Finding music in ‘moments of mishearing’
The author of seven novels, Chaudhuri’s wide ranging creative career extends to being one of the most influential literary critics of his generation, alongside being a poet, essayist, anthologist as well as a trained and critically acclaimed singer in the North Indian classical tradition.
While most authors focus on single human protagonists, Amit Chaudhuri believes in focusing on the simplicity of a moment itself. Human characters don’t take centre stage; instead, single elements of a moment—be it a room, a wall or even smoke, become central characters that continually change, taking readers from one moment to the next, depicting the everyday in a style so powerful, yet quite, that Hilary Mantel, double Man Booker prize-winning author, compared him to Marcel Proust, for ‘perfecting the art of the moment.’ ‘He is a miniaturist,’ she says, ‘for whom tiny moments become radiant, and for whom the complexities of the fleeting mood uncurl onto the page like a leaf, a petal.’
The author of seven novels, Chaudhuri’s wide ranging creative career extends to being one of the most influential literary critics of his generation, alongside being a poet, essayist, anthologist as well as a trained and critically acclaimed singer in the North Indian classical tradition. The recipient of numerous awards such as the Commonwealth Literature Prize and the Betty Trask award (for A Strange and Sublime Address), the Encore Prize (for Afternoon Raag), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (for Freedom Song), Sahitya Akademi Award (for A New World) and the Rabindra Puraskar (for On Tagore), Chaudhuri’s passion for the creative arts goes well beyond just writing. His first CD of experimental music, This is Not Fusion, established him as one of India’s most internationally acclaimed experimental musicians, bringing together the raga, the blues, jazz, rock, and techno in what can only be called a monumental album.
Despite his illustrious career in the creative arts, Chaudhuri finds it difficult to define the inspiration behind his artistic impulses. ‘This word has always puzzled and confused me,’ he says, ‘I don’t know what “inspiration” is. If you’re talking about a certain kind of excitement, then I would say it happens from time to time when certain things fall into place, in a way that you hadn’t noticed before, urging you to explore further. The whole business of inspiration has to do with noticing things which you had left unnoticed or hadn’t seen. That’s what inspiration is to me—to see something in a way I haven’t seen before and then to explore what I’ve found. The pleasure and the excitement you feel, even when there is no guarantee of any reward or comprehension, it has its own value —value for its own sake. That is what drives me to continue doing what I’m doing.’
Growing up with music
With quite a singular and unique approach to how he views the arts—be it writing or singing, Chaudhuri’s love affair with Indian classical music can be traced to his mother Bijoya Chaudhuri, a well-known exponent of Tagore songs and devotionals. ‘She was singing all the time. She sang in a very exact, classicist way that was unromantic and devoid of sentimentality, bringing out both the voice’s tonality and the emotion inherent in the music,’ he shares. He found a great calmness in her singing, with her personality going into the background, and a ‘kind of serenity’ coming to the foreground. ‘That contrast is something I became aware of quite early because I noticed everyone would put their personality in the foreground and their interpretation of the music was all about themselves. She, on the other hand, didn’t feel it necessary to add her own emotion. She felt that the emotion was there the music itself and that’s what she tried to draw and bring out, as much as possible.’ Over time, he began to realise that this affected the way he thought about art, understanding the importance of the craft it takes to allow the music to occupy the foreground. Art had become a kind of exercise in precision and in exactness, in fidelity to the kind of meaning inherent in things.
Growing up in a small nuclear family in Kolkata and later Mumbai, Chaudhuri recalls listening to rock and pop music in the late 1960’s when his father brought home a Hi-Fi system that came with two complimentary records. ‘In the kind of more middle class areas where we were growing up, western pop music was everywhere,’ he tells me. Listening to The Cure and the early Bee Gee’s, he began his musical journey by first playing the air guitar, and later the actual guitar, composing and singing his own songs. By the time he was 16 years old, he began harbouring the dream to become a Canadian singer-songwriter, influenced by musicians such as Neil Young, James Taylor and Leonard Cohen.
Despite his indulgence in western music and his aspirations to be a western musician, Indian classical music was an ever present force that shaped his life. It was around the same time he became exposed to Indian classical music through Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale, a new teacher who came to teach his mother bhajans, or devotional songs. ‘It was a great experience just listening to him sing. I also remember listening to ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan and what he was doing with the ghazal – again, a very classicist, classical approach to singing – extremely calm and unromantic.’ Around that time, he found himself drawn to the singing of Indian classical legends such as Pandit Jasraj and Kishori Amonkar who were often singing live in Mumbai, leading to the dissolution of his aspirations of being a western singer-songwriter while also distancing him from his interest in western music.
