“Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music” by Amit Chaudhuri

Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music,  Amit Chaudhuri (New York Review Books, March 2021; Faber & Faber, April 2021) Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music, Amit Chaudhuri (New York Review Books, March 2021; Faber & Faber, April 2021)

Books, alas, don’t always come in the right order. Having recently reviewed Oliver Craske’s excellent biography of Ravi Shankar, I found myself wishing that I could have read Finding the Raga before undertaking that task. Amit Chaudhuri, well-known Indian novelist and essayist, is also a singer and a musician, but not just any musician. Thoroughly-versed in both Indian and Western classical music, he also has a wide experience of Western popular genres (particularly American folk music), Indian film music and the songs of Rabindranath Tagore.

Given his wide-ranging musical repertoire and skill, he’s an ideal guide to understanding what Indian classical music (and not just ragas) is about, and, what is just as important, the effect that music has had on Chaudhuri’s life and career. This marvelous book is about the transformations which go beyond the realm of music to those of life itself, for which in many ways the raga might be seen as a metaphor, something that can’t be pinned down, defined, or made static. How does listening to music reflect the way we see the world and ourselves? What are the differences between Indian and Western music? What role does music play in modern life? These are some of the questions which Chaudhuri considers in this book, which is part memoir, part manual for listening to music, and part philosophical meditation.

 

“Indian classical music,” writes Chaudhuri towards the beginning of his book, “is as incomprehensible to most Indians as it was to the English.” Given the book’s title and my own nationality, that wasn’t very encouraging, but it was the way Chaudhuri himself initially felt, despite his mother being a trained musician. “Classical music,” he says, “might comprise one’s heritage, but it also has an air of deep foreignness.” So, until about 1977, Chaudhuri yearned to be a Western-style pop or rock singer, and then, the next year, he “transformed into a Canadian singer-songwriter.” It was in this unpromising musical state of mind that he met one of his mother’s music teachers, Govind Prasad Jaipurwale (known as Govindji); from that day on his aesthetics were turned upside-down; he presumably ceased channeling Neil Young as well.

He suddenly discovered something which kindled an interest in Indian music, which he had disliked passionately before—Chaudhuri explains that what prompted this reversal was “the unpredictability of our lives as readers and writers, listeners and musicians,” that is, it just happened. “The point of entry,” he tells us, “comes unawares; it makes a world or work available which you’d had no time for previously.” He was caught up in Govindji’s performance of classical music, and never looked back. “I wanted to do what he was doing,” Chaudhuri says simply. And he had come to that “point of entry” through other musical forms.

“The classic will speak to you when you’re ready to hear it,” he writes, and when we, too, are ready to do that we can pick up his book and start on the journey. Part I, the longest section, is entitled “Alaap”, which is the term for the beginning part of a raga, usually in slow time, which sets the mood for the rest of the piece. When one first hears it, it sometimes sounds like the performers are tuning up, and there is often no distinguishable “melody” in the Western sense.

In weaving music with memoir, it’s as if Chaudhuri moves along in his life with the rhythm of the raga, beginning with events which set him up for his musical career, and proceeding in life through the music itself. He provides clear explanations of the technical terms associated with the raga; it might be a good idea to have one playing as you read the book and follow its progress aurally as well as visually. A raga, we are told, “isn’t a linear movement. It’s a simultaneity of notes, a constellation, in a way quite different from harmony … a way of thinking about the juxtaposition of notes.” It’s not a composition or a melody; it’s “nothing but a specific shape or form.”

In Part II, “Modernism and the Khayal”, Chaudhuri discusses the contemporary way of singing Indian classical music, the khayal being a development of the dhrupad, a form which “emphasises long-drawn-out rhythmic play”, and which demonstrates modulations based on the geographical regions of its players. Where you come from determines how you play the music.

Part III, one of the shorter chapters which conclude the book, is intriguingly entitled “Ah-nanda”, which plays on the name of Ananda, one of Buddha’s chief disciples, whose name means “joy” and the “ah” sound in music or verse (he even cites John Lennon here), which Chaudhuri says “liberates the self, dissolves it”, thus eliminating the suffering caused by self-awareness and putting joy in its place. Lastly, we have “Mishearing”, which means that one hears a piece of music, but not specifically as itself; Chaudhuri tells us that he heard someone playing “raga Pahadi,” but to him it sounded like “Auld Lang Syne”! (I listened to Nikhil Banerjee playing it and it does.) It made Chaudhuri see that Western and Indian music could sometimes connect, if one had, as he did, experience with all kinds of music, and there might well be a convergence between the two, something which artists like Ravi Shankar had sought, but here occurs spontaneously or perhaps subconsciously

 

Like a raga itself, Chaudhuri’s book never comes to a “point”, which is, of course, one of the joys a reader experiences in its company. It sometimes evokes a mood, prompts a memory or stirs an emotion, but it’s essentially theme-free and digressive; Chaudhuri calls it an “improvisation”. Readers will find a great deal of information on the structure of Indian music, but they will also, for example, travel with the author to the United States, where he’s examined for a heart condition, and to London, where Chaudhuri notices that people don’t speak to each other on the Underground, and where a man in an Indian restaurant hears him humming (unconsciously, he says) under his breath and starts mimicking him, only to be silenced by his embarrassed girlfriend. Chaudhuri observes that “English commuters exuded what Nietzsche called ‘ironical self-consciousness—a keen sense of the self and its separateness,” and that the man was “parodying my glissandos.” There are observations about American blues (“the great anti-humanist development in modern Western song,” Chaudhuri says) and The Beatles, Beethoven symphonies, Hindustani classical music, 16th-century Indian devotional poetry, all woven in with vignettes featuring the author’s family and friends. If readers are looking for a bass line or continuo, it’s the raga itself, frustratingly (to Westerners) improvisatory and elusive and somehow unconfined to place, space or time.

The memoir aspect of the book paints an attractive picture of a man dedicated to his art, an art which never reaches a destination because it’s always becoming, an aspect which ensures it will, in the end, never become stale or static. It may seem iconoclastic to suggest it, but perhaps we Westerners could learn a thing or two about what our own music is from following some of Chaudhuri’s directions for listening—what if the conclusion to the “Eroica” isn’t really a conclusion? Could that be why different versions of the same piece don’t sound the same? Ragas don’t have “finales” because there’s no “self” behind them; as Chaudhuri’s mother put it, “singing should be like speaking,” which is, she told him, “as much a forgetting of the self as it has to do with self-disclosure.”

Humanism placed the self in the centre; “Indian classical musical traditions,” Chaudhuri says, “are non-humanistic, in that their focus is not personality or psychology, but … pitch and temporality.” Musical notes become, one might say, become more important than the person who sings or plays them. Read this book—you’ll be caught up in a world which will never really come to an end. And, if you can, listen to “raga Pahadi”.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.