How one man used the mystique of Orientalism to create for himself an identity
that helped him evade segregation, marry the woman he loved, and become
a respected musician.
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.
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.
Today, all too many Indians who are unqualified to be spiritual teachers re-invent themselves as holy folk and gain tax exemption.
John Redd/Korla was a man who wanted to marry and stay married for love and win respect as a musician.