Amit Chaudhuri: ‘I want to blur the distinction between writing and living’

The writer and Hindustani classical singer’s memoir won the James Tait Black Prize for Biography.

Published : Nov 17, 2022 10:15 IST

Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri | Photo Credit: GEOFF PUGH

Author and Hindustani classical singer Amit Chaudhuri won the James Tait Black Prize for Biography in August 2022 for his memoir, Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music (2021)His latest novel, Sojourn, came out soon after and was greeted with enthusiastic reviews in India and abroad. Chaudhuri, who is a professor of creative writing at Ashoka University in Sonepat, is many things rolled into one—novelist, essayist, poet, singer, music composer. He has authored eight novels, a collection of short fiction, and three volumes of poetry to date. His fourth novel, A New World, received the Sahitya Akademi award in 2002. He is also actively involved in the preservation of Kolkata’s architectural heritage, built in a style he calls “Bengali-European”—“a utopian idea of what a mish-mash of Renaissance, Hindu, and Mughal features might be”—which is in danger of being swallowed up by land sharks as “development” sweeps all over India.

While Finding the Raga is expectedly lyrical, Sojourn, too, flows seamlessly as its protagonist, a visiting professor in Berlin, reflects on identity, history, and migration while forging friendships and making sense of desire. Chaudhuri discusses his books, music, ideas of home, and much more in this email interview. Edited excerpts:

Cover of Finding the Raga

Cover of Finding the Raga | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

In Finding the Raga, you say that you had a sense of belonging to two worlds simultaneously during your childhood in Bombay: “We felt Indian but somehow also felt Woodstock was our inheritance”. Do you think that the ongoing attempt by the right wing to impose a monoculture on us is a reaction to this kind of modernity?

Yes, that’s partly—and substantially—what it is. But I discuss in the book that although we did shut out “Indian traditions”, they formed our milieu in unfixed and open ways, and, at a certain point of time, one could open a door and move towards, say, as was the case with me, Hindustani classical music.

The literatures of Indian modernity (Malayalam, Bengali, Kannada, to mention three) have been, in the last two centuries, full of—indeed, they were created by—such doors being opened, sometimes accidentally: for instance, [Michael] Madhusudan Dutt’s turn to Bangla; O.V.Vijayan’s to writing fiction in Malayalam; [U.R.] Ananthamurthy’s desire to write a novel about his village while watching [Ingmar] Bergman’s The Seventh Seal without subtitles when he was a graduate student at Birmingham.

Side by side with the rise of the right wing, I think our Anglophone post-globalisation liberal elite, with its particular stake in the nation-state, began to become disengaged from this history of an unpredictably eclectic Indian modernity, full of departures, multiple provenances, and volte faces, and concentrated on a more polite version of “pluralism” of which it then became a custodian.

My own turn to Hindustani classical music was unusual at the time because the liberal middle class was becoming narrower in its ambitions, and, soon, English would become synonymous with modernity. It’s this narrowing that gave the Right an opportunity to tap into an unarticulated sense of the hollowness of the prevailing order, and the liberal middle class was, by then, too disconnected from any complex sense of its own history to be able to defend itself except by appealing to universal values, human rights, and the Constitution.

Do you see any link between the emphasis on the “mastery of grammar” in North Indian classical music and its current irrelevance (you say in the book: “classical music is now so peripheral”)?

The importance given to mastery of grammar—a kind of panditayan; a pedantic authoritativeness—has been characteristic of this tradition for a very long time. Also characteristic, though, was an openness to sur, or tone or melody—to surrender to it; to adore it. The capacity to recognise this rare thing, sur, is a transformative and essential thing in any vibrant musical culture.

Sadly, sur—or whatever you wish to call it: “melody”, “beauty”—has been made so secondary that I fear our capacity to acknowledge and hear it has become eroded. This means we’re not only left with mastery of grammar, but also with coteries and pure self-interest: a growing detachment from, even an unspoken disavowal of, melody’s directly transformative quality. Coteries and their patterns of exclusion and inclusion are the main problem today, not panditayan.

You associate this “mastery of grammar” with a “Brahminical mode that Indian thinking is often in danger of slipping into”. Can you elaborate?

I mean a form of pedantry—a bureaucratic mindset—that assumes you’re an outsider or foreigner unless you have convincingly proved you’re an insider, and which will reach for rules, regulation, and obscure citations to disprove your legitimacy. It’s a mindset not only peculiar to Brahmins, although they provide a convenient metaphor for the practice I’m alluding to; it might characterise any Indian, or group of Indians.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a forgotten figure, the rasik, who, whether or not they’re Brahmin, confess, through their openness to beauty and their willingness to cherish it, to their vulnerability and their non-brahminical side.

You quote Tagore saying that there is an “absence of dramatic narrative tradition in Indian music”. Clearly that is not the case, unless you, through Tagore, are referring to North Indian classical tradition. Down south, there are plenty of narrative traditions like the kathakalatchebamharikatha, and villu paatu in folk music.

I quote both Tagore and Ray here because their insights about narrative in music are of great interest, and it isn’t an accident that both emerge from multiple traditions and histories at times when those histories are changing, and that both are artists who work in different genres, including music, and have to figure out for themselves the cultural implications of working with “Western” or “Indian” music and the intellectual traditions they belong to.

