Skip to content

In Conversation with Amit Chaudhuri Pt. I


Amit Chaudhuri
Part One

Marthe Lisson
Hello Amit, nice to see you and thanks for taking the time for this conversation. I enjoyed preparing for this conversation, reading about and listening to raags as well as reading your book Finding the Raga. I was aware of the complexity of Indian classical music and did not expect to understand it in just a few weeks of reading about it. However, I did not expect either that, despite all my efforts, I would be sitting here and still be entirely lost. We like to think of music as a universal language. The past weeks made it very clear that this is not true and shortly after I realised this for myself, I came to a passage in Finding the Raga where you say the same.
But I found consolation in something else that you wrote in your book: ‘Indian classical music is very often as incomprehensible to most Indians as it was to the English when they were in India.’

Why? Why is Indian classical music incomprehensible to so many?

Amit Chaudhuri
I mean, there are many reasons for Indian classical music – and right now I’m going to restrict myself to North Indian classical music – being either incomprehensible or strange to most of its listeners or to be appreciated despite a great deal of incomprehension, even among people who go to classical music concerts and applaud, let’s say, a tabla player playing something or a sarod player doing something. I’m not sure what percentage of the people who are applauding are doing so outside of reasons to do with the build-up and excitement of the moment and the fact that there are certain moments when you know you feel that ‘Yeah, you should applaud, something is going on.’

One example of this kind of excited applause has to do with playing around with time. When that begins to happen – I’m only talking about instrumental music now – on the part of the soloist and tabla player, let’s say, then there’s obvious energy going on in the performance.

The permutations and the calculations, for instance, which are arithmetical or mathematical to do with complex allocations of time through which the instrumentalist or the tabla player is diverging from the time cycle and then returning to it on the one. I’m not sure how many people actually understand those kinds of allocations and what exactly is going on. They might know the time cycles abstractly or by name. But how much do they know them with any kind of intimacy? I’m not certain, and it takes intimacy and a certain degree of mastery to actually know what’s going on. So, in a sense, it’s a kind of music on that level which is being taken pleasure in by all kinds of people, but which is also meant for other musicians, for people who have been trained themselves.

As far as the raag is concerned, if you have been listening to Indian classical music for a while, you can recognize it, as you would recognize a tune. Just as, whether it’s played by one musician or the other, you can tell that this is ‘And I Love Her’ by the Beatles. Okay, that’s the tune. If you’re a particular kind of listener attuned to glides, or to responding to the journey between one note and, let’s say, a neighbouring flat note, which has a particular kind of emotional impact, you can, when it comes to Indian classical music, enjoy and be moved by these things without really understanding them in detail.

But then there are masses and masses of people who don’t understand what Indian classical music is about. And I’m talking about Indians. Although there’s much more of, I would say, popular dissemination these days of snippets of Indian classical music which have maybe made their way through film music into the popular consciousness. Yet, most people would still say, ‘What is this music about?’

And then there is an assumption as well that the characteristics of Indian classical music must be immemorial; that this is an ancient music and it was always like that. So one of the reasons why people find it difficult to understand Indian classical music in India is because, unlike other kinds of songs which have done the rounds in Indian culture, songs in Indian classical music aren’t song-like on a first hearing. Add to them the new kinds of songs which have been added to the repertoire of Indian songs over the last three or four centuries. They are all recognizably song-like, whether it’s a folk song or a devotional, or a ghazal (an Urdu love song), or a Hindi film song, or a Tagore song, or a song composed by many of the Bengali composers who emerged in the late nineteenth century. They’re all song-like, but the songs in Indian classical music are not. And that’s what creates the confusion, as in: ‘What the hell is going on over here?’ And they aren’t song-like because the raag is a deliberate investigation, I think, into song, into melody: it’s a slowing down of song. And with the genre called the khayal, especially the way it developed from the 1940s onwards, there’s been a radical slowing down which now is taken for granted and people just think that it was always like this. But these are radical developments in the twentieth century. The raag itself is an instance of these recurring radical, digressive developments which have occurred through millennia in Indian culture, departures which are, I think, secular in nature. They aren’t religious. They are meditative, maybe, but also formally challenging, and they come with their own set of rules of exploration.

The raag, which is first mentioned, I think, in the sixth century, started out as a radical idea: it’s something that can never be positively identified. It is, like many interesting ideas (and this is especially true of interesting ideas located in India and India’s intellectual history), a negative entity. In the sense that it can only be understood as not being a number of things: it isn’t a scale or mode or melody. Although the pandits will immediately speak of the raag as if it is a set of rules, which it is. But when you try to actually identify it in the way that we identify identifiable objects in the intellectual or cultural realm or in the physical realm, then it becomes impossible to pin down or categorise. There are no easy definitions and nobody, no pandit, is going to tell you, ‘Well, this is the essential definition of a raag’.

