From slavery right down to this morning, countless African Americans have passed as white because they were evading the lynch mob or wishing for an equal opportunity.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2015-09-24 00:35Z by Steven

The few old schoolmates who ran into him had to pretend they’d never met. He was often seen around town with one of his best friends. the Indian-born actor Sabu, an alliance that brings to mind the “arranged” Hollywood marriage of a closeted gay actor.

Black novelist Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars, about a man who passes for white, has a sentence that could apply to Korla: “Our customs grip us in bands of steel.  We become the creatures of our creations.”

From slavery right down to this morning, countless African Americans have passed as white because they were evading the lynch mob or wishing for an equal opportunity. The subject has been taboo: Crossing over means denying who you are, means banishing friends and family from your life. You live in a gray zone, and it is the loneliest of places.

Passing for Asian was a little different, because you did not blend into white society. The practice went on long before Korla Pandit first appeared. In the late 1930s, Harlem’s Amsterdam News reported that a Syracuse University football star named Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was, as a columnist put it, “about as much Hindu as flatfoot floogie.” In 1947, around the time that Juan Rolondo was turning into Korla Pandit, the Los Angeles Tribune, a lively black newspaper, heralded a stunt pulled by a brown-skinned New York minister. He prepared for a visit through the Deep South by donning a purple turban, affecting “a slightly Swedish accent,” and concocting a tale about being a visiting Eastern dignitary. He was doted on and able to eat at white-only restaurants. In Mobile, Alabama, he impishly asked a waiter what would happen if a Negro came to eat. The Negro wouldn’t be served, he was told. “I just stroked my chin and ordered my dessert.” said the pastor.

When John Redd crossed over, he didn’t sever all ties with the world he had known. “It was not top secret,” says Ernest. “Among the family we knew what he was doing and very little was said about it. There was times when he would come by, and it was kind of like a sneak visit. He might come at night sometime and be gone before we got up. He had to separate himself from the family to a certain extent. They would go to see him play, but they wouldnt speak to him. They would go to his show and then they would leave, and the family would greet him at a later time.”

The situation became even more complicated once Korla’s Father, Ernest Sr., moved to Los Angeles, by the early ’50s. Reverend Redd became the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, a prominent institution in the community. Any night he wanted to, Reverend Redd could come home from the church, switch on the television, and watch his son play the organ, with that strange look in his eyes and that turban on his head. Korla kept in touch with his family, and on occasion he and Beryl scheduled a covert mission to the parents’ West Adams home. But even then, detection could not be discounted. Even then, Korla wore the turban. He didn’t bring Shari or Koram, his and Beryl’s sons.

RJ Smith, “The Many Faces of Korla Pandit,” Los Angeles Magazine, June 2001, 148-149.

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One slip and he would have gone from being a mirror of white America’s mania for things “exotic” to somebody white America didn’t want to face.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2015-09-23 15:51Z by Steven

To consider the life of Korla Pandit—and that’s what I will call him because that is who he became—is to consider the weight of wearing a mask for 50 years. It is to grasp the fear of exposure, of a revelation that would have killed his career. One slip and he would have gone from being a mirror of white America’s mania for things “exotic” to somebody white America didn’t want to face. He would have been revealed as a fraud, and his fans would have never forgiven him. It is to recognize how he had to cut himself off from a black community that he’d grown up in, from a culture that had shaped the musical skills, and the survival skills, that he drew on for the rest of his life.

RJ Smith, “The Many Faces of Korla Pandit,” Los Angeles Magazine, June 2001, 76.

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The Many Faces of Korla Pandit

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-09-22 19:58Z by Steven

The Many Faces of Korla Pandit

Los Angeles Magazine
June 2001
pages 73-77, 146-151

RJ Smith, Senior Editor

He was a handsome holy man, an organ virtuoso, a star from the East. Korla Pandit mesmerized generations–while keeping a secret until his dying day

Korla Pandit wandered the West, from big cities to hamlets, throughout his life. Wherever he went, he made the ground beneath his feet seem like the center of a vast turning wheel. However much he was on the move, he let those surrounding him feel they were the ones in motion. People—intersting, glamorous, bizarre people—came to him hoping he’d show them how to get to where he so blissfully stood. They wanted to feel his peace.

He was in his mid seventies when I met him seven years ago. We talked at a coffee shop that no longer exists, in what was the first of many conversations. I was interviewing him about the lounge music revival, which had led to a modest boost in the old man’s career. Soon I became one more neophyte snared by his beatific smile, his mysterious eyes, his strange stories of séances with Marilyn Monroe and how Liberace had stolen his very soul. When you got near Korla Pandit, he took you to some synthetic place.

He came, he explained, from halfway around the world. He had a privileged childhood in New Delhi, where his father, a Brahman, was a government bureaucrat and friend of Gandhi’s. His mother mas a French opera singer. Korla was playing the piano at the age of two; by five he was a prodigy. able to perform complicated pieces after hearing them only once. He studied in Europe, then came to the United States when he was 12. and later attended the University of Chicago.

As Korla prepared to leave his family behind and begin the life of a professional musician on the stages of the West, his father gave him a warning: “Son. get your education first. Show business is a dangerous world. You’re a hero today and a bum tomorrow.” In recounting the story Korla would pause and then add, “Well, he sure knew what he was talking about.” Korla came anyway, and he conquered the West, or at least the West Coast, and especially Los Angeles. His TV show, Adventures in Music with Korla Pandit, was the first all-music show on television, and Korla was one of the first stars of the medium.

As it happened, I attended the last performance Korla ever gave. It was in 1998 in San Francisco, at a lounge renovated to 1950s vintage called Bimbo’s. There were paintings of clowns, and the carpet, banquettes. and walls were as red as tenderloin. A mermaid swam in a large aquarium over the bar. Bimbo’s was a lot like Korla himself. an exemplar of a distant time that once embodied suave sexuality but now registered as camp…

…There was a joke made often in the vicinity of Korla, passed along by any who spent time with him. Everybody who told it seemed to think they were the first to make the crack. The thing about Korla, we’d say, was that while he never spoke on his television show, in person he was hard put to stay quiet. Korla loved to talk, about India and his past and the meaning of life. But for all the talking he did, he kept a secret, one that he protected all his life. Korla Pandit wasn’t his real name, and he wasn’t Indian at all. He was African American…

Read the entire article here.

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