Chaudhuri explores the subtle differences in approach to life between East and West, between tradition and modernity, through his exploration of Indian and Western music.
Amit Chaudhuri is keenly interested in something some of us take for granted and others simply ignore.
âI try to write about what we call reality. I find that there is no language to write about this. There is no language to write about it because nothing like it exists statically – it’s fluid. There is no available language available as there would be if reality were fixed and static. If so, I could just say “the evening is dark” and be done with it. I can’t just say this because it doesn’t adequately describe the ever-changing reality â.
Chaudhuri is a very accomplished man: seven published novels which have won him numerous awards, a singer by training in the North Indian classical tradition, professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia in England and singer in an experimental group mixing jazz, blues and Indian raga.
Talking to Amit by video call as he recovers from Covid-19 at his home in Kolkata is an informative and refreshing pleasure. He is welcoming and accessible. There are no editing agents or personal assistants to liaise with. There is little ego to navigate to get to the questions that matter.
His latest book is both a memory and an essay on his experiences with Indian classical music. In Finding The Raga, Chaudhuri explains how, while growing up in Mumbai in the 1970s, Indian classical music was alien to him, as it is to most Indians. He and his friends were quite fascinated by western pop and rock. At the age of 16, captivated by his mother’s singing teacher, he found what he calls “an entry point” in music which he has now spent much of his life practicing. and to interpret.
âI called it Finding The Raga because when I watched it I realized there was this theme running through it: not the way I inherited the raga, but the way I got it. found. It is not something that was transmitted to me. It is a matter of not inheriting in a way its culture, not even of discovering it but of reinterpreting it, of giving it meaning. You find it because it is important, but its importance has nothing to do with whether it belongs to you. You are drawn to it for other reasons. The book is then an attempt to explore why someone feels attracted to something that has been ignored â.
Born in 1962, Chaudhuri moved to London at age 18 to study literature and stayed mainly in England until the age of 37 before returning to India. Having been educated and lived on his land, he writes in the language of the former colonizer, 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 specifies, however, that he “does not make mimetic or allegorical extrapolations on these societies on the basis of the music they produce”.
Chaudhuri repeatedly asserts that he does not speak as an expert but as an observer and practitioner of what he is talking about. It’s refreshing to meet a writer and a public intellectual who can make a difference first and then admit it.
It is this honesty that allows him to see the advantages and disadvantages of East and West, of tradition and modernity, and of their reciprocity.
âThere is more spontaneity in Indian music. The structures are not set in stone like they are in Western music, whether it is Western classical or popular music where they are all written. The structures are more fluid in Indian music. Fluidity as a form of expression is what we explore.
âYet we have to think of classical music as a balance between our ideas of the traditional and the modern. Some of the most substantial changes we are currently seeing in chanting in khayal (a type of Indian chanting) in terms of expansion, fluidity, are the result of experiences in this form over the past century; trying to make even greater fluidity possible. It’s traditional but also modern. This was between the 1920s and 1970s.
âAs secular incarnations of art began to emerge from the 19th century onwards, a space was created which had to do with experimentation, with the play of thought and language and not with the burden of language.
âThere was an ongoing creation of space that had to do with the play of thought in a way that was not weighed down by the idea of âârepresenting the nation, or representing a tradition. Some must have rubbed off on the musicians. They became not only the bearers and representatives of a tradition, but people who began to reflect, allowed themselves to think in a new and free way about what this tradition was â.
One of the themes that runs through Chaudhuri’s book is limitation. Part of the fluidity of classical Indian music is that it is not bound by structural techniques common to other genres. For example, alaap – an improvised introduction to raag – typically comprises three-quarters of the entire performance. But in India today, he says the limitless essence of classical music is now held back by constraints of form.
âHe needs to free himself from his own artificiality, from performers wearing a particular type of kurta (shirt), to sing khayal in a particular way, to play sitar and do saw jaw (call and answer) with the tabla player and ending on a climax, touching the feet of older musicians, pulling your ear when you mention a famous singer from the past. Part of this limitation, he says, comes from a deeply rooted âBrahmanic codeâ of authority.
âIt has to do with staying in power, excluding others. So you decide whether something works or not based on whether all the rules have been followed; whether the notes that were to be sung in a way particular in a raag were sung the right way. It starts to become a matter of control. You control the music through scrutiny rather than a fluid and constant emotional experience and openness to nuance. “
The reduction in human fluency is one of the reasons he thinks Indian classical music remains an oddity to most Indians’ ears – and was also for people who had a significant influence on them – British colonists. . In his book, he writes, “music was a facet that the English colonizer did not understand and did not like”.
He told me âtheir ears were absolutely not used to the structure, to the twisted notes; the crooked notes would have completely confused them.
âRemember when Westerners first heard the blues, they must have found it weird. We have forgotten the fact that white European responses to black music, which I do not equate to Indian music, yet black music to some extent in a different way is distinct from conventional Western approaches, especially around the turn of the century. 19th century, early 20th century concerning the folding of notes. If the direct note is the dominant context in Europe or America, when they hear the blues for the first time, they must be wondering what kind of music is it? Some would have been open to it, but let’s not forget that he had to fight to find his place. They had the slaves, and then the African Americans became a part of that culture – a fundamental part. “
The prospect of Indian classical music continuing as an art form to expand the boundaries of human experience – and therefore freedom – is not an idea he is optimistic about.
âThis music was created, I think, by Mavericks and one thing about Indian society is that it had a big place for Mavericks. It starts from an old tradition with the space given to renunciators – this whole area has existed. He does not exist anymore.
Just as the space for his favorite type of music has shrunk, so has his work as a teacher and he will be stepping down from his post in East Anglia later this year.
âI am anxious and concerned about the way universities are doing. In Britain, they are going through a metamorphosis. There are a lot of market and marketing pressures. Gradually, individual choice, imagination and experience – and how they might shape pedagogy – are put aside â.
The market, he says, “needs to contain the fussy.”
âIndian education is even worse. The degree is only considered to be an acquisition of technical knowledge of a certain type and if it has to do with whether you become a cardiac surgeon or a space scientist or whatever â.
Chaudhuri is a man who faces limitations but he is neither resentful nor angry. Although the limits have an impact on his musical genre and his teaching practice, his search for an authentic experience remains vast. His artistry remains vital, perhaps because he hasn’t, like many of us, sold himself a static, packed version of what he has spent most of his life exploring and writing about. : reality. It is not surprising that he is moving away from pedagogy: it is something that cannot be taught, like Indian classical music, you have to experience it to be understood.
Source: TRT World