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‘I would feel optimistic if there were expressions of free speech and creation of new ways of thinking about creativity’

In an expansive conversation, writer Amit Chaudhuri and political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta discuss the idiosyncrasies of Indian classical music, how it shaped Chaudhuri’s creative impulse and his idea of home and the world


April 11, 2021 6:12:23 am
Amit ChaudhuriAmit Chaudhuri at LSE concert (Courtesy: Amit Chaudhuri)

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: I have been looking forward to this, as you know, because you were important to my development as a music listener in Oxford in the mid-’80s. I was very struck by the opening of your book (Finding the Raga, Hamish Hamilton, Rs 499) and maybe we should begin with that. You describe Indian classical music almost as a foreign territory, that most Indians encounter it as they would encounter foreign music. You attribute it to the fact that partly they listen to some very bad classical music, and, therefore, never get into the genre. But you also attribute it to a very technical feature of Indian classical music, namely its extreme tonalities and I just want to push you on that a bit. The paradox is that you yourself, throughout your life, have been extraordinarily receptive to all kinds of music with all kinds of weird tonalities. So, can you explain a little bit more about what you mean when you say Indian classical music is like a foreign country for most middle-class Indians and what you attribute it to?

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Amit Chaudhuri: There are many things that I am trying to say here. Some of it involves self-examination to do with why I resisted this kind of music for a period in my life, and why people resist this music — because otherwise everybody would be listening to Hindustani classical music and we know that it’s a minority taste. But I also wanted to address the kind of journey not only I, but everyone makes, when they are drawn towards something they might finally embrace. Before I come to the reasons to do with what is intrinsic to the music itself that might be inaccessible on a first hearing to a listener, I want to briefly address the fact that all art, even the seemingly most simple form of art, is, on some level, inaccessible and it’s a mistake to think that one can access it without preparation or contingency or transformation taking place in one’s life. A transformation in one’s life might be coterminous with one becoming receptive to a work of art. That receptivity doesn’t happen as a result of being told that something is valuable. Now, let us say that we have been told something is valuable but we find no value in it. Our present hegemony would tell us that in that case it’s a dead piece of the past and should be thrown out. While there is a case to be made for rejecting things that come to you with a preordained endorsement of value, it is also important to realise the difficult process of a transformation, that one encounters a resistance in oneself prior to a transformation. So, whether it’s music or a very simple piece of writing, it is true that, at a certain point in our lives, we will rediscover a value to it. We might, at a certain point in our lives, also find valueless something that we have been told was fantastic or something that we thought was fantastic.

Amit Chaudhuri Courtesy: Niladri Mahajan

When I was 15 years old, I did think that James Hadley Chase was a great writer. Of course, epochs pass in a year when you are that age. At the age of 14 or 15, trying to be older than I was, I might have thought Hadley Chase is a fantastic writer. The following year, I might have thought James Joyce is a great writer. At the age of 16, I tried to read Joyce. At 17, I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and rejected it. At the age of 24, I re-read it, and suddenly, I realised I feel a deep affinity for this view of the world and language. So, what I’m talking about is the fact that there is a degree of contingency, of accidentality here, and also a degree of resistance. One has to remember, the process of learning is not just education in the sense of something being dropped down from above, but a kind of a difficult experience of transformation that then leads to the discovery of a kind of pleasure that is very important. I think we have forgotten that to a certain extent.

Here’s the link to the full interview:

In your book, through your stay in England, as an undergraduate student first, and then as a graduate student in Oxford, we always get the sense that your experience in England redefined your relationship to Indian art forms in very many different ways. How would you characterise the ways in which that experience brought to your attention the different ways in which you look at Indian art forms you are already familiar with, whether it’s in poetry or music? What does that self-consciousness do to you? Have you found that debilitating or a creative force in thinking about both your music and your writing?