Whether or not music has a narrative or dramatic element doesn’t depend on whether or not it occurs in a dramatic context; it has to do with whether music is presented, or interpreted, in quasi-narrative terms. The most powerful narrative underlying forms of thinking and art-making in post-Enlightenment Europe is the narrative of humanism—that man, not God or gods, is at the centre of the universe—and, with it, the narrative of development: man can better himself and, perhaps, ultimately aim to master the universe. This would lead to interpreting both representational art forms like the novel, and non-representational ones like music, as somehow having to do with, or embodying, man’s journey.

An art form that shifts the focus to contemplation—like khayal does, even in the segments to do with layakari (rhythmic play) or taankari (virtuoso melodic patterns)—will create a way of listening in which we engage with detail for its own sake, and not for the part it is playing in a progression towards a climax. Even in a drut khayal or in a composition in natya sangeet, we’re looking at phrases in the taan improvisations—say, ni re ga ma dha ni sa; pa ma dha pa ma ga ma ga ma dha ni sa—as individual thoughts that sometimes amplify previous thoughts rather than as elements in a progression moving towards a climax.

You set up an opposition between Western classical music and North Indian classical music. The former, in your view, is like the Western realist narrative whose primary function is to tell a story as if it were a slice of the world itself. You liken North Indian classical music to poetry—meditative, non-narrative, and non-representational. Surely these are interesting but just convenient categories?

I’m speaking of not Western music but how it’s been thought of and received since Romanticism: it’s been given a narrative dimension, sometimes unobtrusively, sometimes explicitly, via the story of humanism. Khayal does not emerge from a world view akin to Western humanism; its intellectual provenances lie elsewhere. But the categories given to us in relation to music by Western humanism—including the idea that music is a universal language—are certainly pervasive (whether or not they’re ‘convenient’ is another matter) and they can’t be taken at face value if we’re to understand what music means to us.

“As Hindustani classical music reminds us, ‘India’ is text. Only a small bit of reality can be conveyed by narrating stories ‘about’ it, or representing it in pictures.” I think a very large percentage of Indians’ experience of India is very different.

What I’m getting at is that we must think of text, composition, and environment quite differently when we’re thinking of the raga in comparison to, say, a sonata by Schubert. The idea of the closed-off composition or concert performance, outside of which lie the audience and the world, will not do. It’s because the model of the “closed” composition reached a dead end in Western music that you had a composer like John Cage create a work like “4’33”, a composition in which nothing was ostensibly played, so that world and the audience, in effect, could become part of the text of the composition.

It’s impossible for me to speculate on what the majority of Indians think. My aim anyway is not to address what I or they already know or have been told, but what I’m not fully conscious of.

Amir Khusro, you say, “seems to be the first self-conscious Indian”. “Perhaps it requires not nationalism but a degree of estrangement and unfamiliarity to understand and celebrate what being Indian is...” I was surprised to find that “political” comment.

The most eloquent proponents of the wonder and burden of what it means to be Indian have often been what would today be called foreigners: people like Khusro and the poet Henry Louis Vivian Derozio.

Cover of Sojourn

Cover of Sojourn

Talking about the raga, you write: “The raga is not about the world; it’s of it.” And later: “The raga is not a self-enclosed composition, it’s an unfolding rather than a representation.... We listen to it as it happens.” Is it to fair to say that you have attempted precisely this in Sojourn?

I think I became more aware during the writing of Friend of My Youth that I don’t aim to write about my life; I want to blur the distinction between writing and living. The raga is one approach to this thought: a blurring of the divisions between composition, performance, season, time of day, and the world, between living and singing. So the answer is yes.

Is Sojourn an extended meditation on the ideas of home and displacement?

One could call it a meditation, though on what I’m not sure. This experience we call “meditation” we do so because of its stillness, but it’s also characterised by transformation and movement. The earliest example of a kind of text that embodies this paradox is the Gita: nothing happens in it, but meanings are altered—at least, something changes in us as we read it despite there being no apparent movement or plot.

I’m not comparing Sojourn to the GitaI’m invoking the beginnings of a tradition in which transformation and movement are not necessarily synonymous with movement and story. The changed meanings I’m exploring in Sojourn definitely include “home”, and they include our sense of what has formed us historically, a formation that can’t be explained away by ethnicity, religion, colonialism, nationality, and ideas of “influence”. In the book, Berlin and Europe become a way of addressing how these categories aren’t adequate to define who we are.

At many places in Sojourn, homecoming or belonging is associated with a temporal and spatial displacement. That is, “home” is not necessarily associated with a particular place. Your comments.

Yes, absolutely—your observation chimes in with what I’ve just said. Berlin, in Sojourn, is not home and it is very much home—a place with which the narrator believes he has “a history”. He doesn’t know what that “history” is. His conscious mind and his education would have no answers. So I examine not his thoughts on this matter, but try to enter his sense of absorption in what he sees.

How important is “soundscape” to you? I found this sentence arresting: “Sometimes Dahlem was so quiet that I could hear the silence in the way I could see sunlight in the room....”

Soundscape is very important to me both as a writer and as a musician/composer. As a listener of music, say, I prefer some kinds of music to others. But as one attending to what you call “soundscape”, all sounds (including music) are equally interesting to me.

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