|Arts, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-10-06 01:45Z by Steven|
The Times of India
Korla Pandit was the first African American to have a TV show to himself – by pretending to be an exotic Indian musician
The story is almost unbelievable. In the US of the 1940s, a light-skinned African American youth discovers his prodigious talent at playing the electric organ. The mystical Orient and all its clichés are in vogue at the time and radio shows like Chandu the Magician and films like Midnight Shadow are the rage, featuring fakirs and assorted Indian exotica. The ambitious African American, John Roland Redd, decides to reinvent himself for the TV music market – as Korla Pandit, the mysterious Indian musician.
Deeply kohled eyes fixed in a hypnotic gaze, a bejewelled turban on his head, Pandit would play the Hammond B2 organ and piano with both virtuosity and theatricality on TV shows. Around him, a stagey exotic east played out – smoky haze, play of light and shade, Oriental dancers undulating in shimmery lehengas and short dhotis.
“I was born in New Delhi, India,” he announced silkily in a TV interview with an anchor seeking the backstory to Pandit (pronounced ‘panned-it’). He was, he claimed, the son of a Brahmin priest and a French opera singer who was sent to the US to study. Pandit reached the peak of his popularity with the ’50s TV show ‘Adventures in Music with Korla Pandit’, where he appeared as some kind of Indian musician-maharaja–swami. What he played on the organ and the piano was called exotica music – the closest it comes to contemporary music is trance or lounge. Before long, he came to be known as the Godfather of Exotica…
…Korla Pandit and Ragini Devi reinvented themselves for different reasons but it is obvious that ethnic impersonations were usually left unquestioned at the time. “There is a long history of ethnic and racial impersonators in American culture,” says University of Michigan scholar Manan Desai. He cites some examples: the African-American pastor Jesse Routte who traveled to Alabama in a turban and was invited into elite white spaces because he was “mistaken” for a foreigner, and Jacob Krantz, an Austrian, who took the name Ricardo Cortez during the Latin lover craze. “Many of these figures were ‘outed’ not very long after. Pandit’s story is unique in that he took this secret to the grave,” says Desai.
Read the entire article here.