Amit Chaudhuri – Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music
(Faber & Faber. 272pp. Book review by Jay Visvadeva)
Finding The Raga follows a journey. It is an autobiographical account of Amit Chaudhuri’s musical interests, his experience of life as a well travelled man who has observed life from four of the great cities of the world. This experience brings a freshness in his approach and as a result this book will appeal to a wider constituency of readers worldwide as he talks about a much broader musical canvas which has its roots in the centuries-old song tradition.
Amit Chaudhuri was trained as classical vocalist in the North Indian vocal genre of ‘Khyal’ (it translates as ‘Imagination’) from some fine masters of this music tradition. During the ‘70s whilst a teenager, he took up guitar and directed his energies as a singer/songwriter in rock, blues and jazz. He only returned exclusively to North Indian music in the 1980s, before embracing Western music again around 2002. In Indian musical terms he has, one might say, come full circle – to a ‘Sam’ (the first count of time cycle referred to as ‘tal’, that functions as the final count of a musical phrase).
Throughout this journey he was exposed in a very practical way to many different forms of music. He speaks of early experiences, when, for example, upon a chanced moment, he misheard a melody the elements of which were shared by raga and some western sounds, an amalgam of sound, which eventually led to an early project and an album This is Not Fusion. He wanted to find something different, an alternative to Indian-Western fusion which dealt with the confluence between different musics. He came across Eric Clapton’s riff for Layla (the title track of the Derek & The Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Polydor, 1970) and noted that it incorporated the same series of notes as the Indian raga Todi while George Gershwin’s Summertime shared a scale with the raga Malkauns. In the liner notes of album, he explained, his quest was to find a “point of entry” into one musical tradition or system through another one.
After a long sojourn in experimental music, in Finding the Raga Amit looks at the structure of Indian classical music. He writes: “ A raga is not a mode. That is, it isn’t a linear movement. It’s simultaneity of notes, a constellation.” He further writes that it is neither a melody nor a composition, neither a scale nor the sum total of its notes. However, it is to be noted that in Sanskrit the meaning of raga is referred to as “that which colours the mind”.
Amit continues to give a lucid account of the ragas and their historical origins as to their groupings, called the Thaats, and ragas which come under various categories with their various moods. He goes further in explaining when they ought to be performed as well as ragas pertaining to various seasons. In this music tradition, there are ragas which are assigned with various moods and emotions that go with them, as explained in the 2,000-year-old Bharat’s Natya Shashtra – The Navras’s (nine sentiments or emotions) which are fundamental to Indian arts and aesthetics.
He further explains how Indian and Western musics offer parallel aesthetic experiences. In his comparative observations he talks about representational character of both these traditions. He says that Indian classical music’s characteristic is non representational – and goes on to say that Indian music is not about the world, but of the world.
In the Indian arts tradition, there is no lack of visual representations of music. Much of it is exemplified through ancient sculptures, miniature paintings, and iconography both old and contemporary. The genre of ‘ragamala’ paintings referred to as ‘garland of ragas’ reflects the music’s melodic modes, expressing unique visual responses to the possibilities of sonic art. He argues that an Indian miniature painting can show more life than a renaissance painting.
With these comparative differences between Indian and Western music, no other writer, in my view, has written so lucidly with such thought-provoking observations about Indian music and aesthetics. He takes us through the subject with an insider’s viewpoint, insights which have been gestating in him for over two decades.