s fame plateaued in the mid-’50s, he moved his family to the Mission District of San Francisco and briefly to Sausalito. He had a live show for one year on Channel 7. He signed with the San Francisco record label Fantasy, boasting a lucrative arsenal of groovy freaks like Dave Brubeck, Allen Ginsberg, and Lenny Bruce. He belched 15 exotica albums in five years. It was, after all, the age of Martin Denny. He befriended Paramahansa Yogananda, the Autobiography of a Yogi author who shared Korla’s perennially glinty gaze. Yogananda wrote the liner notes for one of Korla’s albums. Korla played his funeral.

Korla’s association with Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship backed his guru status; he lectured freewheeling churches and geriatric self-actualization societies about the “universal language of music”. He talked incessantly and emotionally, which he blamed on the fact that he was never allowed to speak on screen. His organ’s constant buzzing drone induced a light, sedating trance in every hearer. Even the starchiest matrons regarded him with what new-age musician Steven Halpern insisted was “sublimated sexuality”, beguiled by a core vibration they had never before experienced. The fact that Korla’s music moved Eastern as much as Western fans was as concrete an example of the hip ideal of musical brotherhood as California had ever seen.

The applause tailed off. He struggled as a concert musician. One early-’60s flyer touts a Korla Pandit afternoon concert “AT YOUR NEW TIBURON SAFEWAY STORE”, another at the Armijo High School Auditorium in Fairfield. In the ’70s he played the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, blasting the ratty red-velvet room with incense and minor pentatonics; it was a dumpy but warm echo of his lounge beginnings. He played with the Cramps in the ’80s and the Muffs in the ’90s. One devotee named Ruth Dresser had a four-manual Wurlitzer and often hosted Korla concerts in her Malibu villa. 

This backwater resurgence led to a cameo as himself in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) biopic. His colleagues held surreally and indeterminately sincere early-’50s television fringe acts, from the flamboyantly psychic Amazing Criswell to the campily stolid Vampira. Korla died of heart failure in 1998 in a Petaluma hospital. He last played Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco, where he received a standing ovation in a sold-out house. 

It is a testament to his guise’s aid that this turbaned sideshow commanded sponsors while Nat King Cole at his peak had none, and Lassie the dog had droves. It is for worse and better: if a vacuum of transparency allows for cultural pretension, it allows for cultural appropriation. It need not be reminded that Korla made his fame on an Orientalist trope. He was not impelled by choice, however, but constrained by necessity, denying himself to play in rooms he would only have been able to enter with a bucket and mop. It would have been criminal to let up the act, and ruinous long after the fame faded.

He was the first African-American man to star in his own television show (Ethel Waters preceded him by a decade). He could only have realized himself by pretending not to be who he was. Carlos Santana noted that Miles Davis later used the same percussive Indian drone melodies as Korla, often down to the note. The only thing more confounding than hiding himself must have been the nationwide love and fame he received for it. His narcotic Svengali persona formed an emotional intimacy with viewers where a Black man would have been beaten or jailed for the same.

I first discovered Pandit in the Mission. I was 17, and I stumbled into a movie house with a friend to evade a cop. Despite the jug of cheap wine we were swilling, it’s one of my clearest memories—the foam velvet seat-back bristling my arm, the lowering lights, and the black airlifting to soot and silver. It was a Snader film. He was pecking “Miserlou” on two organs at a right angle, at once insistent and languorous, calm and raptured, his eyes ungiving and unyielding. He’d pound the frame between beats like a tabla. I didn’t breathe and he didn’t blink. I had not known before that posturing could create as much as it could hide a life.

Ten years before his death, Korla said that the success of his persona did not render it valid but “invincible”: “If the end brings me out right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten thousand angels swearing that I was right would make no difference.” No wonder his image endures not in the realm of music or television, but in film. The logic is the same.

Often the “true” version of a film is not necessarily the first nor the newest, neither the most uncut nor the most reworked (look only to the oeuvre of Orson Welles). The creator’s intention is not necessarily the final word; he is often misguided or (in the case of Welles) self-contradictory. The valid image is not the uncorrupted one but that which, corrupted, remains that image. We leave the legitimacy of a work to critical consensus, forged painfully and pedantically among the public upper-crust over time. Were it not for Hollywood credence, Korla would have been Missouri snake oil. The lens which reveals a man invents him. This chintzy, confounding celluloid sham, beyond time and without gravity, is unimaginable in the Internet age.

If a name begins with others, however, it does not end with them. Again: “If the end brings me out right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten thousand angels swearing that I was right would make no difference.” It is a negative view of legitimacy, more superficial and more realistic: not as something the world bestows upon you but as something it cannot take away. If a man is what he pretends to be, it is because he is a liar or lunatic, falsely believed or truly unheard. Korla proved that, in the end, it amounts to the same. He became who he said he was because he left a lie. He left a lie because he could not otherwise speak at all. The mask (or turban, as the case may be) grows to fit the head.


Works Cited

Bhatt, Kamla. “John Turner on Korla Pandit”. Kamla Show. 9 February 2017. YouTube. 26:18.

Bradner, Liesl. “How a Black Man from Missouri Transformed Himself into the Indian Liberace”. The New Republic. 12 September 2015.

Turner, John. Korla. Alamo Films. 2015.

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