Paintings by F.N. Souza, Jamini Roy and Bikash Bhattacharjee hang on the walls of the well-appointed drawing room. Artefacts, books, classic furniture and a sweeping view of south Kolkata add to the visual effect. Occasionally, street sounds waft up to Amit Chaudhuri’s eighth-floor apartment.
Next door is the Calcutta School of Music, established in 1915, which often sends its tidings of choral singing and orchestral movements along the street. And at ordained hours, the piercing sound of the amplified azaan from a nearby mosque intrudes into the household’s quiet domesticity.
Found sounds: Chaudhuri practises on the tanpura at his residence
There is also a framed black and white photograph of Chaudhuri when he was the quintessential carrier of 1970s folk-rock rebel fire—the guitar-strumming, Neil Young and Paul Simon singing student of Mumbai’s Elphinstone College, sporting longish hair and burnt denim. These days, an acoustic guitar and a couple of tanpuras—reminders of three decades of taleem (education) in Hindustani classical music—occupy the corners at the author-musician’s home.
One could call this the backdrop for Chaudhuri’s latest album, Found Music (EMI). For the concept that underlies the songs in the album, he relies on the French pop-art pioneer Marcel Duchamp’s theory of finding art among commonplace, conventional and fundamentally non-artistic objects. In addition, Chaudhuri has attempted to lend to the songs and sounds a sense of belonging to their origin, even while re-contextualizing them within a consciously crafted musical mishmash.
It could be the newspaper vendor’s sing-song voice, the frosty woman announcer on Berlin’s U-Bahn, or “Mind the Gap” warnings at the London Underground. Or it could be conch-blowing, the dissonant twang of the cotton-fluffing instrument dhunuri heard on Kolkata streets, or audio renderings of the “OK Tata” legend seen behind Indian trucks. Chaudhuri has recharged—revived even— these everyday sounds and visual templates through new meaning.
Chaudhuri’s creative appropriation extends to musical cultures too. It seems logical. Growing up in the box-wallah settings of Mumbai, where his father worked as a senior executive in Britannia, Chaudhuri took up Hindustani classical music as a mark of rebellion against his “own class”—people at home with Western rock music and, to an extent, with Hindustani classical music. (He means in a faddish and, as he puts it, “in a roundabout way, partly because of the Beatles or Ravi Shankar.”)
Having studied under the late Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale and Pandit A. Kanan, these days Chaudhuri maintains a equidistance intellectually from both ritualistic Hindustani classical music (“it has been appropriated as pan-Indian national music; avant-garde work can’t take place without laughing at nationalism”) and what is referred to as fusion music. “What I’ve heard of fusion—Shakti, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin, L. Shankar—didn’t interest me for these short-term reasons of getting virtuosos from different traditions playing with each other,” he says.
All of which led to This is Not Fusion, a project introduced to a curious Kolkata concert audience in 2005 and the title of his debut album released two years later. The project, as Chaudhuri recalls, was catalysed by a sudden discovery: One morning while doing riyaaz of Raga Todi, Chaudhuri chanced upon Eric Clapton’s classic Layla riff.
Chaudhuri’s search for musical syncretism took him to high-profile stages in Berlin, Beijing, Frankfurt and other international venues, and was rewarded by affirmative reviews in the Western media. In Found Music, he continues to be the music omnivore: chewing up varied yet common musical coordinates; eschewing the mandatory bundling of sundry sounds and musical milieus often witnessed in fusion music—seen as a gold mine by many but a minefield by Chaudhuri.
Numbers such as the skilfully reworked version of Norwegian Wood by the Beatles set to Raga Bageshri, and Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys based on two “pentatonic” ragas, reflect the music theorist in Chaudhuri. As does the “found title” So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star, borrowed from the Byrds and sharpened by Chaudhuri’s brooding recreation of a story about an unfulfilled rock ‘n’ roll dream.
And the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil composition On Broadway made memorable by the jazz great, George Benson. Chaudhuri spreads his version on Raga Gavati, a tabla and trumpet base and a characteristic singing style that is unmistakably Indian in mood and modulation. The song isn’t a random selection. Through lines such as …But when you’re walkin’ down the street/And you ain’t had enough to eat/The magic rubs right off and you’re nowhere, Chaudhuri traces the life of a wistful immigrant Indian cook in New York. Fittingly, the inlay card calls Chaudhuri’s On Broadway a post-colonial version.
Chaudhuri nails his point in the 15-minute final track: Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat Suite, which delicately interlinks the first movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with Raga Mishra Kafi with the Cohen song, and surprise, with the Dilli ka Thug classic tune, Yeh raatein, yeh mausam, nadi ka kinara— socially disparate, but conjoined melody twins. The album leaves behind a question: Was the Cohen song (1971) inspired by the Dilli ka Thug (1958) number, or is it a case of common scales and melodies thriving beyond genres and geographical limits?
Found Music is not quite easy, drive-time music. It is enriched—or burdened—by layers of academic thought. It doesn’t help that Chaudhuri’s singing is unassuming, bordering on the staid, and the album is instrumentally stripped of any flash.
So when it comes to the work of an author-musician whose books such as A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag and The Immortals have variously registered music-society interconnections, letting go easily of Found Music would be akin to judging a book by its cover.
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