Author of seven novels, Amit Chaudhuri is a recipient of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Betty Trask Award, the Encore Prize, the LA Times Book Prize, the Sahitya Akademi Award and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Chaudhuri is also an admired singer in the North Indian classical tradition as well as a composer and performer in a celebrated project that brings together the raga, blues and jazz with a variety of other musical traditions. Excerpts from an interview with Neha Kirpal about his recent book, Finding the Raga.
Tell our readers some little known aspects of North Indian classical music traditions that you write about in your latest book.
The knowledge of the basic technical and compositional aspects of Indian classical music remains restricted to a very small minority. In the book, I’ve looked at the experimental and modernist qualities of Indian classical music and its development, especially of a genre such as the khayal. We tend to think of such forms as being part of a continuous, immemorial ancient tradition. It might come as a surprise how new some of these developments are, how modern or modernistic they are in their tendencies and how they represent departures and experimental tendencies in the artist.
How did you develop an interest in classical music? What are your earliest musical influences?
North Indian classical music is not something I turned to because I was told to or was part of a gharana where I inherited this music. Though part of a deeply musical family, given my mother’s singing of Tagore songs and Hindi bhajans; at the age of 16, I began to rediscover a musicality I’d first heard in my mother’s voice in classical musicians whom I had started listening to—Kishori Amolkar, Vishmadev Chatterjee, Nazakat-Salamat Ali Khan, the ‘Ragpradhan’ songs of SD Burman and Balgandharva’s ‘Natya sangeet’. I also found that depth of tonality and imaginative fecundity in the singing of my guru Govindprasad Jaipurwale. When I began to listen to his tiny modulations from line to line, I became hypnotised by the fine details that this tradition depended on among both practitioners and listeners.
Is the economy of Indian classical music self-sustaining?
The economy of Indian classical music has always been sustained by patronage. If the artist happens to be lucky by sensitive or enlightened patronage, or fortunate enough to live in a time where patronage comprises a group of enlightened cognoscenti, then that goes some way towards sustaining this music and the musicians. But it’s a fragile ecosystem, and because it is patron-dependent, it is closed.
On one level, great developments in Hindustani classical music took place because of an openness to experiment with various kinds of music and influences, including incorporating folk embellishments. This creative openness doesn’t exist to that extent anymore. The gharana system has now just become a kind of agglomeration of markers of legitimacy and a sense of territory that each gharana possesses. It needs to give way to outsiders or people within gharanas thinking like outsiders.
You have written fiction, essays and poems. In what way are they different from each other, and also, how are they all connected?
My fiction owes something to both of the other genres. My idea of the novel is open-ended, less guided by novelistic convention, and not dominated by ideas to do with character and story. I do not see the novel as a kind of vehicle with which to describe a milieu or portray a character primarily. In as much as a sense of uncertainty to do with genre is concerned, I allow my fiction to borrow from the form of the essay, its mode of exploration, discovery, and to take from poetry a sense of form and language as being non-dependent in its sense of movement and excitement on the idea of a central story or character. I think of all these—the novel, essay and poem—not so much as genres as forms of imaginative writing.
Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music
By: Amit Chaudhuri
Price: Rs 499