This deserves a good answer on several levels. Let me try and give you one. The first is to say that the self-consciousness had to do with how unselfconscious I had been prior to going there, that that was the primary self-consciousness. This applies not only to the way I looked at the colour of my skin but to the music I was then practising and humming from time to time. As I say, in my book, I suddenly became aware that the sounds I was producing when I was practising or humming to myself in an Indian restaurant were alien, and even funny to the English people two tables away. But I was also becoming aware that my humming was being noticed, that I was being noticed, in a way that had never happened to me on the Bombay local (train), for instance. I could be singing away, humming to myself, and the person opposite me would not notice or barely notice. I thought this culture of semi-distraction was formative to me. The culture of focus in England: I suffered in it and from it. I think these people who were so focused on the intrusion of the strange melody were oppressed by this sense of focus, which is why they were looking at me in that particular startled way. So, if anything, I became aware of the importance of the open window, the importance of distraction in India, via sounds coming in from outside. And then I discovered, of course, that our music is integral to the sense of openness. It is not about a concert hall, not about focus in that sense; there is a sense of commerce in it with the world that creates its context and meaning. This also became important to me, as far as my writing was concerned, that my writing not just be about interiority and character, but that it accommodates my sense of being in the world. The other thing I’d like to add is that I realised yesterday, when I was thinking of having this conversation with you, I was thinking of the time of us, going back to Oxford, etc. If it doesn’t seem like too much of an exaggeration, I would say that I was in an unprecedented situation. I was practising Khayal in 1983, going back and spending as much time as possible in India, to the extent that even today, I do not qualify for permanent residency in Britain after having spent all those years there. One of the reasons was music and my attachment to the country, which also came to me partly from music. So, undertaking those journeys and doing that kind of practice over there in an environment that was alien and which found my music alien, while doing the first degree at UCL (University College London) and the PhD in Oxford (University), and then beginning to write A Strange and Sublime Address, which I finished in 1988, this situation was unprecedented. I had nothing to look back to as a model. It was demanding in a particular kind of way I now see in hindsight, and it has continued to be demanding, especially in a cultural milieu which I don’t know, where there seems to be such a sharp divide between the practitioner and the person who thinks about art and practice.

Amit Chaudhuri Courtesy: Amit Chaudhuri

So, how do you think of your relationship to India now, as, perhaps, compared to 25-30 years ago? Has there been a significant change? Is there something you worry about in that relationship?

I’m very worried. Of course, at a larger level of talking about where we are today as a country, I am deeply anxious. But on a more intimate and very fundamental cultural level, to do with the imagination and the indispensability of the imagination, I’m extremely worried. And here, I would say the general problem, I wouldn’t put it only at the door of the right or the far right. I think there’s been a general failure. Part of the general failure is our inability to understand the nature of this failure, to come to terms with it, to even acknowledge it. It is always a kind of convenient shorthand to ascribe it to the political ugliness that has come to reign over our lives, the unforeseeable political ugliness that is now quickly becoming the norm for many people. It is deeply worrying. But if there were subsets over here, however difficult it is, who would sustain free thinking in culture — independent, courageous, truthful, open — then there would be some reason for optimism. I think of the colonial period in India as a period of great optimism in spite of the colonial rulers because of the extraordinary courage shown not only politically but in thought and creativity by our artists. At that time, the courageousness did not take place just through a kind of expression of political revulsion against the coloniser. It wasn’t as easy as that. They created new ways of thinking about the arts, about music, about literature, about performance, drama, dance. Let us say, we have a kind of extreme colonial presence taking control of our country today. I would feel optimistic if there were expressions not only of free speech but of the creation of new ways of thinking about creativity, which now seems to have given way. They don’t exist anymore.

Amit Chaudhuri Courtesy: Sayan Deb Chaudhury

Also, just one last thing, which I’ve talked about, in passing in the book, the casual dismissal with which we put to one side the whole business of the nuanced understanding of beauty in the interests of simpler categories like success, from the ’80s onwards. There have been many ideological assaults on it, including from the left. The cost is great. It has political ramifications. It allows people to appropriate whole parts of culture as (Donald) Trump did with Americanness, as the BJP is doing with Hinduism, without any real kind of counter-attack to it that can only come with an understanding of the ambiguity and nuanced quality of what it is that we are speaking about, what it is that we are cherishing. If we don’t want to cherish those more fragile things any more, then it’s only an empty gesture made on behalf of an abstract idea called freedom of speech.

You have, across so many different genres, expanded the horizons of our imagination. I always personally thought that the real seat of freedom is the imagination, not reason. Thanks for reminding us of that. Both of us grew up listening to the radio, particularly BBC Radio. In that spirit, if you had to recommend two recordings, one of Amit Chaudhuri, the one recording that you are, in a sense, proud of, that you say, yes, this is me, or this is how I’d like to be remembered, and one desert/island disc in the Khayal genre, what would you pluck out at this moment that would resonate with you?

This is a difficult question, especially the first part of it. Since you’ve asked me, so maybe (raag) Jog Bahar. I have two recordings which I’m equally fond of. One, which I did when I visited Calcutta in 1989. The other one is from 1994, when I was still in Oxford but no longer a student. It has the fuller exposition of Jog Bahar, so I would say that one. My Khayal desert/island choice would be between Kishori Amonkar and Amir Khan today. There is a live recording of Amonkar singing (raag) Shudh Nat. There is another live recording of her singing Tilak Kamod. So, I’m cheating and giving you two Kishori Amonkars. That’s today’s choice.

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