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‘A lot of the English music I sang was inspired from Hindustani classical’: Amit Chaudhuri

The author and musician on his latest music album, Seventeen, which travels back in time

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi |
November 22, 2021 10:30:12 am
Author and musician Amit Chaudhuri. (Photo credit: Express Archive)

Was the release of your latest album, Seventeen, around the same time as your book, Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music, a conscious decision?

No, it just kind of happened. Adam Moore, who plays the guitar with me when I perform in England, mastered the songs to reduce some of the radio static. Then I just let it lie and was busy with other things. I talk about my singer-songwriter period in the book so I thought I must back this up.

Was it hard to create original English songs as a young adult when most of India wasn’t listening to them?

When I was writing these songs, I was already making my way through Hindustani classical music. A lot of the music I sang was inspired from there. I sang Armistice Hour, one of the songs from Seventeen, for my teachers who were invited home after I had not done too disgracefully in my ICSE exams at the age of 15. I also participated in a college talent competition, which was to be judged by Nandu Bhende (who sang with rock bands Velvette Fogg and Savage Encounter and played Judas in Alyque Padamsee’s play adaptation Jesus Christ Superstar, 1974). Everybody sang covers but I sang a song of my own, Shout. People immediately began heckling me. But in the end, they gave me a rapturous applause. I did win that competition. One of the people in the competition was activist Sanjay Ghose (abducted and killed by the ULFA in 2008). He’d arranged to get a slot on Bombay All India Radio and I’d go with my guitar and sing my own songs. When these songs were broadcast, my mother would record them on a two-in-one. Once AIR found out I was singing my own stuff, they stopped inviting me.

How did the song Charas come about?

(Laughs) It came from that time where I had long hair and was pretending to smoke weed, and charas (cannabis). I never touched any of those drugs. It gave me a chance to compose a song with a blues structure, and also to speak about a sense of illusoriness.

A lot of musicians tend to cringe at their old work. How do you see Seventeen?

I don’t see it as my old work, I see it as the work of a different self. It doesn’t matter if the self was still evolving at that time in terms of its ideas to do with poetry and literature. So, I want to look at this self that is not trying to be somebody else, not trying to be Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan, but working with something. And that’s why I put it out there.

Amit Chaudhuri book Cover jacket of his latest album Seventeen, released earlier this year

What was your sense of the self while writing these songs?

From 1979-83, I went into complete isolation. The only people I mixed with were my gurus and parents. I did not have any friends. I had voluntarily withdrawn from that world. I had always felt a kind of resistance to Bombay’s unquestioning embrace of the so-called pedigree of the English language, and of Hollywood and Western pop, mainly because I had been exposed to Bengali culture — a completely modern culture with its own literature, children’s literature, songs, radio programmes. So, why must we always in Bombay, do this in English? I was also becoming more and more disenchanted with that corporate world even though my father was doing well in it. I was also composing these songs in the context of this self-imposed loneliness. In a song like Shame, I was conceiving — feeling intensely for and intensely bereft of — a beloved who wasn’t there. Bhakti poetry or the bhajans my mother sang were exposing me to this idea of love for invented beings.

What were the outside influences, what were you reading and listening to besides poet William Blake and Bengali literature?

I was very struck by Bhakti poetry. And by the idea of viraha, which is of interest to (Rabindranath) Tagore, and comes to him from his interest in Kalidasa. Meghdoot is all about viraha. This whole concept of being separated from somebody whom you don’t actually see, the truth and veracity is far more than being with that person, the separation being a state of being that produces its own meaning. I had spent so much time listening to people on that in, as I call it, American or Canadian singer-songwriter tradition. Among others, there were Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell, the greatest songwriter of the generation. I loved the sustained chords — there was a beautiful ambivalence about that.

You didn’t have much love for Bob Dylan?

I had mixed feelings about him. I like some of his songs very much, especially (the albums) John Wesley Harding (1967) and Blood on the Tracks (1975). Musically, as a songwriter, he interested me deeply. But he did not put me in a spell. With songs like Expecting to Fly or I Am a Child by Buffalo Springfield (Young’s band in 1968) or Mitchell, I was in a spell. And I could not figure out what that spell was. I was not in that state of enchantment with Dylan. He also deliberately cultivated this all-knowing, it was a part of the persona he was cultivating. I was not that interested in the irony of that persona. I love the kind of enchantment and the sense of surrender I felt when listening to Mitchell, however complex the songwriting was, there was always a dimension to it, which was dreamlike.

Why did you choose to be only known as a writer, and not a musician, all this time?

I thought that there would be scepticism about the fact that a writer who is publishing novels, and is doing a PhD, could be a serious Indian classical musician, which is what I was by that time. It was a very different time and you held back rather than advertise. And I didn’t have the time to promote myself as a musician. In order to make a headway, you need to be part of a gharana with patronage. I was the only disciple of my generation in Kunwar Shyam Gharana but my guru Govind Prasad Jaipurwale died at the age of 44. And I was already fairly well known as a writer. To go and sit outside somebody’s office, waiting to be admitted into some conference, is something I felt a lot of prejudice against.

Musicians like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, decided very early on that they were not going to be part of the Black minstrelsy — they didn’t want to be entertainers. Almost as a rebuff to that they decided it, both in the music and in their personal lives, to be difficult. And being difficult and propagating complexity is a way of distancing oneself from this role one is supposed to play as an entertainer. The music also manifests a particular kind of aesthetic pride. That was there in those musicians and I think that was there with me for quite a few decades. It was definitely one of the things besides the reticence and shyness, which also were a manifestation of that pride…I mentioned it finally, after (the album) This is Not Fusion (2007). That’s when people began to say to me that you really have to do a bit more than you’re doing to disseminate your work.

You wrote the libretto for Pandit Ravi Shankar’s final piece of music, the opera titled Sukanya (completed and premiered posthumously in 2017). Where does the complicated and starkly different system of Western classical music fit in your Hindustani classical world?

I am not an expert by a long distance. I haven’t listened to Western music with any degree of seriousness. The only interesting ones that I’ve listened to are the stuff I’ve discovered by accident. I argue with the lay understanding, which is quite universal, of what Western classical music kind of tells us. In Hindustani classical music, raga Shree does not have a composer. But this music is great music. Since the value system in the West is centred around not just the music and compositions but around composers like Beethoven and Mozart, they become part of this idea of cultural property. How does one describe what is going on in Hindustani classical music and the innovations it has made?

How do you align your different worlds — writing (novels and songs), Western music, Hindustani classical?

It’s not so difficult to align because even when I write, I’m very aware of the word as not only a unit of information, but of sound and how it can have various associations. The word doesn’t only carry the meaning identified with it, but various other meanings, which is not the job of a science textbook or a newspaper report to tap into but that of a writer. Something over and above a meaning in the conventional sense. Writing is, in fact, going beyond the purely informative. So, it is pointing us towards the possibility of other directions having meaning beyond what we identify meaning with. So, there is not that much of a divergence as might appear.

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