Amit Chaudhuri’s book argues that classical Hindustani music is modernist


Famous fiction writer Amit Chaudhuri’s new prose book is described by him as “a story but not a story, a series of opening paragraphs, where life is about to happen”. It contains autobiographical details including those of the initiation into Hindustani music and classical music, an overview of many aspects and history of this music, an account of his teachers like Amit found and learned from them.

Chaudhuri discovers that “the classic occupies a strange place in any culture oscillating between authority and illegitimacy receiving both reverence and indifference. In India, the reasons for its questionable status have a complex history. “Not sharing the common assumption of the classic, Chaudhuri notes that” remarkable creative periods do not necessarily belong to the distant past “

Recalling “the rose is a rose is a rose” by Gertrude Stein, Chaudhuri asserts that a raga is a raga and chooses to describe it negatively, that is to say that it is not a composition. , neither of a mode, nor of a scale, nor of a total of its notes – not a self-closed composition, it is an unfolding rather than a representation. He invokes Bharat of Natyashastra to say that “music is a form of listening to the world”.

Further, Chaudhuri declares that “A raga is not a fashion. That it’s not a linear movement, it’s a simultaneity of notes, a constellation, in a way quite different from harmony, we explore simultaneity in a particular way. A raga is a melody slowed down to such an extent that the simultaneity and potential relationship between the notes and the emotional content and texture of each note replaces the melodic form.

Of the world, not about that

Chaudhuri discussed at length the unrepresentative character of Hindustani classical music. He rightly insists that this music is not about the world, but about the world. He uses an excerpt from an essay by Rabindranath Tagore where Tagore believes that “We Indians live in this kingdom of power. We are fascinated by what is timeless and complete. Ours is the song of personal loneliness; Europe is that of social support. Our music takes the listener out of the bounds of man’s daily vicissitudes to that lonely land of renunciation which is at the root of the whole universe, while the music of Europe dances in various ways in ascension and the endless fall of man’s joy and sorrows.

Chaudhuri goes on to say that this music “reminds us that” India “is text. Only a small part of reality can be conveyed by telling stories about it or representing it in pictures. We participate in reality by experiencing language at its most arbitrary and basic level of meaning. He adds that a culture which gives primacy to the language, as with the classical music of North India, will raise the composer to secondary or invisible status, and will see the text as the main ancestor, which is why the Most ragas do not have known composers, and who the composer might be is of secondary interest.

And back to the raga, Chaudhar says, “He has no recognizable existence apart from other ragas.” It is recognizable through differentiation. These are not the ragas. And later, he adds: “the imagination makes us present, by anticipation, what is absent”.

One of the most remarkable things about this book is the fact that the author lives in two distinct universes, Indian and Western, and uses intellectual and aesthetic tools invented and perfected in the West to understand and analyze the Indian universe as revealed by classical Hindustani music. For him, the Indian universe is one without tragedy; it derives its value from joy.

Joy is participation in existence, without a separate definition for itself. It is everywhere and its lack of outline makes it difficult to identify. Chaudhuri points out: “His strength is that he can reside in the smallest and least resistant of things – a grain of rice or a strand of hair. This is why a Mughal or Kangra miniature can contain more life, more cosmos, than a huge Renaissance painting.

Stressing that the postponement has priority in the cultural imagination of India, Chaudhuri proceeds to the analysis of two key elements “shruti” and “badhat”. Noting that self-expression is anathema to our music, he states that the “shruti” is related to the note’s anticipation of the next note, as well as its refusal to be immediately transformed into it. . He adds: “The end of the journey is important, but the journey itself takes priority. The trip – badhat; progression is another name for delay.

While recounting his own practice as a musician, Chaudhuri notes that “Despite the legend, I find that the culture – musical, spiritual – is less interested in miracles than in life.” He admits, “I’ve learned how often sound – separate from the word, even from what we commonly think of as a musical note – often says something.

Khayal and modernism

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Amit Chaudhuri situating khayal in the modernist context. He says that with khayal we are witnessing an unrepresentative radical change whose inclinations are modernist. Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan’s experiences with khayal at the turn of the last century and Eliot’s suggestion that “true poetry can communicate before it is understood” are not miles apart in their tendencies.

Chaudhuri defines modernism as “the destruction of recognizable”, with an acute need to free oneself from representation. In a brilliant collage, so to speak, Chaudhuri places the khayal in the context of the Nirakar of the Upanishads, the Nath yogis, the author’s Flaubertian concept as omnipresent but invisible, Mallarmé and Rabindranath Tagore, when “the non-representational begins to enter. in poetry ”.

Other manifestations of a modernist impulse that Chaudhuri identifies are: frequent indifference to the meaning of words, khayal asking us not to distinguish between process and product; those who know alaap see escape as the main activity of creation. He also believes that Khayal music poses a non-humanistic universe with the emphasis not on personality or psychology but on sur and taal, height and temporality, Recalling Abhinavgupta, the 10th century esthetician, Chaudhuri does not find nothing unusual in the belief in proximity. from calm to joy.

All in all, these discoveries and assertions of the modernity of khayal are, to my knowledge, made for the first time. As a well-trained musician and a modern writer, Amit Chaudhuri’s description is both intelligent and genuine. Ultimately, while there are some questionable assumptions, they tend to demolish the divide between the classic and the modern and reveal that the classic does indeed have an undeniable modernist impulse: the classic is almost the modern.

Along with the discoveries about Khayal music is the personal narrative of learning, practicing and reflecting on music in Mumbai, Kolkata, London, Paris, etc. alive, etc. Its borders are porous and other sounds are allowed to enter. It is not a music which seeks perfection in isolation and exclusion. On the contrary, it is open to the world. It is not, as already said, the world, but the world.

Creating a rare combination of writing and musical experience, Chaudhuri, towards the end of this very readable and enlightening book, concludes: “One thing that I have felt over and over again during this project is that all music – whether it is a rock riff or a piece of melody of a hated genre – is a sound, and has an independent life among the sounds one has heard and forgotten, that all sound – the voice of a tramp , the hum of a machine – is music. We navigate in this double. When the time comes, familiar notes become sounds, or a familiar sound becomes a note. “

In search of the raga: an improvisation on Indian music, Amit Chaudhuri, Penguin Books India.

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