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Korla Pandit: An ‘African American’ camouflaged his identity as an ‘Indian’ to break into music business

His real identity was exposed in July 2001, after his death, in an edition of Los Angeles Magazine as being John Roland Redd, an African American, not an Indian, born in St Louis, Missouri

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Korla Pandit Image: lolwot
  • Korla Pandit’s real identity is John Roland Redd, an African American
  • He played the piano and the organ- sometimes both at once
  • During his 900 performances he never spoke on camera

A very prominent Indian personality of 1950s in US, Korla Pandit, became one of the exotic icons. He came to fame when he appeared on a 15 minute show, called “Adventures in Music”, beamed across the US.

Displaying elegance through his jewelled turban and fashionable coat and tie, he played the piano and the organ—sometimes both at once—creating music that was both familiar and exotic. He was a man of mystery and his mesmerising gaze won him countless fans, both men and women.

Press releases from that time say that Pandit was born in New Delhi, India, the son of a Brahmin government worker and a French opera singer.  A magician on the piano, he studied music in England and later moved to the United States, where he mastered the organ at the University of Chicago. Except his talent, none of this was true.

Two years after he died in 1998, his real identity was exposed in July 2001 edition of Los Angeles Magazine as being John Roland Redd, an African American, not an Indian, born in St Louis, Missouri, who had transformed himself in the Indian persona to break into the music business. In 1939, his sister Frances Redd appeared in a film called Midnight Shadow, with a central character named Prince Alihabad. However, this revelation never affected his prestige.

This brief video explains why –

During his 900 performances he never spoke on camera, instead designed only to communicate with viewers through that endearing stare. With friends like Errol Flynn, Bob Hope, and Sabu, the Elephant Boy, he became one of the first TV stars ever. Eventually, he conceded his TV performances, because of an argument over the contract, to the young pianist Liberace. And the way he came to fame is one of those only-in-America tales where the audience and the performer are both invested in the illusion.

A documentary by John Turner and Eric Christiansen, “Korla” chronicles Pandit’s extraordinary life and career. The filmmakers grew up watching Korla on TV and listening to his music.

In an article published on What It Means to be America, Turner wrote that he was in touch with Pandit till his death.  “I first got to know Korla Pandit in 1990, while I was working at KGO TV in San Francisco. I was producing a series on Bay Area eccentrics and a colleague at the station mentioned that Pandit had a live show on KGO in the ’50s”, Turner wrote.

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His self-invented persona had a familiar way of greeting by saying ‘Namastey’ to everyone. By considering his clothings and way of greeting, it was impossible to concede the fact that he was not an Indian. Turner and Eric found that Pandit was indeed John Roland Redd, one of seven children born to Baptist pastor Ernest Redd and Doshia O’Nina Johnson. His love of music took hold in childhood and he played a mean boogie-woogie piano.

The filmmakers tracked one of Redd’s childhood friends in a desire to solve the mystery behind this exotic personality. They got to know that there wasn’t much mingling between the races, as Jim Crow laws were in effect. Blacks weren’t served at the soda fountain and if they wanted to buy clothes at the department store, they couldn’t even try them on.

Turner said, “Hollywood was also kind to shape shifters who’d invented their biographies. And Pandit and his wife understood that Americans knew very little of India outside of the magical rope-climbing swamis or men-of-mystery they saw in the movies. With their sets and music, they created an exotic escape in people’s living rooms. Female fans of Pandit have told us that he was their first teenage crush. He was an image that came through their TV screens that they could safely fantasize about.”

-by Pashchiema, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @pashchiema

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  • AJ Krish

    The whole Indian persona adopted by Redd was intended to get him into the spotlight. If it is so easy to fool the public for so many years, I really wonder whether a turban and a fancy coat is all that is required to be an Indian.It truly is amazing that he never spoke on television for all his 900 performances. Talk about his determination!

    • Pashchiema Bhatia

      May be that’s why he is known as the man of mystery. But this never affected his reputation even after his real identity came to light. His endearing eyes and music is all that is still remembered.

  • Pete

    Looked like Tony Curtis with a turban.

Next Story

U.S.A: Missouri Rejects Planned Parenthood’s License to Perform Abortions

The rejection was the latest development in a long legal battle over the state’s last remaining abortion clinic

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Missouri, Planned Parenthood, License
Pro-choice and pro-life protesters stand outside of Planned Parenthood as a deadline looms to renew the license of Missouri's sole remaining Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, Missouri, May 31, 2019. VOA

Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services rejected a license renewal Friday for a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, but the clinic can temporarily continue to provide abortions. The rejection was the latest development in a long legal battle over the state’s last remaining abortion clinic.

The health department told Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region that its license would be rejected, minutes before a court hearing for the organization was to begin.

Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer, who had previously granted Planned Parenthood a temporary injunction allowing the clinic to continue providing abortions when the health department refused to renew its license, ruled Friday that his injunction was to remain in effect until he presented both parties with a list of next steps.

Planned Parenthood advocates in Missouri alleged Friday that the health department “weaponized a regulatory process” as part of a broader campaign to end abortion access in the state.

Missouri, Planned Parenthood, License
Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services rejected a license renewal Friday for a Planned Parenthood clinic. Pixabay

A spokesperson for the health department told reporters the Planned Parenthood location had resolved only four of the 30 deficiencies the department had identified, prompting officials to deny the license renewal. The health department also cited the unwillingness of physicians at the location to sit for interviews with the health department.

Planned Parenthood asserts it cannot compel the physicians to testify, as they were not full-time staff.

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If the Planned Parenthood clinic were to lose its license, Missouri would be the first state since 1974 not to have an abortion provider. That’s a year after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. In recent months, states across the country have enacted laws to restrict abortion access, with some seeking to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortion nationwide. (VOA)