The world of Hindustani music is exceptionally territorial, says Amit Chaudhuri

Writer Amit Chaudhuri’s Finding The Raga is about discovering one’s music through a labyrinth of sounds and experiences

You will find the story. But if you see it as a story, you will miss all the moments. How these moments grow into experiences, how experiences reveal processes, and how these processes become not only personal truths but also a study of the nature of art — Finding The Raga (Penguin, Random House), author Amit Chaudhuri’s recent book, is an intense rumination. Stunningly expressive, the book has a gentle undulating landscape, but the underlying restlessness is palpable. The creative forebodings that come from different periods of the author’s life are not uniform in the narrative; however, what is uniform is the relentless contemplation on the essence of khayal music through its tools. For instance, sample this. “The alaap is a formal and conceptual innovation of the same family as the circadian novel, in which everything happens, in an amplification of time, before anything’s begun to happen. …. Alaap corresponds with my need for narrative not to be a story, but a series of opening paragraphs, where life hasn’t already ‘happened’, ready for recounting, but is about to happen, or is happening, and, as a result, can’t be domesticated into a perfect retelling.”

The book is a ‘finding’ — finding one’s music and music itself — through literature, language, philosophy, other forms of music and more. “How do we understand the aesthetic whose response to the world arises from homage rather than the matter of representational fidelity to an inner or outer life?” While he investigates this, he takes us through Satyajit Ray, Mani Kaul, Tagore and Kishori Amonkar. The past, the author writes, “must be arrived at without pre-meditation, and met with, face to face.” Certainly among the most reflective books on Indian music, Amit Chaudhuri’s book is soulful, something you would want to keep returning to — like those postcards from the past. They are studded with memories, but you make meaning only through ‘authorial surrender’.

Excerpts from an interview with the writer:

Your relationship with music has been as long as it has been with literature, if not more. Yet, why does the world knows you more as a writer?

Part of the fault is mine. As a musician, I went through transformations, from guitar-playing singer-songwriter to Hindustani classical vocalist, then to experimenting in combining the blues and classical music. Some of these mutations took place in great isolation — especially between the age of 16 to 26, when I thought it more important to understand the shifts in my musical propensities, to make sense of khayal, than to be part of a network. Even after I became a published writer with A Strange and Sublime Address in 1991, I kept the fact that I was a musician from my bio note. By this time I was performing, and then recording — recordings from the last 30 years, in concerts and for HMV, are available on YouTube. When I started the project, ‘This Is Not Fusion’, people insisted I needed to do more to put my music out there, I included music in my bio note after 2007.

The other reason has to do with the resistance people have to the thought that a writer might genuinely be a musician. Not resistance, but prejudice, even hostility: the Anglophone Indian middle class is very conservative in its conception of the arts. There’s a tendency in India to dismiss and deny without properly engaging, listening, reading. The world of Hindustani classical music is anyway exceptionally territorial — and Indians, generally, haven’t been functioning in the last 30 years except in groups and fiefdoms. Hindustani classical music is largely characterised today by an aggressively reverential air and a completely instrumental way of looking at performance, that is, which and how many ‘programmes’ you’re doing, all of these — aggression, reverence, and instrumentality — expressed through the group/network the musician occupies.

The open-endedness that was to be found in this environment previously (despite its many shortcomings) led to a period of great experimentation, and that’s gone now. It’s impossible to exist in this closed environment as an outsider. I did encounter wonderful musicians in Calcutta, like Pandit A. Kanan, who was open to the world and loved my singing. The great singer Dipali Nag hosted my concert, and musicians like Ulhas Kashalkar, Mashkoor Ali Khan, Omkar Dadarkar, and Arshad Ali Khan have been generous towards my music. But Pandit Kanan and Dipali Nag are no longer with us. The classical music scene has become moribund: there are few musicians now who might help us arrive at an alternative to the present-day instrumental, closed way of inhabiting the music world. My guru, Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale, died in 1988 in Bombay, and I belong to a wonderful, but little-known gharana, the Kunwar Shyam or Tulsidas Gosain gharana. This means I have long subsisted in this ecosystem without the support networks of gharana and guru. In a way, I prefer the independence this gives me. My experiment in ‘not fusion’ has had significant responses in the UK and the US from critics like Peter Culshaw at Songlines and Chris May at allaboutjazz.com, and the poet-musician, Paul Muldoon, who invited me to perform at the Irish Arts Center, New York, and at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, where he also interviewed me about my music. Gwen Ansell, South Africa’s leading jazz critic, wrote with great acuity about my performance in Johannesburg.

As readers have already recognised, the book is a memoir and a cultural discourse. The accuracy with which you narrate experiences from a distant past is admirable. Do you keep a diary? At the same it is amazing to see how your past gains layers of meaning from what has happened in your present. For instance, you write about the people who inhabited your world — Eliot, Marlyn Monroe, Elvis and others, and the total absence of Marathi, Kishori Amonkar and Bhimsen Joshi. You pin these experiences with Coetzee’s essay, What is a Classic? that belongs to a different time in your life. The narration is mostly linear, even as it provides the experience of deep reflection. Very curious to understand how this book mapped out in you.

