Interview: Amit Chaudhuri, Author, Finding the Raga – “Which way you are going to turn is unknown to you”
The title of your book Finding the Raga signals a kind of quest
The title of your book Finding the Raga signals a kind of quest. It reads a bit like a travelogue because the reader gets to travel with you to Mumbai, Kolkata, London, Berlin. What made you come up with this title? What else did you consider?
While writing the book, I used to ask myself: “What is this book about?” And then it occurred to me that it’s about a turn in my life and the ramifications of that turn and everything that leads to that turn also then being reassessed through the perspective the turn gives me, and one thing sort of illuminating the other, whatever it was that I was before I turned towards any classical music, the background in Western pop music and playing the guitar and all of that.
Growing up in Bombay with the English language – and with Bengali as a treasured language but one that I didn’t learn in school – I would reassess and revalue the significance of all those things, including my childhood experiences after the turn happened. And I understood the impact and ramifications of that turn.
As my life progressed, I would go back to my encounters with this country that I nominally sort of belong to. But what is the deeper attachment to that country? What brought me back to it? What was it in my childhood that left its impression? Writing this book was very different from writing a novel about the nation or relating myself to the country through a passport or through some form of nationalism. It was about finding the raga but also finding so much else through it. That was the subject of the book. That is why I decided to go for that particular name. I wasn’t looking for it, but I found it.
My original title for the book was Alaap. Like I say in the book, the idea of an alaap in Hindustani classical music corresponds with my need for narrative not to be a story but a series of opening paragraphs where life hasn’t already happened. It’s about to happen. The alaap in my book came to occupy an inordinate and disproportionate amount of time, so I thought I would call the book itself Alaap. There were a few reasons for not doing that. There were other things in the book besides the alaap. I didn’t want the alaap to get confused with being some sort of an introduction in case people began to translate that word into English.
What you are saying about the country and nationalism reminds me of the concluding part where you have this poetic engagement with the idea of India weaving in references to Bharata, Amir Khusro and Naushad. Could you talk a little about how your life in music has also shaped the way you engage with the idea of Indianness?
Yes, certainly. One of the first things I would say is that discovering Hindustani classical music, on one level, was like returning to a mother tongue. You see, the emergence of the modern Indian languages and the authors who contribute to it – to this kind of formation – often takes place as a turn. It’s not as if they’re inheriting the language automatically. They turn towards it, and often turn towards it in a foreign country.
Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who wrote exclusively in English during the early part of his life, began to write the sonnet in Bengali. This happened in Versailles, if I remember correctly. The idea for the Kannada novel Samskara (1965) came to UR Ananthamurthy when he was doing his PhD at the University of Birmingham. He went to watch Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish film The Seventh Seal (1957) with his supervisor, Malcolm Bradbury. They watched it without subtitles. He was deeply moved. That was the starting point for his book Samskara. Then there was AK Ramanujan, who turned to his ancient family inheritance in Chicago.
Do you see this thread of the turn taking place? These inheritances are not automatic. So, for me, too, it wasn’t an automatic inheritance which I could take for granted. It came to me at a certain point in my life. So, I never turned to my mother tongue, literally. I wrote in English, I continued to write in English, but my growing affinity for Hindustani classic music was akin to the turn that had taken place in the history of modernity in India towards the mother tongue as something coming to you at a certain point in your life, not something that you take to be a natural inheritance. You don’t see it in that utopian way. You see it as an entry into a system or a way of thinking which is maybe quite different from the empiricist Enlightenment values in the English language that you have grown up with.
I don’t mean to say that Bengali doesn’t have those empiricist and Enlightenment values. It does. But Hindustani classical music is so experimental in its nature that it immediately connects to the world, not through trying to represent it through its notes, but through the cycles of time and season. It made me rethink what culture is and what a work of art in a culture is. I’ve grown up with this idea of a work of art being something that an author produces and then puts into the culture. If culture is a room, he places it in that room or she places it in that room. This is not true of culture once you become exposed to other ways of thinking. And the raga is another such way of thinking where it is producing the author, producing the performer, who then in turn produces something which also becomes part of that culture. But the author is not the sole producer. This author is part of this process.
The performance is part of this process. This is so very different from the Western Enlightenment idea that the author is somebody who just produces out of nowhere. It really made me think about the inheritance that we call the West, which is also part of our own inheritance here in India. And its limitations, of course. It also made me think of India itself in a new way – everything that India is, including the light and dark at different times of day and night, depending on the topography that you are in, the season that you are witnessing.
India has more seasons than the West does. They are very nuanced and gradational. They are meant to capture small shifts in a way that autumn, winter, spring, and summer don’t quite capture. Indian seasons mark shifts as you move from one phase of light to another. The raga is what alerts you to all of this because different ragas are connected to different times of day and different seasons of the year. These connections are inextricable from the way in which Hindustani classical music imagines, constructs, presents, and participates in the world.
