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What does the pursuit of art mean in modern times?

Special Correspondent
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Author and musician Amit Chaudhuri tries to answer it in his latest novel

Amit Chaudhuri — PHOTO: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.
Amit Chaudhuri — PHOTO: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

If there is one question an Indian writer in English rarely ever escapes, it is whether he is guilty of “exoticising” his country to take it to the top of the charts in the Western market.

Amit Chaudhuri, renowned author, academic and musician, believes that one should learn to make a distinction between “exoticisation” and “de-familiarisation”. While the former was what Edward Said famously talked about in Orientalism to describe the Eurocentric vision of the East, the latter, as Mr. Chaudhuri put it, “is an age-old impulse of the artist to see the unfamiliar in the familiar”.

At an event organised by the British Council here on Thursday, where Mr. Chaudhuri was in conversation with Bangalore-based writer Usha K.R., he spoke of how the presence of “foreign in the midst of familiar” always fascinated him.

Borrowing a phrase from Wordsworth, he said that “gentle shocks of mild surprise” that he encountered in familiar areas were significant experiences in his growing up years too in what were then Bombay and Calcutta. His gaze as a writer, he said, rests more on “the rubble rather than the finished monuments of the big panorama”.

His latest novel, The Immortals, from which he read excerpts, explores Indian music, not as a grand monolith, but as it lives in contexts that are not always ennobling, sometimes even petty. In fact, the larger question central to the novel is: what does pursuit of art mean in modern times?

Big questions

In The Immortals, 16-year-old Nirmalya Sengupta who wears “torn jeans and expensive sandals” tells the poor music teacher he should change his life, shun singing non-classical forms and take on a more serious pursuit of music.

The boy is serious, and yet the context comical, the only way in which big questions on the nature of art can be confronted in our times, said the author.

It is unfortunate, said Mr. Chaudhuri, said that all art in India, including literature, is only “read as an adjunct of social sciences”, as though it was somehow no more than “inferior historical document”.


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