The Extraordinary Korla Pandit
Producer Nina Earnest explores the story of John Roland Redd, an African-American organist who donned a bejeweled turban and rewrote his life story to become “Godfather of Exotica” Korla Pandit.
One of the most extraordinary stories we’ve covered on Back Story was the tale of a California celebrity known as the Godfather of Exotica, an organist named Korla Pandit. Pandit was a turban-wearing exotic who became famous in the 1940s and 50s for his dreamy, jazzy tones, which drew freely from the melodies of south Asia and African rhythms.
But as producer [Nina Ernest 00:26:57] discovered, the truth about Korla Pandit was even more complicated than it seemed.
Nina Ernest: Back in the early 1990s, journalist R.J. Smith and his music nerd friends … His words, not mine … Would travel around Los Angeles visiting its old tiki bars and cocktail lounges. Korla Pandit, wearing his trademark bejeweled turban, was often one of the performers.
R.J. Smith: We would pull into a nightclub or an old spot, and if they had a piano, or best of all, like a Hammond organ, there was Korla, and he would just play these amazing, exotic-sounding songs that evoked Asia, ancient Africa, Persian music not as it really exists or existed, but as those of us who had grown up on Hollywood movies thought it existed.
Nina Ernest: This is how the two men met. Smith says that the Godfather of Exotica was soft spoken and philosophical.
R.J. Smith: He also had this whole, long, ever changing kind of back story about how he was from India, born into a Brahman family, an elite, well-off family in India, and they sent him off, his family did, to the west to go to music school. Everybody knew that.
Nina Ernest: Not long after Pandit died in 1998, Smith was interviewing black bebop legend Sir Charles Thompson. Thompson was originally from the Midwest.
R.J. Smith: Out of the blue, he started talking about when he was a young man, he had heard a guy play that was the best piano player in the region he’d heard of, a real boogie-woogie player, and he never knew what happened to that guy. His name was John Redd. But then one day, after Sir Charles Thompson had moved to Los Angeles, and established his career, he was watching TV one day, and he saw this man with a faraway look in his eye and a turban on his head playing exotic sounds allegedly of the Far East, and he knew who that guy was. It was John Red who he had heard play as a young man, and that just blew my mind. I knew he was talking about Korla Pandit. John Redd was Korla Pandit.
Nina Ernest: Pandit wasn’t from India. He was actually African-American and from Missouri. John Roland Redd was born there in 1921, but in the 1930s, he and other family members began to move to Los Angeles. In L.A., Redd started looking for work as a musician. He was talented, an excellent piano player and organist. But southern California wasn’t all that welcoming. Opportunities for African-American musicians were still hard to come by, so Redd, who was light-skinned, began passing in his performances.
R.J. Smith: On one level, it’s simply an equation. There were two different musicians unions in southern California, a white one and a black one. Now, if you were in the black one, there were only certain places you were going to ever get gigs. Now, if you could pass yourself off somewhere in between white and black, your opportunities multiplied.
Nina Ernest: Redd first tried out a Latin-American alter ego named Juan Rolando, but by the late 1940s, he had adopted the Indian-born persona Korla Pandit, the identity he would maintain for the rest of his life.
The centerpiece of his costume was his turban. Redd was hardly the first African-American to take this approach. Some black men were known to wear turbans to get around mistreatment and segregation laws in the Jim Crow south. In 1944, Pandit had married white woman named Beryl DeBeeson. Some speculate that she helped him craft this character. And it worked. Pandit got his big break in what was then a new medium.
R.J. Smith: In southern California in the late 40s and early 50s, Korla Pandit was a TV star.
Speaker 20: A program based on the universal language of music, it is our pleasure to present to you Korla Pandit.
R.J. Smith: He would say nothing. He would just look into the camera, play the organ or the piano. It was sort of Liberace before Liberace even in a way.
Nina Ernest: Korla Pandit’s Adventures in Music first aired on L.A.’s KTLA in February 1949. The show, performed live, came on every weekday afternoon.