No, I’ve never had a diary. I made notes for my first novel — notes that had to do not with important moments but unremarkable things I wanted to write about. Then I stopped making notes because I became superstitious that if I made them I wouldn’t end up writing about many of those minor occurrences — happenings that didn’t count as happenings except in my head. For me, responding to the promptings of a memory is a better way of accessing a culture and a moment in history rather than attempting to ‘put together’ that history in a predetermined, over-conscious manner. We do place huge faith, especially in India, in what we already know or understand: it’s an academic, social science way of thinking which has dominated Anglophone culture in India since globalisation. Its main concern is legitimacy, and how to be, or make a piece of writing, legitimate. Our education system, our scholarly research, is subservient to this purpose. I find memory leads to enquiry, and enquiry to a thought-process. This book proceeds in that way too.

Your book reads like a poem. It in fact, is a journey in soundscape. From living on the 12th floor to moving to the third floor, to London, the Parsi couple, the kulfiwala… your perception of self and music tails these experiences. Can you speak about these experiences from noise to silence?

You may feel it reads like a poem because its discoveries are made through its form, and its form is arrived at in the process of writing. There are certain thoughts, experiences, and ideas in it I want to pursue, but it’s not like a ‘history of North Indian classical music’ because that would involve assuming that the history is something one already knows before one sits down to write it. This history is part of an attempt to rethink and ‘find’ it, as with the raga. My experience of sound and what it means to me is one of the things I keep returning to here: why it is that absolute silence oppresses me; why overheard sounds, even more than things I’ve seen, move me so much, and move me at certain times of the day. For instance, the repeated iteration of a shalik bird when I go to the bathroom in the morning makes me glad that I was born and live in this country. Poetry and music — the raga, for instance, arise from that sort of love of place, which is very different from nationalism, and is intertwined with fate and who we are. These — one’s peculiar response to sound or silence — are among things you begin to understand over time.

The world of Hindustani music is exceptionally territorial, says Amit Chaudhuri

Your mother Bijoya Chaudhuri was an accomplished singer. How did she influence you and your understanding of music? How did you see her art practise?

Because she was my mother, I took her singing to be ‘normal’. I took richness of tone, great melodiousness, and a tranquillity of approach as givens. Again, it’s only over time that I realised that these weren’t givens. Her approach to singing and practising comprised an unostentatious devotion —it was part of her day till the end of her life, as the lines from Tagore’s “Phule phule dhole dhole” she sang at 90 (six months before her death) will show. It’s posted on Soundcloud.

You speak of raga as a relationship between notes, and how it supersedes the melodic form. Your example of Ustad Amir Khan, that he could sing to phone numbers is interesting. In such an approach, as you say, sahitya becomes totally redundant. Can notes be the singular point from where emotions emanate? Can Indian music be completely independent of text? Since you also speak of self-annulment, how can music be created without giving centrality to self or emotion? Aren’t musical notes also a matter of perception? Isn’t that why two renditions of a raga — even by the same person — can never be the same?

Ustad Amir Khan also claimed, of course, that he was mindful of the poetry of the words of khayal. I think most singers are. But what’s fascinating is how the form also allows — as it unfolds through alaap, taan, and layakari — to let the dominance of the words’ meaning make room for modulation of varying degrees of intricacy. Here, word becomes syllable, and it doesn’t matter, for instance (to take an example at random), if the syllable is ‘ah’ by itself, or ‘ah’ as part of the sound ‘na’, which could be a meaning-free syllable in a tarana (‘ta na na na’), or part of a word such as ‘naam’ (‘name’), which itself might be part of a line such as ‘Hari ke naam’. ‘Hari ke naam’ might, at some point in khayal, become ‘naam’, then ‘na’, then just ‘ah’. This is not a reduction; it creates a new possibility. As far as emotion is concerned, we tend to associate it unfailingly with the self, or with human nature. But what we’re moved and surprised by in a piece of writing or music is a realignment in experience brought about by the creative process; it’s not an emotion like happiness or sadness. The vocabulary we need in order to talk about this experience is slightly different from our usual vocabulary of emotion (‘happy/sad’) or values (‘good/bad’).

Your journey/s — of Finding the Raga — is a reflective one. You have moved in and out of musical forms, between geographies and disciplines, and different kinds of people. The book richly captures the interdisciplinary nature of your thinking. As a reader, I feel that these journeys have bestowed great intensity and insight into your understanding of music. Do you feel so too?

I think it’s impossible for me to be anything other than a person who has inhabited and lived through different genres, traditions, realities, and languages. I don’t need to be a comparativist in a predetermined way; when I encounter something, I also, at once, encounter something else, just as Girdharji, playing the tabla with me in St Cyril Road, could hear that the kulfi seller’s bell was sounding a note that was the pancham in relation to the sa or tonic I was singing from. I think all Indians must experience life in that way. I sometimes study characters in American TV serials — people who speak one language, and have a clear idea of what a middle-class life comprises — and realise that I will never know what it means to be like that.

The Bengaluru-based journalist writes on art and culture.

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