The new book of prose by the well-known fiction writer Amit Chaudhuri is described by him as “a narrative but not a story, a series of opening paragraphs, where life is about to happen”. It has autobiographical details including those of initiation into music, and Hindustani classical music, insights into many aspects and history of that music, a narrative of its teachers as Amit found and learnt from them.

Chaudhuri discovers that “The classic occupies a strange place in any culture hovering between authority and illegitimacy receiving both reverence and indifference. In India, the reasons for its questionable status have a complex history.” Not sharing the common assumption about the classical, Chaudhuri finds “that the remarkable creative periods don’t necessarily belong to the remote past”

Recalling Gertrude Stein’s “rose is a rose is a rose”, Chaudhuri asserts that a raga is a raga and chooses to describe it negatively ie, it is not a composition, not a mode, not a scale, not a sum total of its notes – not a self-enclosed composition, it’s an unfolding rather than a representation. He invokes Bharat of the Natyashastra to say that “music is a form of listening to the world”.

Further on, Chaudhuri states that “A raga is not a mode. That it isn’t a linear movement, it’s a simultaneity of notes, a constellation, in a way quite different from harmony, one is exploring simultaneity in a particular way. A raga is a melody slowed down to an extent that the simultaneity and the potential relationship between notes and the emotional content and texture of each note supersedes melodic form.”

Of the world, not about it

Chaudhuri has argued at length about the non-representational character of Hindustani classical music. He insists and rightly so that this music is not about the world, but of the world. He takes recourse to an extract of an essay by Rabindranath Tagore where Tagore feels “We Indians live in that kingdom of night. We are entranced by that which is timeless and whole. Ours is the song of personal solitude; Europe’s is that of social accompaniment. Our music takes the listener outside of the limits of man’s everyday vicissitudes to that lonely land of renunciation that is at the root of the entire universe, while Europe’s music dances variously to the endless rise and fall of man’s joy and sorrows.”

Chaudhuri goes on to argue that this music “reminds us ‘India’ is text. Only a small bit of reality can be conveyed by narrating stories about it or representing it in pictures. We participate in reality by experiencing language at its most arbitrary, basic level of meaning.” He adds that a culture that gives primacy to language, as with the North Indian classical music, will relegate the composer to secondary or invisible status, and see the text as the primary progenitor, that is why most ragas have no known composers, and who the composer might be is of secondary interest.

And back to the raga, Chaudhuri says that “It has no recognisable existence in isolation from other ragas. It is recognisable through differentiation. It is the ragas that it is not.” And later he adds, “the imagination makes present to us, through anticipation, what’s absent.”

One of the most remarkable things about this book is the fact that the author lives in two distinct universes, the Indian and the western, and uses intellectual and aesthetics-related tools invented and honed in the west to understand and analyse the Indian universe as is revealed by the Hindustani classical music. For him, the Indian universe is one without tragedy; it derives value from joy.

Joy is participation in existence, with no separate definition for itself. It’s everywhere and its lack of outline makes it difficult to identify. Chaudhuri underlines: “Its strength is that it can reside in the tiniest and most unresistant of things – a grain of rice or a strand of hair. This is why a Mughal or Kangra miniature can contain more life, more of the cosmos, than a huge renaissance painting.”

Emphasising that deferral takes precedence in India’s cultural imagination, Chaudhuri proceeds to analyse two key elements “shruti” and “badhat”. Noting that self-expression is anathema to our music, he states that “shruti” has to do with the note’s anticipation of the next note, as well as its refusal to be immediately transformed into it. He adds, “The journey’s end is important, but the journey itself has precedence. The journey – badhat; progression is another name for delay.”

While narrating his own practice as a musician Chaudhuri notes that “Despite the legend I find the culture – musical, spiritual – is less interested in miracles than in life.” He admits, “I learnt how sound – divorced from word, even from what we commonly take to be a musical note – is often saying something.”

The khayal and modernism

One of the most interesting parts of the book consists of Amit Chaudhuri placing the khayal in the modernist context. He says that with the khayal we’re witnessing a radical non-representational shift whose inclinations are modernist. Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan’s experiments with khayal early on in the last century and Eliot’s suggestion that “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” aren’t miles apart in their tendencies.

Chaudhuri defines modernism as “the destruction of recognisability”, with an acute need to be free of the representational. In a brilliant collage, as it were, Chaudhuri places the khayal in the context of Nirakar of the Upanishads, the Nath yogis, the Flaubertian concept of the author as omnipresent but invisible, Mallarme, and Rabindranath Tagore, when “the non-representational begins to enter poetry”.

The other manifestations of a modernist impulse that Chaudhuri identifies are: frequent indifference to the meaning of the words, the khayal asking us not to distinguish between process and product; those acquainted with the alaap seeing evasion as the principal activity of creation. He also feels that khayal music posits a non-humanistic universe with the focus not on personality or psychology but on sur and taal, pitch and temporality, Recalling Abhinavgupta, the aesthetician of the 10th century, Chaudhuri finds nothing unusual in the belief in the proximity of calm to joy.

All in all, these discoveries and assertions of the modernity of khayal are, as far as I know, being made for the first time. As a well-trained musician and as a modern writer Amit Chaudhuri’s description carries both intelligence and authenticity. In the end, even if there are debatable assumptions, they tend to demolish the gap between the classical and the modern and reveal that the classical indeed has an unmistakable modernist impulse: the classical is almost the modern.

Alongside the discoveries about the khayal music is the personal narrative of learning, practising and thinking about music in Mumbai, Kolkata, London, Paris, etc. The universe of sound created by khayal music is not impervious to other un-musical sounds, sounds of living, etc. Its borders are porous and other sounds are allowed to enter. It is not a music seeking perfection in isolation and exclusion. On the contrary, it is open to the world. It is, as already stated, not about the world, but of the world.

Creating a rare combination between writing and the musical experience, Chaudhuri, towards the end of this very readable and illuminating book, concludes, “One thing I’ve felt again and again in the course of this project is that all music – whether it’s a rock riff or a snatch of melody from some loathed genre – is sound, and has an independent life among the sounds one has heard and forgotten, that all sound – a tramp’s voice, the hum of a machine – is music. We navigate this doubleness. When the moment comes, familiar notes become sound, or a familiar sound becomes a note.”

Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music

Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music, Amit Chaudhuri, Penguin Books India.