The series of negatives can lead to a sense of constraint. But the negative is actually freeing, as it is often in Indian philosophy. The raag has no absolute existence. It’s one of those things which I think the Buddhist philosopher, Nāgārjuna, said about things in general – that it is false to think of them as having an absolute existence: they are what they are not. This is true both of the raag as a concept or form (a raag is not a song or a scale) and of individual raags: raag Puriya is identical to raag Marwa except that you must remember, while singing Puriya, not to over-emphasise the relationship between the natural sixth (dha) and the flat second (re), and not to avoid the tonic (sa) repeatedly – or else it will be in danger of morphing into Marwa. In other words, raag Puriya is as much raag Puriya as it is something that’s ‘not-raag-Marwa’. The raag, I think, is a part of these philosophies of difference, that is, philosophies which reject absolute identity, absolute existence, but see existence as being part of a fabric of interdependency where one thing is what it is because it is not that thing or that thing. These are the reasons that make it very difficult to get one’s head around the raag and once one has got one’s head around it experientially, as a performer in terms of knowing how to perform it and sing it within these particular genres in which it is sung, it’s still very difficult to actually say what it is.

You just answered, or rather, made unnecessary, one of my next questions: what is the raag? It’s a question with no short and easy answer. Let me rephrase the question then: what does the raag mean to you and how did you find your way in?

The point of entry was becoming gradually attuned to the sensuousness of Indian classical singing and the place of very delicate nuance in that sensuousness. This came to me first not from listening to ragas themselves, but by listening to less radical forms, like natya sangeet or Maharashtrian ‘theatre song’ or the kind of film song which might have been based on ragas or the Bengali raagpradhan or popular ‘raag-dominant’ songs of the 1930s, 40s and 50s or the singer Mehdi Hasan’s recordings of ghazals. When I was 15 or 16 years old, I began to actually listen to these songs more carefully and to find them affecting. And I gradually gravitated through them and past them into the khayal. And again, it’s that sensuous quality of the timbre of the voice and the voice executing glides which had a particular emotional impact on me. The meend, which is the name for the glide or glissando, had a particular impact on me, which I couldn’t account for and which was very different from the more linear notes of Western classical music.

When I tried to reproduce those nuances myself, I found them very difficult to do. It is a music of nuance, but one needs to begin to become attuned and then addicted to those nuances. I would say, it’s the direct impact of a certain sensuous quality which is contained by the voice or the tone of the instrument that made a first, powerful impression. Remember also that the Indian instruments have this quality, this buzzing quality called juwari, which is the opposite of the clean note which you hear, say, on the classical guitar in the West. Juwari embodies this sensuousness that I’m talking about.

Similarly, the voice should have that [quality]. You might find that in the blues singers as well. However beautifully the tenors sing, or the kind of music you get from vocal music from Europe, it has much more cleanness to the tonality. With the blues singers you begin to experience a kind of impurity and richness. And this was one of the things which would have impacted me, say, in the singing of Kishori Amonkar.

And then, of course, the fact that a journey from the tonic to the flat second or similar notes could have so much impact and that genres have been created and ways of thinking have been created to explore these particular forms of impact. It happens in jazz and blues singing as well, almost inadvertently, because singers seem to be drawn, occasionally, to exploring no more than the journey between one note to the next note. Which is what Janice Joplin said about Aretha Franklin: that she can do so much by just moving between notes. This is very true of Sarah Vaughan, I think, who slows down songs not to give us a more emotional version of the song, but to uncover the subtle interrelationship of notes. Usually when you think of the term ‘slow song’ within Western popular music, you’re thinking this is a sad version. I think that’s not the case with Sarah Vaughan. She’s slowing songs down like ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ in order to extract a musical meaning out of the slowed down notes. And really the khayal and the raag are forms of thinking which are meant to attend to this as fully and minutely as possible. I think that’s what they mean to me.

This journey from one note to another and the potential that this journey entails, is exactly what you are exploring at the IAS. In ‘Music as Experiment’ you write that you want to understand ‘how notes might at any point be related to each other.’ What are your findings so far? What can happen between one note and another?

You know, I’d have to give a lecture demonstration in order to communicate to you what it is that I’m talking about, as, unfortunately, you will not be able to get it across in print.

In fact, you will be giving such lectures at UCL, on 11 October and 13 October. It is indeed difficult to translate matters of music onto a page.

