Amit Chaudhuri is something of a modern day renaissance man. The 60-year-old is a world famous novelist who specialises in what James Wood calls the ‘refutation of the spectacular’, his writing full of simple pleasures and quotidian delights. Or you may know him as a celebrated essayist, whose last non-fiction work, Finding The Raga, won the prestigious James Tait Black Prize in 2022. There’s some poetry in his oeuvre, too.
But Chaudhuri also has an alternate career in music, in which he is just as established, if somewhat less prolific. A trained Hindustani classical vocalist, he spent the latter half of the 2000s conducting an audacious experiment in what he calls ‘non-fusion’ — composing expansive soundscapes that explored the intersections between multiple musical traditions. The project resulted in two critically-acclaimed albums, This Is Not Fusion (2007) and Found Music (2010), before he got busy with other pursuits. But now, thanks to a visit to Norwich last year, he’s getting ready to release a follow-up.
Speaking over the phone from his home in Kolkata, Chaudhuri opens up about his recently-released single and the importance of going against the grain. Edited excerpts.
Your new single is a medley of Joe Zawinul’s 1970 composition ‘In A Silent Way’ with the Indian national anthem. What synergies did you find between these compositions by an Austrian jazz composer and Rabindranath Tagore?
It wasn’t a conscious, pre-determined thing. My music in this project is often based on convergences, but they don’t happen because I go out looking for them. Many years ago, I was listening to Joe Zawinul’s version of ‘In A Silent Way’, and at one point I began to sing ‘Jana Gana Mana’ alongside it because there seemed to be some sort of consonance over there. I began to think of it as a musical work. That’s where it began.
T.M. Krishna recently released the ‘Unsung Anthem’, in which he performs the unsung verses of Tagore’s ‘Bharato Bhagyo Bidhata’. There’s a critique implicit in that choice, of how the anthem is increasingly being used as a symbol for ideas that Tagore never agreed with. Were there any similar undertones in your re-imagining?
That’s for you to say. Certainly it’s not part of one’s conscious working, except that one is looking at the anthem as a piece of music. A Tagore song is the result of a conversation between this multiplicity of traditions, made possible by a world in which there are multiple journeys to take. So, for me, it’s important to revisit the anthem, but not nationalistically or commercially. The aim is for it to be a kind of meditation and exploration of musical possibilities. There’s a tendency for pieces of music that are associated with nationalism or religion not to be looked at as an artistic artefact. We cease to think of them as aesthetic objects. And I think it is possible, and maybe desirable, to look at these thus.
This single comes ahead of your forthcoming album, your first in 13 years. What sort of musical themes are you exploring on the record?
I don’t want to talk about the album too much right now because it’s not out yet. But the project is similar to what I’ve done earlier, in terms of exploring musical overlaps. The main thing that’s different here is the predominance of acoustic instruments. There’s a lot more acoustic guitar and piano on here than on the earlier two albums. And that’s just because I love that acoustic sound. Over the years, I began to perform more with acoustic guitar than with an entire band, partly due to budgetary constraints. But I liked the resulting sound and decided to go for it with this recording.
The music video for the single is centred on a painting of the Indian national flag by Oxford artist Mark Rowan-Hull. Is there a particular symbolism in Hull’s messy brush strokes?
There’s no symbolism because once you have symbolism you’re weighed down. You’ve fixed the meaning. One is trying to free up meaning, and feel a sense of excitement and pleasure at the unexpected. Mark is a friend of mine who’s a synesthetic artist — he sees colours in sound. He’d made this work many years ago, a version of the Indian flag that I liked very much. So I thought it would be nice to have a video for this recording in which there were no human figures, only colours. But the colours are not all in place at the start. It gradually becomes a version of the flag and therefore we also see an act of artistic creation take place, rather than just a token act of reverence.
You’ve spoken in the past about your aversion to ‘fusion’ or ‘world music’ as a category. How do you categorise your own approach to crafting music that spans multiple traditions?
My approach is closer maybe to the approach of Tagore, or the music directors of Hindi films, where you’re creating a song that belongs to everything they know about musical traditions. It’s not that they’re trying to westernise or easternise a song, or add specific Carnatic or dhrupad or Latin elements to it. They have a song, it may be in the form of a ghazal or geet, but their own musical and mental world encompasses a great deal [more]. And they place the song in that world, and allow it to carry a lot of what it means to be them [the songwriter] at that point in history.
This single and the album are meant to mark the 75th anniversary of Indian independence. What do you hope people take away from this release?
It’s a deliberate message to the writers, to the artists, to the filmmakers, to the experimenters: everything should be an opportunity with which to experiment. Whether that’s the anniversary of Independence, a festival, or just today and tomorrow. Each thing needs to be looked at afresh. So, I wanted to remind people that it is possible to draw delight as a creative artist from everything. One doesn’t need to be regimented, in every walk of life. And this must be the most important thing about who we are, even more than the freedom of expression.
The author is a freelance culture writer based in Mumbai.