A regime of manic practice
‘When I began to hear more and more of them, my old prejudices began to fall away and I began to realise what an extraordinary kind of music it was. I would be trying to sing in the way they were singing and then I would realise that it wasn’t easy,’ he says. Refusing to admit defeat, he went into a regime of ‘manic practice,’ training for up to five hours a day, gradually setting aside his guitar to have more time to solely devote to Hindustani classical music. ‘I began to learn from Pandit Govind Prasad, practising incessantly. My mother was worried because I had a congenital heart murmur, a heart defect, and she worried this regime of practising for hours would hamper my health but I continued nevertheless.’
Pursuing a degree in English from University College London, Chaudhuri’s dedication to music remained his main priority. Carrying a small, custom-made tanpura, a harmonium and a cassette that had the thekas and Vilabmit ektal taped, he conducted his riyaaz in his London room, extremely conscious of his surroundings, but still steadfast in his determination to keep up his practice.
What led to such single-minded dedication? Was it merely the excitement of finding a new hobby? To that he replies with a strong no. ‘I felt that I was drawn to it, I was committed to it. It wasn’t a hobby—I don’t have any hobbies. Anything I do, I follow it through. Music certainly wasn’t my hobby—it was much less exciting. It wasn’t something I thought about making time for, and it wasn’t something I did so people could recognise what I was doing. I was doing it for myself.’
Situated in solitary confinement
For the first two years of college, Chaudhuri was notorious for skipping classes. The idea of coming into contact with others made him miserable while not coming into contact with them did the same, so he decided to situate himself in ‘solitary misery rather than misery amidst others.’ Not only did this give him ample time for his riyaaz, he was also able to write more, a passion he took just as seriously.
It was in his final year of study when one of his teachers applauded and appreciated his essays that things came together for him intellectually. ‘He was the first person who saw a real value in what I was writing. That was the first time I had a sense of being recognised. In Bombay I never had that chance,’ he adds.
He discovered the joy of writing when he was admitted to The Cathedral & John Connon School, an elite school in Bombay. With his parents never speaking a word of English to him, he felt the pressing need to fit in, to be able to learn and write English. ‘The headmistress told my mother to give me comic books and Ladybird books to read. Soon after, I picked up English and began to write and take pleasure in showing off that I had learned the language and I did so by writing stories,’ he recalls. In a place which was otherwise extremely miserable for him – school – he found delight in writing. ‘I felt alienated but I felt so, not just because I didn’t understand the language, but I felt alienated from the whole system of school itself. I detested the system where teachers instinctively rewarded the extroverted child and ignored those that didn’t step into the foreground,’ he explains.
While his love for writing stayed with him through college and thereafter, he also continued to nurture his fascination for classical music. Spending a lot of time in India during his college years, his insatiable quest to keep learning music made him desperately seek time away from the confines of London, to return to India, under the comfortable guidance of his teacher.
A religious conversion
In the 16 years Chaudhuri spent in London, as he pursued his PhD from Oxford, he had voluntarily switched off from listening to western music. ‘When I returned, the intensity had gone,’ he tells me, ‘I could listen to western music without flinching again.’ While listening to Jimi Hendrix playing the blues, in the pentatonic scale, he noticed certain ragas. ‘I began to hear doubly. Many months after that, I was listening to Raag Tori in the morning and I thought I heard the riff to Eric Clapton’s Layla,” he shares.
These ‘moments of mishearing,’ as he describes it, is what led him to study and explore these convergences. Despite being a devoted practitioner of the traditional form of Hindustani classical music, Chaudhuri went on to explore a rather unconventional version of experimental music in his albums This is Not Fusion and Found Music. ‘This knowledge of these convergences within oneself, coming about at certain moments, through these moments of mishearing is what led to this project. It wasn’t fusion in the ordinary sense—it was a convergence where you suddenly hear Layla in a Tori. Where is it coming from, what can it lead to?’ he asked.