Let’s look at the journey that the raag is making. Here’s one way of looking at it:
Let’s say you have a melody that’s doing the rounds as melodies do the rounds at any given point of time in history. And especially early on in history it could be religious chant, it could be a folk tune, it could be a wedding song. Let’s say, we are talking about the seventh century. Let’s speculate. Let’s enter the domain of science fiction or the historical novel, but in a different way. There’s this tune doing the rounds and maybe it’s come from the East. Let’s say there’s a sense that this is an Eastern tune. By the East I mean east of where we are located at this moment in India. And somebody has heard it and that somebody is a thinker along the lines of being a musical thinker and a philosopher who has embraced the form of thought called the raag. They decide to take this tune, which they find haunting or interesting, and they find themselves humming it. They first of all hum it. They internalise it. Then they begin to hum bits of it or they begin to meditate or reflect on bits of it. They are automatically slowing down that tune. As they slow down that tune, they realise that the tune doesn’t move up and down in a linear fashion like a scale or octave does, but that some of the notes of the tune are elided either on the way up or on the way down. It’s not as if all the notes participate equally in the upward and downward motion in this tune. The tune might have seven notes, but not all seven notes are to be found on the way down. As they begin to explore it, they begin to explore these elisions and these structures in greater detail because it gives them pleasure.

Now the raag is a linear movement of a sort in that it’s a parameter with which to explore these interrelationships and these elisions and omissions and inclusions peculiar to the ascent and the descent of the tune. It’s a way of exploring these, going from the lower tonic to the upper tonic. When you reach the upper tonic you have reached a particular kind of resolution of what the raag is. But while going from the lower to the upper tonic, you have not been going in the way you would as if you were singing a scale or even a tune. And this gives you a lot of room in which to think about what’s hidden within that tune, which you cannot normally hear and you do not normally suspect the tune of being capable of in terms of opening up to so much investigation. Pleasurable investigation.

Then this somebody says, whoever it was in the seventh century: ‘I call this raag purvi.’ Purvi means ‘from the East.’ ‘It was a tune I heard from the East.’ It’s not called, you know, ‘destiny’ or ‘rebirth’. It doesn’t have those thematic names. It’s a profound investigation, but it’s also playful, as the name indicates. It’s making you aware of the trivial provenances of the found material that’s been incorporated. It has never tried to be grand. Purvi – what a throwaway name, you know. ‘Off the East’. ‘Eastern tune’.

The raag comes into existence and then gradually compositions and tunes come into existence that are based on that raag. So you have this journey from tune to investigation – that is, the melody, the ‘eastern tune’, enters the conceptual domain of exploration that we call the ‘raag’, and becomes raag Purvi – and from there, the raag will become a composition and tune again: a composition in raag Purvi that’s sung or played by the classical musician. In this journey, the ‘eastern melody’ has travelled an extraordinary distance.

That made a lot of things much clearer, thank you. One thing then that the raag is, is an exploration and a meditation. Would you say that’s what it is for you?

Yeah, but not in the sense of doing yoga meditation.
It’s a meditation inasmuch as D. H. Lawrence said, ‘Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.’ In the sense that the poem is thought and includes every bit of oneself and, inasmuch as it does, it rejects certain ways of thinking which are overdetermined. In that sense it is a rejection of overdetermined thought. Or it’s a rejection of premeditated meditation, too. I think it’s meditative, but it’s a rephrasing of meditation as an exploration, as a series of discoveries made through the technical vocabulary of the raag which enables those discoveries to be made. But those discoveries cannot be pinned down to definitions that say: ‘This is a religious exercise’ or ‘This is a musical exercise’. It is angular to those categorisations.


Raag or Raga?

Raga is an ‘anglicisation’ of the word raag; according to Amit Chaudhuri, a necessary one. Raag is spelled raga in English in order to indicate that North Indian words, which end with a consonant, do not end abruptly or completely. It is not just raag. It is pronounced RAH-guh, which in English can sound like RAH-ga.

In a talk and performance on 11 October 2023 at UCL East, Amit Chaudhuri will continue his search and exploration of the question ‘What is the raag?’ Two days later, on 13 October 2023, Chaudhuri will be in concert at UCL’s main campus, performing compositions from his celebrated musical-conceptual project and album of the same name This Is Not Fusion.

AMIT CHAUDHURI is a leading novelist, essayist, poet and musician. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His North Indian classical recordings were first released in the 1990s by HMV in India; his experiments in ‘not fusion’, in which he brought jazz, blues and other kinds of music together with the raga, were released by Times Music and EMI in India and Babel Label in the UK. The second CD in this genre, Found Music, was on’s Editor’s Picks for 2010. His book, Finding the Raga (2021), about his relationship with North Indian classical music, won the James Tait Black Prize in 2022.

MARTHE LISSON is the editor of Think Pieces and a Musicologist and singer by training.


Lead Image: Archive of Amit Chaudhuri