To many people, Amit Chaudhuri is better known as an academic and one of India's leading writers in English (his novel The Immortals, has been shortlisted for the $50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature to be announced next month) but currently he is in the news for his music, something that , ironically, he wanted to “escape” as a child.
His new album ‘Found Music', which he describes as a “play” on the surrealist French artist Marcel Duchamp's ‘found objects', has caused a buzz in Britain's music circles since its release in the autumn. It has had one of the best critical responses for any jazz/world music release in recent times and been praised for its “verve, daring, and chutzpah”. On BBC's high-brow ‘Review Show', presenter Martha Kearney described him as “upsettingly multi-talented”. On the eve of the album's launch in India, Mr. Chaudhuri talks to Hasan Suroor about music, literature, literary festivals and book prizes.
You grew up in an environment where music was important and yet you chose to be a writer. In fact, you've written that as a child you wanted to ``escape'' music. So how did you come back to it?
I suppose I meant I wanted to escape music lessons — not music itself, which I always loved, from ever since I can recall. I used to sing ‘Bol Radha bol sangam hoga ki nahi' all the time when I was four years old. At the age of seven or eight, I was humming the Bee Gees' ‘Gotta Get a Message to You' and The Who's ‘Substitute'. But I was never one for discipline or serious, regimented study, and so my mother's efforts to teach me Tagore songs didn't bear fruit. At 12, though, I began to learn guitar chords informally, and was soon writing songs and performing for a few friends. At 15, exposure to Natya sangeet on Bombay's local television channel and to the 78rpm recordings of Vishmadev Chatterjee and Sachin Deb Burman — not to speak of discovering Kishori Amonkar on a programme called ‘Pratibha ani Pratima' — made me begin to want to learn Indian classical music. Then, in 1983, I was off to England, where I practised like a demon and didn't listen to Western popular music again till 1999.
Is it right to say that writing and music require different sensibilities? One is more about observing things and reflecting on life and the other, perhaps, more about having a sense of rhythm, a certain serenity — and ultimately an ear for music. If so, how do you manage to operate at two very different levels at the same time? If not, then what connects the two?
They are quite different, yes. Music is a bit like sport in that it requires regular practice and asks the exponent to be in a state of readiness — the Urdu word used in this connection in Indian classical music is ‘tayaari'. Writing is about receptivity and waiting: you cannot wilfully pursue your theme or subject. But both arts, in different ways, depend upon patience — as do so many other things.
Would you like to say something about your new album?
‘Found Music' is a play, as will be obvious to some readers, on Marcel Duchamp's ‘found objects': unlikely, everyday objects that the artist, through their sleight-of-hand and skewed perspective, transfers to the realm of ‘art'. I explored this concept in my first album too (‘This Is Not Fusion'), bringing a great deal, from the riff to Derek and the Dominoes ‘Layla', to the raga Todi, Berlin train sounds, the messages on the backs of Indian trucks (‘buri nazar wale tera muh kala'), and the All India Radio theme tune, into the domains of the composition and of musical improvisation. Partly it arose from convergences between the pentatonic blues scale and the five-note raga; partly from an incorrigible tendency to hear the echo of one thing in another. This new album, weaving in the raga, jazz and folk chordal structures, country and western-style choruses, seven-beat time-signatures, classics like ‘Good Vibrations', ‘Norwegian Wood', ‘Famous Blue Raincoat', and songs from films like ‘Pyaasa', continues to respond to that tendency — to discover one thing in another, almost by an accident of remembering; and also to make tunes that ask to be understood on their own terms.
You have written that you abandoned western pop for Indian classical music and have now returned to it. How did that happen and when?
As I hinted at earlier, by 1982 I was deeply committed to Indian classical music, through which I became increasingly involved with new-found and rather fierce notions of authenticity. So, I experienced my ‘Indianness' as something that expressed itself powerfully through Hindustani classical music. I also had a low tolerance for the synthesised music – including, especially, disco — that reigned from, say, 1979 onward; also thoroughly despised ‘glamrock'. Neil Young's ‘Rust Never Sleeps' was probably the last rock album I seriously listened to, and I saw it as a farewell to a certain kind of creativity. In England, I pursued a continuous regime of riyaaz; and travelled back to India frequently, to, among other things, tape bandishes from my teacher, Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale. When I finally returned to India in 1999 (much had happened in between — my teacher had died an untimely death; I'd become a published writer, a husband, and a father; a performing artiste), I'd lost my old ideological certainty about what was ‘authentic' and what wasn't. I began to listen to my record collection of Western music again, and noticed how Jimi Hendrix's recording of the blues overlapped with the pentatonic raga. And then I had my first ‘mishearing' — seeming to hear the riff to ‘Layla' in a handful of notes as I was singing raga Todi. Then the second one: hearing Auld Lang Syne suddenly in a raga the santoor was playing (this was a recording being played in a hotel lobby). The project germinated in these moments.
Does writing remain your first love, as it were? Or is there more music on the way before we see another novel from you?
No, I work across the board, I have several passionate commitments — fiction, the essay, poetry, Hindustani classical music, crossover composition. Increasingly, I see myself as having become, in the last 10 years, an experimenter of sorts, and am grateful to anyone or anything that'll give me the space and opportunity to experiment.
Your novel, The Immortals, has been shortlisted for the $50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and, of course, we hope that you go on to win it but do you think that there are too many literary prizes around—a prize for Commonwealth writers, a prize for women's writers, a prize for English-language writers, and now a prize for South Asian writing. Is there a sense that with so many prizes, they are losing their value? There is a view that it is increasingly becoming a marketing ploy.
There are too many prizes, yes. And the Booker Prize has now become a substitute for thinking afresh about what books really do, and how writing changes. It's a prize that benefited hugely from the Thatcherite-Blairite boom, and reflects its aspirations. Prizes are fine, even nice to have around, but they cannot – and mustn't — replace a robust, intelligent, responsive conversation about culture, about writing, as they seem to have done, especially in India. Indian commentators spend a fair amount of time deriding books (in not very entertaining or interesting ways); the only time when books are celebrated is when one gets a prize, or a monstrous advance. We must really find a way for making a case for writing — for celebrating a work — in a way that's entirely humane and critical, and not cravenly dependant on markers of media success. We haven't been able to do that. In today's India, there are very few instances of championing, of celebrating a person's output, that are illuminating or transformative in any way, or are a part of our intellectual landscape.
And as with prizes so with literary festivals? What's your take on them?
They're a part of what I call the booming ‘literary tourism' industry — a combination of literature, spectacle (where you're viewing writers rather than scenery), and packaged holidays. Occasionally, you do come across wonderful audiences. With the near-collapse of old systems and constituents of retail in the last five years — independent bookshops and publishers; the physical incarnation of the book itself — writers and publishers must find new ways of retailing their wares. This is partly how the literary festival becomes an important occasion.