Updated: January 1, 2011 16:19 IST

Discordant notes

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The novel traces the trajectory of self-destruction of a gifted life…

If music be the food of love, play on.

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Mallarme, the French poet, is reported to have declared that all great art aspires to the condition of music. The Austrian child prodigy Mozart acquired an enviable fluency in the musical language of his time when he was just 13, while the German Beethoven, arguably the greatest composer in Western music, was a late bloomer. The musical trinity of devotional Carnatic music lived long, and lived contentedly to a ripe old age. While it would be unwise to arrive at generalisations regarding the life span of great musicians, there are quite a few known instances of gifted artists who, owing to reasons best known to themselves, get burnt out and die young, leaving their early promises unrealised, country-wide expectations unfulfilled. The forlorn lover taking recourse to alcoholism, fading out of people's memory is an archetypal image entrenched deeply in the Indian ethos. Yuvan Chandrasekar exploits this ingrained image in his novel The Immersed River (translated from the Tamil original Kanal Nadhi by Padma Narayanan).

Set in four sections, besides an introduction and an epilogue, the novel surveys the life of the gifted Hindustani vocalist Dhananjoy Mukherji. Born into a poor family in the nondescript village Mamatpur in Bengal, as a young lad he is left to the care of the traditional musician of the Agra tradition Bisnukant Sastri from Uttar Pradesh who has settled down in Mamatpur in deference to the wishes of his guru. Sastriji, for whom music is a passion, a penance to attain the divine, leads the way by trying each art, reproving each dull delay and alluring to the brighter mysteries of music. Finally he is groomed as a full-fledged musician capable of giving full-time concerts.

Turning point

Dhananjoy falls in love with Sarayu, the daughter of the village priest Shankar Rai. When Sarayu is given in marriage to a groom in Calcutta, the forlorn Dhananjoy leaves his native village for good, seeking shelter at his friend Gurucharandas' household. Himself an accomplished Tabla player, he arranges successful concerts for Dhananjoy, introduces him to artists who matter, launches him on a glorious career. People throng to hear the mesmerising music of this high-flying vocalist. The rest of the novel is all about the decline and fall of this gifted artist. The section “Jottings from a Diary” is replete with Dhananjoy's ruminations on music. “In the Classical system of the South the concert relied entirely on songs. The meaning of those groups of words, the false emotions they incited, all went to mar the naked beauty of a crystal clear form” (p. 209). His music would be basically abstract, not relying on the meaning of words. His concerts would have only alaps of ragas and recitals of swara combinations. Only then can one “spread the heady fragrance of true emotions flowering out of the basic origins of the notes. He would sacrifice “rigid adherence to grammar rules”; for him, “going beyond the rules is what would bring the human element into play.” Like Browning's Abt Vogler, “out of three sounds,” he wound frame, “not a fourth sound but a star.” Addiction to alcoholism ruins Dhananjoy's health. In his practice sessions he is unable to get to feel the presence of the fire of music anymore; the spirit of music that had inhabited his being leaves him like a parting guest. Beleaguered with problems of his own making, roaming around the streets like a tramp, he breathes his last on the roadside “unsung, unhonoured and unwept”, leaving his funeral rites to be attended to by his lately found companion, Aslam Khan the cobbler.

Illusory River follows the traditional third person narrative excepting for the section “Jottings from a Diary” which, in the first person narration, allows a leeway for the novelist to take us on an inward journey into the mind of Dhananjoy. One feels disappointed at not being able to find any emotional justification in the narrative for the protagonist's wallowing in self-pity, self-conscious misery and despair.

The Illusory River, Yuvan Chandrasekar, translated by Padma Narayanan, New Horizon Media, 2010, Rs. 250.

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