Classic Indian vs. classic European
Chaudhuri explores subtle differences in attitudes towards life between East and West, between tradition and modernity – through his exploration of Indian and Western music.
Amit Chaudhuri is very interested in what some of us take for granted and others just ignore.
“I try to write about what we call reality. I think there is no language to write about. There is no language in which to write about it because there is no such thing as a static thing – it is fluent. There is no language available as it would be if reality were fixed and static. If so, I could just say the evening is dark and done. 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 that have earned him numerous awards, a trained singer in the classical North Indian tradition, professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia in England, and singer in an experimental band playing jazz and blues connects and the Indian raga.
Talking to Amit on video call while recovering from Covid-19 at his Calcutta home is an insightful and refreshing pleasure. It’s welcoming and approachable. There are no publishing agents or personal assistants to get in touch with. There is little ego to navigate to get to the questions that matter.
His latest book is part memoir and part essay about his experiences with Indian classical music. In Finding The Raga, Chaudhuri tells how when he grew up in Mumbai in the 1970s, Indian classical music was alien to him – as it is to most Indians. Instead, he and his friends were intrigued by western pop and rock. At the age of 16, fascinated by his mother’s singing teacher, he found an “entry point” into the music that he has now spent much of his life practicing and performing.
“I called it Finding The Raga because I realized in retrospect that it runs through this theme: not how I inherited the raga, but how I found it. It was not something that was passed down to me. It’s about not inheriting your own culture, not even discovering it, but reinterpreting it, giving it a meaning. You find it because it is important, but its meaning has nothing to do with the fact that it is yours. They are attracted to it for other reasons. The book is then an attempt to explore why someone is drawn to something that has been ignored ”.
Chaudhuri was born in 1962, moved to London at 18 to study literature and mostly stayed in England until the age of 37 before returning to India. Raised and lived by his country, he writes in the language of the former colonizer in order to present subtle differences in the attitude to life between East and West, between tradition and modernity – through his examination of Indian and Western music.
However, he makes it clear that he “does not make any mimetic or allegorical extrapolations about these societies based on the music they produce”.
Chaudhuri claims on several occasions that he does not speak as an expert but as an observer and practitioner of what he is talking about. It is refreshing to meet a writer and public intellectual who, firstly, can tell the difference and, secondly, admit it.
It is this honesty that enables him to recognize the advantages and disadvantages of East and West, of tradition and modernity and their mutuality.
“There is more spontaneity in Indian music. The structures are not set in stone as in western music, be it in western classical music or in popular music, where they are all written down. In Indian music the structures are more fluid. Fluidity as a form of expression is what we explore.
“Nevertheless, you have to imagine classical music as a balance between our ideas of tradition and modernity. Some of the substantial changes we see today in singing the khayal (a type of Indian song) in terms of expansion and fluidity are the result of experiments in this form over the past century; try to allow even more fluid. It’s traditional, but also modern. It happened between the 20s and 70s.
“When secular incarnations of art began to emerge from the 19th century, a space was created that had to do with experimentation, with the game of thought and language, and not with the burden of language.
“The space that has to do with the game of thinking has been created over and over again, in a way that was not encumbered by the idea of representing the nation or the representation of a tradition. Some of it must have rubbed off on musicians. They became not only carriers and representatives of a tradition, but people who began to think and allowed themselves to think in new and free ways about what that tradition was ”.
One of the themes that runs through Chaudhuri’s book is limitation. The fluidity of Indian classical music comes in part from its not being tied to structural techniques common in other genres. For example, the alaap – an impromptu introduction to the raag – typically comprises three quarters of the entire performance. But in India today, he says, the limitless essence of classical music is now being dampened by form constraints.
“It has to free itself from its own artificiality, from actors who wear a certain type of kurta (shirt), to sing the khayal in a certain way Sitar and do Sawtooth (Call and answer) with the tabla player and ends in a climax, touching the feet of the older musicians, pulling the ear when you mention a famous singer from the past. ”Part of this limitation, he says, is deeply rooted rooted “Brahmanic Code” of authority.
“It involves staying in power, keeping others away. So you decide whether something works or not depending on whether all the rules have been followed; whether the notes that should be sung in a certain way in a raag were sung correctly. It starts to become control. You control the music through careful scrutiny rather than constantly flowing emotional experience and openness to nuances.
Limiting human fluidity is one of the reasons he believes Indian classical music remains a curiosity for most Indians – and also for the people who had a significant influence on it – British colonists. In his book he writes: “Music was a facet that the English colonizer did not understand and that he did not like”.
He tells me, “Her ears were completely unfamiliar with the structure and the curved tones; the twisted notes would have confused her as hell.
“Remember, when western people first heard the blues, they must have found it strange. We have forgotten that white European responses to black music, which I don’t equate with Indian music, are however different in some ways from conventional western approaches, particularly at the turn of the 19th-early 20th century about sheet music bending. If in Europe or America the current tone is the predominant context, when you first hear the blues, you have to ask yourself what kind of music it is? Some of them would have been open to it, but let’s not forget that it had to struggle to take its place. They had the slaves and then the African American became part of that culture – a fundamental part. “
The prospect that Indian classical music will continue to exist as an art form to expand the limits of human experience – and thus freedom – is not optimistic for him.
“This music was made by loners I think, and one thing about Indian society is that it leaves a lot of space for loners. It starts with an ancient tradition with the space given to the renunciate – this whole domain existed. It does not exist anymore.”
Just as the space for his preferred genre has become smaller, so has the space for his work as a professor and he will be leaving his position in East Anglia later this year.
“I am concerned and concerned about the development of universities. In Great Britain they are going through a metamorphosis. The market and commercialization pressure is great. Gradually, individual choices, imagination and experience – and the way in which they might shape pedagogy – are being sidelined ”.
The market, he says, “has to contain the self-willed”.
“Indian education is even worse. The degree is seen as the pure acquisition of technical knowledge of a certain type and whether that has to do with becoming a cardiac surgeon or a space scientist or whatever. “
Chaudhuri is a man who faces limitations, but he is neither upset nor angry. Although limitations affect his musical genre and teaching practice, his search for authentic experiences remains far-reaching. His art is still vital, perhaps because, like so many of us, he hasn’t sold himself a static, packaged version of what he has spent most of his life researching and writing: reality. No wonder he moves away from pedagogy: You can’t teach that – like Indian classical music, you have to experience it in order to be understood.
Source: TRT World