When, in 1999, Amit Chaudhuri made Kolkata his home after growing up in Mumbai and subsequently spending 16 years in England, he didn’t realize he was close to an epiphany that would alter his creative universe.
He began listening to the music that once inspired him to be a sing-a-song guitarist—Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young, among others. Many of his school and college days in the 1960s and 1970s were spent listening to rock and blues until, in 1978, he started clean. “It was an ideological decision to turn to Indian classical music. Its quietness and rigour appealed to me, as if Hindustani classical music was the only way to discover my true creative sensibility,” he says, nursing a cup of mint tea. Chaudhuri was in Mumbai, on his way to Kolkata from a forum on experimental music where musicians, critics and musicologists got together to discuss the fledgling genre.
It’s interesting that Chaudhuri, an author of four novels and many other books, was one of the subjects in this forum. The epiphany has an explanation. When Chaudhuri went back to rock and blues, he started “hearing doubly”—Indian raga notes in classic Western riffs. Chaudhuri discovered that the opening riffs of Eric Clapton’s Layla were indeed in raga Gujari Todi, and his interpretation of this semblance became the opening track of his recently-released album, This is Not Fusion.
Chaudhuri’s intention was, however, not to prove the common lineage. “I’m not so much interested in the anthropology of it as I am in getting to the bottom of my own mishearing. I wanted to explore what it said of my cultural background in the 1960s and 1970s,” Chaudhuri says. The other intention was to steer clear of what’s recognized as fusion music. “I wanted to think beyond a physical meeting point between western and Indian music. I wanted it to be a conceptual meeting point, a space in which not only do the musicians encounter each other, but also musical lineages intersect and become altered.”
On a second hearing, some of that intention becomes obvious. But the title betrays his intention on the first hearing—the explicit “not fusion” tag enhances your awareness of what we know as fusion music. You put the CD on with that baggage. Chaudhuri’s intentions are unlikely to be obvious to most people but, as he says: “The album is meant only for people who understand my world-view. They may be a few people, but if they get it and appreciate it, I’m happy to sing.”
Yet, if you don’t bother about his concepts, most of the songs are a breeze—a contrast to Chaudhuri’s writing, which is serious in tone and detailing. The parallel between Clapton’s Layla and raga Gujari Todi would be obvious to seasoned ears, so would Summertime, the third track, sung in raga Malkauns. But their quiet, structured melody makes for easy listening.
The use of guitar, drums, dotara (an instrument used by bauls, the wandering minstrels of Bengal) and even sounds of the dhunuri (a threaded device used to fluff up cotton for quilts and pillows) do not overwhelm Chaudhuri’s singing. The dominant sound in these tracks remains Hindustani classical, Chaudhuri’s forte, although a lot of musicians from Kolkata have collaborated on the album, including the lead guitarist of the Kolkata band Skinny Alley, Amyt Datta.
Clearly, for the author of Afternoon Raag, Freedom Song and A New World, making music is an escape from his writing, known less for grand, sweeping themes than their laboured atmospheric details.
Even in the songs, the words are picked out of ordinary life: Buri nazar wale tera muh kala, or Ok tata bye bye, painted brightly on Indian trucks; the sing-song words of a homeless man selling newspapers in Berlin; or sermons from “moral education” posters in schools.
For the time being, he’s visibly at ease with the song stories. A collection of essays on modern India, already published in the West, is coming out next year. His next novel, already completed, is coming out in 2009, he says. Meanwhile, the double hearing continues.