Written by 11:00 AM Music

Korla Pandit, the mysterious musician who hid his identity

Korla Pandit, the mystery musician whose real identity was never known until the very end.

Korla Pandit was born in New Delhi, India, in 1921, the son of a French opera singer and an Indian ‘upper-caste’ government official. He was raised in an upper-class family and moved to England as a child to study music. He immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve, where he studied at the University of Chicago. 

He was quickly recognized for his talent in playing the keyboard, and when combined with his exotic Indian background, which Americans knew little about at the time, he was soon in high demand. By the late 1940s, he regularly appeared on radio shows such as Chandu the Magician and Hollywood Holiday. By 1949, he had his television show, Korla Pandit’s Adventures in Music. 

As his career progressed, his concerts became known for incorporating his music and spiritual ideology, about which he frequently spoke, much to the delight of many fans. For Pandit Korla, fame and fortune had come his way. Among his friends were actors Errol Flynn and Bob Hope, as well as Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian spiritual leader of the Self Realization Fellowship. 

On the nightclub circuit, he frequently performed with another up-and-coming pianist known as Liberace. Pandit helped Liberace become the consummate performer in some ways. Liberace took nuances from Pandit’s performance and worked them into his own, such as occasionally gazing up from the piano to engage the audience. By the 1970s, however, Pandit’s television work had dried up, so he supplemented his income with personal appearances and concerts. Fortunately, in the 1990s, his oriental allure attracted a new generation of fans and resurrected his career.

Korla Pandit died in October 1998 in California. His wife and two sons survived him. 

If you’re probably thinking, “All very interesting, but not an exceptional story,” you’d be right. Wait till you hear the truly fascinating part of this story which was only discovered after Pandit’s death. 

Korla Pandit’s ancestry claims were blown out of the water by R.J. Smith, editor of Los Angeles magazine, in 2001. While he was born on September 16, 1921, his real name was John Roland Redd, and he was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in the United States, rather than India. Ernest Redd, his father, was an African-American Baptist pastor, and his mother was of Anglo-African ancestry. As a result, John had fair skin and straight hair, making it relatively easy for him to pass himself off as of Indian descent. 

But why the trickery? 

His opportunities as an African-American in the early twentieth century United States were severely limited. At the time, there was a color bar, making it nearly impossible for African-American artists to perform. He could not have joined the Musicians Union, and most venues refused to hire African-American musicians. To get around this bar, John first went by the name Juan Rolando and pretended to be Mexican. By the 1940s, however, he and his wife, Beryl, had come up with the idea of creating the entirely new and exotic persona of Korla Pandit. Beryl made the make-up and clothing, which included a turban. Unlike many performers who choose to use a stage name for professional reasons, Redd had to always maintain the persona of Korla Pandit in public and private life, as revealing his true identity to anyone would have jeopardized his entire career and livelihood. Even after the color line was abolished in the United States, Redd refused to reveal his ethnicity. Even in those more enlightened times, he may have felt that doing so would have harmed his career. 

Redd maintained contact with his extended family, even though he always wore his turban and did not bring his own family with him when he visited. “Among the family, we knew what he was doing, and very little was said about it,” Ernest Redd, his nephew, said. Sometimes, he would drop by, almost like a surprise visit. He might come in the middle of the night and leave before we wake up. He had to distance himself from his family to some extent. They’d go to see him play but never say anything to him. They would attend his performance, then leave, and the family would meet him later.” His deception was so successful that even his sons were unaware of his and their African-American heritage. 

Korla, a documentary about the life of John Roland Redd, was released in 2014 and was marketed as a classic American story of self-invention. All right, but it’s an abomination that he was forced to live a lie simply because of his ethnicity in the ostensibly free country of the United States.

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