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A Raga is a Raga

Finding The Raga: An Improvisation On Indian Music

Amit Chaudhuri

New York Review Books, pp. 272, $17.95


Years ago I was watching Late Review, a BBC arts show, when the presenter announced that week’s musical guest as Amit Chaudhuri. Double take. Was this the same Amit Chaudhuri who wrote the delightful Oxford novel Afternoon Raag? Adding another string to this bow? What next? Kazuo Ishiguro doing Dylan covers? Ian McEwan Morris dancing?

Chaudhuri passed the audition. His mesmerizing performance (with guitarist Adam Moore) of The Chiffons’ hit “One Fine Day” had his audience, the usual chattering class freeloaders itching to get away to the open bar, genuinely clapping and cheering at the end. A born musician, who makes you forget the years of training and study, ars est celare artem.

Chaudhuri’s take on Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Brill Building classic, an improvised raga with jazz riffs around the edges, was the happy result of what he terms a “mishearing” or “double-hearing,” i.e., when the patterns or elements of one tune remotely recall another. Likewise, Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” (misheard in a Todi, a morning raga; most ragas are time and season related), Gershwin’s “Summertime,” the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and the Beatles’ sitar woozy “Norwegian Wood,” all selections in Chaudhuri’s ongoing This Is Not Fusion project.

It was with great anticipation, then, that I opened Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music. Through the years I’d listened to a lot of Indian music, usually on the BBC’s various world music programmes. Like the young stoners quick to applaud Ravi Shankar at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 (“Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the playing more”), I knew next to nothing about it save for Shankar, John McLaughlin’s fusion group Shakti (with Zakir Hussain and L. Shankar), and the great Bengali film director (and composer) Satyajit Ray’s spellbinding Jalsaghar (The Music Room). Chaudhuri’s serendipitous meditation/memoir, a raga in prose, does for North Indian classical music—and by extension the Hindu aesthetic—what Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows did for Japanese art, but without that slim volume’s sly chauvinism.

The music wasn’t alien just to my Western ears but to Chaudhuri’s as well, despite his growing up with it. His mother, Bijoya Chaudhuri, was a renowned interpreter of the secular repertory, in particular the songs of Rabindranath Tagore. Growing up in a Seventies Bombay awash with British and American popular culture, Chaudhuri was more attuned to Archie comics and Woodstock than to the aloof, elderly tones of Indian classical music. It wasn’t only him; most educated, forward-thinking Indians were indifferent, even averse, to an art form perceived as positively primeval, a relic of the past, Mughal and Raj, best set aside in a new and improved nation. Bollywood did the rest, drowning out classical music (and everything else) to become the sound of the Subcontinent.

The would-be singer-song­writer’s Damascene moment came in the late 1970s. The soft, beautiful voice of his mother’s new teacher, Govind Prasad Jaipurwale, “Govindji,” and the “quiet, blissful conviction” with which he sang the lighter, simpler ghazals and bhajans, turned his head. His bittersweet sketches of Govindji and his other mentor, the beloved Hazarilalji, depict a bohemia of poverty, rackety relationships, and alcoholism: “I know that ignoring great talent isn’t an aberration, but the norm; but my heart is a teenager’s and still hasn’t come to terms with this.”

There would be no more Beatles or Joni Mitchell or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for the next twenty years.

Govindji’s expressiveness was out of the ordinary, for in Indian classical music the quality of the voice matters less than mastery of form. Western classical music, Chaudhuri argues, is representational and mimetic; Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf are clearly programmatic. Key signatures instill mood; or as Ella Fitzgerald tells it in “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” “But how strange the change from major to minor.”

A raga is neither a mode nor a linear movement, but more of a liquid framework, “a constellation of notes and intervals for improvisation, in a way quite different from harmony, one exploring simultaneity in a particular way.” In essence a raga is a melody slowed down and stretched out, allowing for the incorporation of ambient sound, for example throat clearing or instrument tuning, into the performance; it is a work in progress. The alaap or intro, can seem endlessly digressive, never getting to the point, giving the impression of a “meandering lifelikeness,” an ineffable poetry; it is an unfolding, the peacock’s cry at dawn. The raga is not about the world; it is of the world.

As with other vernacular forms, such as the blues and folk music, ragas have no credited composers, being instead “found” material, chopped and changed over time. This anonymity is akin to the artistic impersonality that Flaubert described in a letter to Louise Colet: “The author in his work must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere”—a dictum arrived at poring over translated Buddhist texts and echoed in one of Hinduism’s Ur-texts, the Isha Upanishad: “He moves, and he moves not. He is far, and he is near. He is within all, and he is outside all.”

Sometimes, as Satyajit Ray quipped, “a raga is a raga,” much as “a rose is a rose is a rose.”

Finding the Raga abounds in these epiphanies, and bemusements, whether in the journeys that rhyme Dante and Virgil with Tagore and Kalidasa, the love and devotion themes that link the Hindu saint and poet Tulsidas to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Bob Dylan, or the often incongruous settings of Indian music in Western cinema. Oddly enough, Chaudhuri overlooks Ravi Shankar’s evocative score for Jonathan Miller’s trippy Alice in Wonderland adaptation, with its “faint suggestion of Victorian Empire.”

Chaudhuri unearths a nascent modernism in the earliest ragas, a distillation perhaps of the Bhagavad Gita’s notion that an act may be passionate and detached at once, involving “both the expression and the annulment of the self.” This is but a short step to the concept of “disinterestedness” (and Flaubert’s “impersonality”), first bruited by Kant and reappearing in various guises in the works of Schopenhauer (who in his comfortingly pessimistic The World as Will and Representation introduced Maya thus: “It is the Veil of Maya, of deception, that blinds the eyes of mortals and makes them behold a world of which they cannot say that it is or that it is not: for it is like a dream; it is like the sunshine on the sand which the traveller from afar takes to be water; or the stray piece of rope he takes to be a snake”), Goethe, Matthew Arnold, W. B. Yeats, and Thomas Mann. In these heady passages one senses another book within Chaudhuri’s, on the impact the Gita and other translated Hindu and Buddhist texts had on eighteenth and nineteenth century European thought and culture. A reverse Orientalism that accentuates the positive aspects of the West’s encounter with the East.

Technicalities aside, Finding The Raga is well-nigh perfect, a labor of love that never seems blinkered or self-indulgent. It should but probably won’t become a standard in the field (the drones of musicology won’t hear of it), and belongs in the classier company of Philip Glass’s Words Without Music, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and Caetano Veloso’s Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil. Bravo.

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George Rafael, an arts journalist, writes for Cineaste, the First Post, and the London Magazine.