Chaudhuri explores subtle differences in the approach to life between East and West, between tradition and modernity--through his exploration of Indian and Western music.
Amit Chaudhuri takes a keen interest in something some of us take for granted and others simply ignore.
“I try to write about what we call reality. I find there is no language to write about it. There is no language with which to write about it because no such thing exists in a static way- it is fluid. There is no language available at ready disposal as there would be if reality were fixed and static. If there was, I could just say the ‘evening is dark’ and be done with it. I can’t just say that because it doesn’t adequately describe the constantly changing reality”.
Chaudhuri is a highly accomplished man: seven published novels which have won him numerous awards, a trained singer in the North Indian classical tradition, a Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia in England and vocalist in an experimental band blending jazz, blues and the Indian raga.
Talking to Amit via video call as he recovers from Covid-19 at his home in Kolkata is an enlightening and refreshing pleasure. He is inviting and accessible. There are no publishing agents or personal assistants to liaise with. There is little ego to navigate to get to the questions that matter.
His latest book is part memoir, part essay about his experiences with classical Indian music. In Finding The Raga, Chaudhuri shares how, whilst growing up in Mumbai in the 70s, Indian classical music was foreign to him- as it remains for most Indians. He and his friends were instead fascinated by Western pop and rock. At the age of 16, enthralled by his mother’s singing teacher, he found what he calls “a point of entry” into the music which he has now spent much of his life practising and performing.
“I called it Finding The Raga because when I looked back at it I realised there is this theme which runs through it: not the way I inherited the raga but the way I found it. It wasn’t something that was handed down to me. It is about not to sort of inherit one’s culture, not even to discover it but to re-interpret it, to make sense of it. You find it because it is important but its importance has nothing to do with the fact that it is yours. You are drawn to it for other reasons. The book is then an attempt to explore why somebody feels drawn to something which one has ignored”.
Born in 1962, Chaudhuri moved to London at 18 to study literature and mostly stayed in England until the age of 37 before returning to India. Having been educated by and lived in its land he writes in the language of the former coloniser, using it to present, in his latest book, subtle differences in the approach to life between East and West, between tradition and modernity- through his exploration of Indian and Western music.
He makes it clear, however, that he is “not making mimetic or allegorical extrapolations about these societies based on the music they produce.”
Chaudhuri asserts on several occasions that he speaks not as an expert but as an observer and practitioner of what he is talking about. It is refreshing to encounter a writer and public intellectual who can firstly tell the difference and secondly admit it.
It is this honesty that allows him to see the benefits and drawbacks of both East and West, tradition and modernity, and their mutuality.
“There is more spontaneity in Indian music. The structures aren’t set in stone in the way they are in western music, whether it is western classical or popular music where they are all written down. The structures are more fluid in Indian music. Fluidity as a form of expression is what we explore.
“Yet one has to think of classical music as a balance between our ideas of the traditional and the modern. Some of the more substantive changes we are seeing now in terms of singing in the khayal (a type of Indian song) in terms of expansiveness, its fluidity, is the result of experiments in that form over the last century; trying to make even greater fluidity possible. That is traditional but also modern. It was happening between the 20s and 70s.
“As secular incarnations of art began to emerge from the 19th century onwards a space was being created which had to do with experimentation, with the play of thought and language and not with the burden of language.
“There was an ongoing creation of the space that had to do with the play of thought in a way that wasn’t burdened by the idea of representing the nation, or representing a tradition. Some of it must have rubbed off onto musicians. They became not just bearers and representatives of a tradition but people who began to think, allowed themselves to think in new and free ways about what that tradition was”.
One of the themes running through Chaudhuri’s book is limitation. Classical Indian music’s fluidity partly comes from it not being bound by structural techniques common in other genres. For example, the alaap- an improvised introduction to the raag- typically comprises three quarters of the entire performance. But in India today he says the boundless essence of classical music is now being dampened by restraints of form.
“It needs to break free of its own artificiality, of performers wearing a particular kind of kurta (shirt), of singing the khayal in a particular kind of way, of playing sitar and doing sawal jawab (call and response) with the tabla player and ending on a climactic high, of touching the feet of the older musicians, of pulling your ear when you mention a famous singer from the past.” Part of this limitation, he says, comes from a deeply embedded “Brahminical code” of authority.
“It is connected to staying in power, keeping out others. So you decide whether or not something works based on whether all the rules have been observed; whether the notes that were to be sung in a particular way in a raag were sung in the correct way. It begins to become about control. You control the music through a careful scrutiny rather than constant fluid emotional experience and openness to nuance”.
The curtailment of human fluidity is one of the reasons he thinks Indian classical music remains an oddity to the ears of most Indians- and was also for the people who have had a significant influence over them- British colonists. In his book, he writes, “music was one facet the English coloniser didn’t understand and didn’t care to”.
He tells me “their ears were completely unused to the structure, to the bent notes; the bent notes would have confused the hell out of them.
“Remember when western people first heard the blues they must have found it weird. We’ve forgotten about the fact that white European responses to black music, which I am not equating with Indian music, yet black music to a certain degree in a different way is distinct from conventional western approaches especially at the turn of the 19th century, early 20th century regarding the bending of notes. If the straight note is the dominant context in Europe or in America, when they first hear the blues they must wonder what kind of music is this? Some of them would have been open to it but let’s not forget it had to fight to make its place. They had the slaves and then the African-American became part of that culture – a foundational part.”
The prospect of Indian classical music continuing as an artform for expanding boundaries of human experience -and therefore freedom- is not one he is optimistic about.
“This music has been created, I think, by mavericks and one thing about Indian society is it did have a large place for mavericks. It starts with an old tradition with the space given to renunciates – that whole domain did exist. It doesn’t exist anymore.”
Just as the space for his preferred type of music has narrowed, so too is the space for his work as a professor and he will be leaving his position at East Anglia later this year.
“I’m anxious and concerned about the way universities are going. In Britain, they are going through a metamorphosis. There is a lot of pressure to do with the market and commercialisation. Gradually individual choice, imagination and experience- and the ways they might shape pedagogy-are becoming sidelined”.
The market he says “has a need to contain the wayward”.
“Indian education is even worse. The degree is seen purely as an acquisition of technical knowledge of a certain kind and whether that has to do with you becoming a heart surgeon or a space scientist or whatever”.
Chaudhuri is a man facing limitations yet he is neither resentful nor furious. Though limitations are impacting his musical genre and teaching practice, his search for authentic experience remains expansive. His artistry remains vital, perhaps because he has not- as so many of us do- sold himself a static, packaged version of the thing he has spent most of his life exploring and writing about: reality. It is no surprise he is stepping away from pedagogy: this is something that cannot be taught- like classical Indian music, it has to be experienced to be understood.