R.J. Smith: And he would just look out into the living rooms of southern California, and his eyes were intense and mesmerizing, and the music was intense and mesmerizing. And housewives all over southern California swooned.
Nina Ernest: Pandit’s silent appearance on the show wrapped him in mystery. What his viewers didn’t know was that they were watching one of the first African-Americans to have his own television show.
Pandit’s legend grew in the following decades as he told stories about his Indian upbringing. Take this appearance on a local talk show.
Korla Pandit: I was born in New Delhi. New Delhi, India. And started performing music in a sense at a very early age, two years and four months old.
Nina Ernest: He went on to have a long career, performing well into the 1990s. That’s when Smith met him around Los Angeles.
Smith says that once he learned that the enigmatic Pandit was actually African-American, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
R.J. Smith: And that just told me if I’m fascinated by it and the people I’m talking to are maybe this is something worth writing about.
Nina Ernest: Not long after Pandit died in 1998, Smith published an article revealing Korla Pandit’s identity in Los Angeles Magazine. Smith wrote that Pandit’s children didn’t know the truth. In fact, his son and even his wife, Beryl, denied the story. Pandit’s surviving son could not be reached for comment.
By many accounts, the news shocked a lot of music fans, but it didn’t surprise the African-American family of John Roland Redd, many of whom lived in Los Angeles.
Adrienne H.: There was so much more to Korla than mainstream’s discovery of his cultural identity because it wasn’t a secret within the community that he came out of.
Nina Ernest: This is Korla Pandit’s great niece [Adrienne Hernandez 00:33:25]. She’s the granddaughter of one of John Redd’s sisters. Adrienne says she knew from an early age that her uncle was the Korla Pandit, but also Uncle John.
Since R.J. Smith’s article, Korla Pandit is now just as known for his racial passing as for his work as a music and television pioneer. But Adrienne says she doesn’t really think of her uncle as someone who passed.
Adrienne H.: One of the things that is often covered when we discuss concepts of identity passing in this country is the sentiment that everyone who does that is in a place of forsaking the traditions and culture that they come from. I just don’t think that our family experienced it that way because we had access to my uncle. There was never a feeling of, oh, we’ve lost him.
Nina Ernest: Pandit was a big part of her life. He often visited the family, and they attended his performances. Adrienne says many in their Los Angeles community knew he was the son of local pastor Ernest Redd. She saw the persona of Korla Pandit as more of a performance costume.
Adrienne H.: If my uncle fits into that category of passing is because American society needed him to have the look of Korla Pandit in order to fully receive the gift that he had to offer. You know, kind of the inside joke about Korla’s presentation was that the Hollywood story was that he was Hindu, and Hindus don’t wear turbans, and yet all of his audience was willing to receive him as a Hindu because that’s what they wanted him to be. They liked the turban, they liked the jewel.
Nina Ernest: Another of Pandit’s nieces, [Maya Hernandez 00:35:13], also grew up knowing her uncle. She and Adrienne are first cousins.
Maya says she’s proud of what John Redd accomplished in the guise of Korla Pandit.
Maya Hernandez: Bravo for him in some ways. You know, I don’t obviously feel comfortable with appropriating one culture for another, but I also think, too, he lived in a very oppressive time.
Nina Ernest: There was secrecy in Pandit’s life. From what we know, he didn’t tell his children about his racial background, but he was a part of his African-American family who viewed Pandit and Redd as one and the same.
Maya Hernandez: It was something, I think, in some ways was supported by the family, that any time any of his siblings could’ve outed him. There was opportunity there, but it was something that was supported because, I think, they saw the value in helping Korla be an individual, and loving him for who he was.
Nina Ernest: Some people have criticized R.J. Smith for being the one who outed Korla Pandit.
R.J. Smith: What was I outing him as? An African-American. Is that something to be ashamed of? I’m sure that Korla, son of an African-American leader in the community in Los Angeles, I’m pretty confident he was not ashamed of that. I’m pretty confident that why he put the turban on was not out of shame, or guilt, or not liking who he was. It was for who the rest of us were.
Nathan Connelly: Producer Nina Ernest uncovered the extraordinary story of Korla Pandit.