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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

Student Project into Space, NASA Comes Up With Chicago Planetarium

As the NASA-owned, Northrop Grumann-developed Antares rocket successfully blasted off from the coast of Virginia on April 17, it wasn’t just making a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

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Earth
“Our main goal was to see if the ozone layer is getting thinner and by how much, and if there is different parts of the Earth’s atmosphere getting thinner because of the pollution and greenhouse gases, Pixabay

 

College student Fatima Guerra, 19, will be the first to admit, she’s into some really nerdy stuff.

“Like, up there nerdy.”

“Way up there nerdy,” she says. “All the way up into space.”

Guerra is an astronomer in training, involved since a high school internship with a small project at the Adler Planetarium, with big goals.

“Our main goal was to see if the ozone layer is getting thinner and by how much, and if there is different parts of the Earth’s atmosphere getting thinner because of the pollution and greenhouse gases,” she told VOA from the laboratory at the Adler where she often works.

FILE - Apollo 13 crew members Commander Captain James A. Lovell, Jr., right, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise pose for a photo during a 40th Anniversary reunion of the moon mission at the Adler Planetarium, April 12, 2010, in Chicago.
Apollo 13 crew members Commander Captain James A. Lovell, Jr., right, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise pose for a photo during a 40th Anniversary reunion of the moon mission at the Adler Planetarium, April 12, 2010, in Chicago. VOA

Coding ThinSat

Data that sheds light on those circumstances is gathered by a small electronic device called “ThinSat” designed to orbit the Earth. It is developed not by high-paid engineers and software programmers, but by Chicago-area students like Guerra.

“We focused on coding the different parts of the sensors that the ThinSat is composed of. So, we coded so that it can measure light intensity, pressure.”

“This stuff is very nerdy,” Jesus Garcia admits with a chuckle.

“What we hope to accomplish is look at Earth from space as if it was the very first exoplanet that we have. So, imagine that we are looking at the very first images from a very distant planet.”

As a systems engineer, Garcia oversees the work of the students developing ThinSat for the Adler’s Far Horizon’s Project, which he outlines “bring all types of students, volunteers and our staff to develop projects, engineering projects, that allow us to answer scientific questions.”

Garcia says the students he works with on the project cross national, racial and cultural divides to work toward a common goal.

“Here at the Adler, we have students who are minorities who have been faced with challenges of not having opportunities presented to them,” he said. “And here we are presenting a mission where they are collaborating with us scientists and engineers on our first mission that is going into space.”

Rocket carries project into space

As the NASA-owned, Northrop Grumann-developed Antares rocket successfully blasted off from the coast of Virginia on April 17, it wasn’t just making a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

On board was ThinSat, the culmination of work by many at the Adler, including Guerra, who joined the Far Horizons team as a high school requirement that ended up becoming much more.

“A requirement can become a life-changing opportunity, and you don’t even know it,” she told VOA. “It’s really exciting to see, or to know, especially, that my work is going to go up into space and help in the scientific world.”

Daughter of immigrants

It is also exciting for her parents, immigrants from Guatemala, who can boast that their daughter is one of the few who can claim to have built a satellite orbiting the Earth.

“I told them it might become a worldwide type of news, and I’m going to be a part of it. And they were really proud. And they were calling my family over there and saying, ‘She might be on TV.’ And it’s something they really feel a part of me about,” Guerra said.

Also Read: ‘Big Steps To Reduce Carbon Emission’ Apple Expects Cooperation With China on Clean Energy

Long after the data compiled by ThinSat is complete, Guerro will still have a place in history as a member of a team that put the first satellite developed by a private planetarium into space.

She says her friends don’t think that’s nerdy at all.

“It’s cool, because it’s interesting to see that something so nerdy is actually going to work, and is going to go up into something so important,” she said. (VOA)