This approach leads to a very different relationship with one’s surroundings from, let’s say, a purely abstract, national and political way of thinking about where you are, where you live.
This is fascinating to hear, especially because your initial encounters with Hindustani classic music evoked embarrassment, even aloofness in you. And then, over time, it came to occupy so much of your being. Isn’t it just amazing how things happen?
Yes, absolutely! Which way you are going to turn is unknown to you. And that has happened to me again and again in my life. The things that have happened, the things that I’ve tried out as a writer or as a musician or as a composer are not things that were part of a plan that already existed in my mind. I would never have foreseen those things. I would never have foreseen that I would be writing novels or get so interested in poetry as a form that I would one day write a book of poems like Sweet Shop (2019). I wrote those poems in a matter of just three to four months. It was even more interesting to observe how I came back to Western music. If you had asked me many years ago, I would have said: “No, I’m not interested in exploring overlaps between two musical traditions.” Some things are difficult to predict, I guess, even the fact that I would be listening to Jimi Hendrix all over again.
You wrote the book during a nine-month fellowship at the Columbia Institute of Ideas and Imagination in Paris. How did that environment help you with the writing?
I was staying in an area called Château Rouge, which at first took me aback. I would say 95% people there are West Africans, 4% are Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, and 1% white European. I was in a building in a flat that had been let out to me by a German couple. If I remember correctly, they were musicians too, and had gone to Stanford University to teach.
The area itself was astonishing. I had to get my head around the fact that this is where I was going to spend nine months, not in some sort of quarter where I would get to see, within quotes, French life. And my wife said, “But you know, this is Paris!” She came and joined me almost immediately, and she said, “When Ernest Hemingway lived here, this is the kind of Paris he lived in.” I realised that what she said was absolutely true. The Paris that we think of now as Paris is a curated sort of Paris. The famous Parisian writers and artists that we know of were often living in the midst of working class and shabby sort of everyday realities.
I was living in the true Paris or maybe a small remnant of it. The fellowship was in 2019. Four months after I arrived, I had to give a talk. I took that as a kind of impetus to write as much as I could. I gave much of the first chapter as a talk at the Institute of Ideas and Imagination. The fellowship gave me a lot of time to reflect and write. Once I started putting down what I already had in my mind, the writing itself took me to new thoughts and ideas.
Did you get to do riyaaz every morning in this neighbourhood?
Yes, always! The floorboards in my building were slightly porous in that I would realise my neighbours could probably hear me. I certainly got to hear the music they were playing. There was somebody who practised on the piano – a child, I think, or somebody who sounded like a beginner. I too must have also been audible but it was great. Everybody was about their own business. I couldn’t get a flat near the Basilica du Sacré Coeur – a famous church on top of a hill – where I wanted to live. Once the landlords found out that I was a musician, they looked me up on Wikipedia. They were a bit nervous about giving me the flat. The flat that I eventually rented was just a 10-minute walk from Basilica du Sacré Coeur.
What musical instruments did you take with you to Paris?
Just my electric tanpura and electric tabla. That’s it! Life has been made very easy and comfortable with these super sophisticated gadgets produced by people in Bangalore.
Finding the Raga has got you shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which was once given to author DH Lawrence. How does that make you feel? He has been a major influence on your creative and intellectual life.
It awakens a sort of childish happiness in me. It takes me back to so many things. When my first novel – A Strange and Sublime Address – came out in 1991, it was published by William Heinemann. They published DH Lawrence, and they were my first publisher. I still remember the delight that I experienced back then because of the reverence I continue to feel towards Lawrence. He is one of our greatest writers, critics and thinkers but his name is not in circulation among readers in the way that it should be. Writers, of course, continue to look up to him. Among contemporary writers, we have Geoff Dyer and Rachel Cusk who are great admirers of Lawrence. I certainly feel a deep sense of affection towards him for a number of reasons. In fact, I was surprised at first to hear that he had won a prize at all. In the long term, one looks at the significance of these things from a different perspective. However, in the short term, it must have been a welcome thing for him to have actually got it.
Lawrence got the prize in the “fiction” category for his novel The Lost Girl (1920). I hope the prize money back then was as substantial as it is now – £10,000.
Yes, in real terms it might have been substantial. It would have certainly helped him.
Why do you think Lawrence is under appreciated as a writer today?
I think that one of the reasons closer to our time is that maybe the feminists took issue with some of the things that he said. But that happened even in his own time, I guess, with the kind of writing style and vision that he pursued. After the relative perfection of the great book Sons and Lovers (1913), he embarked on other books like The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920). There he began to sacrifice perfection and control to a greater urgency and even unevenness of register. That alienated even his contemporaries and invited their disdain and bewilderment. TS Eliot was one of the people who criticized him deeply even while praising him. I think that Lawrence’s background – his working-class origins – may have also played a part in marking him, isolating him, and making him different. To his credit, Lawrence made something of that difference with his extraordinary intelligence.
Chintan Girish Modi is an independent writer, journalist and book reviewer.