‘Once something occurs to me, I see how long it continues to exert pressure on me and then I commit to it. If I commit to it I go all the way through. The same thing happened to the riff in Layla in Tori,’ he explains. Can musical language emerge from such an overlap? He wondered, unable to let go of the idea. ‘The idea stayed with me and I thought that maybe I should pursue and explore this,’ he adds. A Moment Of Mishearing, his 2015 feature-length film explores his awakening to the similarities between classical Indian ragas and western pop, jazz and blues.
‘This is Not Fusion’
Despite the apparent blend between western and Hindustani classical music, he refuses to call his album ‘fusion,’ aptly naming it This is Not Fusion. ‘Fusion presumes that an Indian person is located in a certain
place that has clear demarcations in India and the west is somewhere out there in the West represented by a western musician,’ he says. ‘Music isn’t a part of a common inheritance,’ he insists. ‘The riff in Layla is as much as my inheritance as much as Raag Tori is. In fact it is much more my inheritance because I knew Layla before I heard Tori. In fact it’s as much your inheritance, and an American’s or anyone else’s.’ His album questions the conventional markers by which we decide what experimental music should sound like. ‘Musical experimentation has to have a kind of impulse of its own, arising from the musical make-up and background of the musician,’ he explains. ‘It cannot arise because a classical Indian musician wants to do fusion all of a sudden. Or, if someone wants to popularise Indian classical music and puts it in a kind of capsule which would be more pleasant for others to listen to. If these are the impulses then that’s not an experiment,’ he adds. For Chaudhuri, experiments are not secondary to something you actually do, rather, it is as important as everything you do.
Arguing that the space for genuine experimentation, or exploration is lost, he hopes to be able to witness a time when people make way for these excursions. ‘We have to find a way of creating a conversation of a language which can talk interestingly and meaningfully about culture. It should have a status of its own so that even if we have heard a piece of music this person is talking about, or we have previously heard what he/she is saying, it should be of interest itself. But that doesn’t happen. All we can talk about is whether someone is successful or not. We don’t know why they’re successful.’
In his novel The Immortals, Chaudhuri delicately explores the contradictory world of music, as seen from the eyes of a mother-son musician duo set in the backdrop of 70s Bombay. ‘I wanted to write about this whole business of what creative people from different generations and classes that are connected with music, do in a time when the free market is changing the way we are looking at art.’ Painting a detailed portrait of the spiritual force behind the Indian tradition of learning classical music, the novel traces the lives of two families—one affluent, while the other middle-class, depicting how their musical choices are influenced by society.
Using the novel as a springboard to share observations made from his own life, Chaudhuri argues that in today’s age, art has no place. ‘However much one argues that art still has a place today, it actually doesn’t. Traditional artists and practitioners of Indian classical music are living in a world where the idea or value of their art is directed by the market, and not through any inherent memory or value associated with their art form. Those memories and values have been erased—so what do the arts do? Immortals is an exploration of the great beauty of learning music while showing how the protagonist is living in a world which actually has no way of valuing that music. It only values success. It only values financial reward. He has no way of valuing something like music and he has made peace with the world, making music regardless.’
Despite his belief that traditional Indian music is losing its place in the world, personally, he still feels drawn to it like never before. When asked what about music entices him the most, he takes a moment’s pause. ‘The sensuousness, or the hypnotic impact of the tone of the voice is what draws me to it. Voices that do not possess that tone don’t mean anything to me. However famous a singer may be, if their voices don’t possess that tonality, the kind of spiritual value, they are lacking the basic beauty of music. There’s nothing like the beauty of the tone a great singer or musician has. It’s a question of what that singer can do, what his instruments can do and how they fare with improvisation and on-the-spot creativity.’
With his seventh novel Friend of My Youth out this year, Amit Chaudhuri’s passion for creation has him working on a book of essays, with ideas for albums and novels in the pipeline. Alongside these endeavours, he currently serves as the Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia, and is the editor of the Picador/ Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature.
N Anita Amreen is a writer who began her creative career with a five year stint as a journalist, with her work appearing in national dailies such as Dhaka Tribune and Daily Sun. Presently, she works as Manager for the publishing wing of Bengal Foundation.
The author of seven novels, Chaudhuri’s wide ranging creative career extends to being one of the most influential literary critics of his generation, alongside being a poet, essayist, anthologist as well as a trained and critically acclaimed singer in the North Indian classical tradition. While most authors focus on single human protagonists, Amit Chaudhuri believes…