For decades now, the novelist Amit Chaudhuri has begun each morning by singing the Indian classical raga “Todi”. It boasts a scale utterly alien to western music’s majors, minors and modes, and its emotional effect varies: for many people this raga, or melody form, evokes a sad beauty, while for others it is playful or unsettling. Chaudhuri spends an hour working through the same sequence of slow, medium and fast compositions every day, yet he never tires of them. Each time Todi unfolds differently, for this is a musical form of fractal-like complexity, that allows for endless explorations and improvisations within each raga’s framework.
If that sounds like a daunting way to start the day, bear in mind that this is a genre as incomprehensible to most Indians as it is to most Europeans. In childhood, if Chaudhuri heard someone singing it he would respond with parody or dismissal. As with the western operatic voice, its vocal timbre sounds harsh to the uninitiated, straying into unnatural registers; it is an acquired taste.
For a foreigner listening to khayal, the principal style Chaudhuri sings, the chasm of familiarity is wider still. Where audiences in the west tend to prize the voice beautiful, the bel canto, what count in khayal are inventiveness and mastery of musical grammar. Some singers are blessed with an exquisite voice, but it is not a requirement. As the musician and broadcaster Narayana Menon once said: “In India the voice is no more of an asset to a singer than, say, good handwriting to a poet. What a musician sings is far more important than how he sings.” India’s vocal music has rarely journeyed abroad as easily as its instrumental music.
Yet it can also be calming, seductive or exhilarating, as I found during my own more limited studies of it. You start by singing one note, the tonic, or Sa, allowing this drone to settle you. You learn to voice the solfège names of the notes as you sing them, like Julie Andrews singing “Do-Re-Mi” but using India’s sargam terminology, and you recite them in high-tempo scale exercises. You learn to bend the notes microtonally, with a precise awareness of accurate pitch; to sing from memory, and muscle memory; and to ride on complex metrical structures. Eventually, if you make it, you gain the confidence to improvise – a thrilling experience, as Chaudhuri describes: “The horse rears; you hang on; you want it to rear because therein lies the beauty you’re trying to grasp.”
Where western pop music is obsessed with chords, and western classical by keys, Indian classical is in thrall to the individual notes in a raga and their interrelationships. Chaudhuri writes beautifully of the feelings that semitonal shifts can engender, of how, in the monsoon raga “Ramdasi Malhar”, “The natural third has a buoyancy that corresponds to the renewal the rains offer: the washed leaves and hair; the burgeoning of, and movement in, the environment. The flat third, following immediately, introduces reflectiveness.”
Khayal is enduringly ancient – it originated in the 17th century, having evolved from the 1,000-year old form of dhrupad – but also surprisingly modernist in nature. The boundaries delineating what constitutes a performance are often blurred. Pre-concert tuning can segue into the opening piece. Similarly, musicians might interrupt a recital to clear their throat or retune, before resuming as if nothing had happened, the audience participating in this pretence. The alap, the customary opening section, can last for over an hour, and sometimes the musician never reaches the main section. “No other music tradition allows the prologue to be definitive in this way,” asserts Chaudhuri, with delight. Then there is the raw material of improvisation: a singer takes individual syllables and draws them out in intricate forays, indifferent to the composition’s meaning; the singer Amir Khan sometimes used his telephone number for this purpose. Chaudhuri sees these as radical non-representational developments, typical of modernism.
Growing up in Bombay, his taste was initially for western pop. Then, aged 16, he was captivated by the singing of Govind Prasad Jaipurwale, and began learning from him with a convert’s zeal. By the time he moved to London to study literature at 21, he took with him a tanpura and left behind his guitar. His dedication was unwavering, even as he became a published writer. Only when he moved to Calcutta at 37 did he rediscover other music, but he has maintained his Indian vocal regime ever since, and performs regularly, either in classical concerts or as singer-songwriter in his own experimental band.
Classical music is one of India’s great riches. Yet there is a paucity of quality, accessible writing about it in English. India deserves a writer-musician counterpart to David Byrne, Ian Bostridge or Patti Smith. The gallingly multifaceted Chaudhuri, author of seven novels, poet, essayist and professor, has been a musician for 40 years, so Finding the Raga has been long awaited. It is part singing diary, part memoir and part music history. At times it is probably too technical for some readers, but it is always accomplished with style, and is characteristically discursive, drawing surprising links between Tulsidas and Dylan, or between Mirabai and Pasolini, while Tansen, Beethoven and Hendrix also appear.
The obvious question is to what extent making music has shaped him as a writer. He mostly resists this connection, viewing the two as separate activities, even though music has been a recurring theme in his writings, including his novels Afternoon Raag and The Immortals, and the libretto he wrote for Sukanya, the posthumous opera by Ravi Shankar, who performed in the same north Indian tradition. But he admits to one similarity, for the digressive style of his writing mirrors his pursuit of improvisation in music: both are about deferral of the expected, evasion of climax – what he calls his “tendency not to come to the point”. And it is here the pleasure is located – in love of linguistic byways, as in musical playfulness. In this delightful and insightful book, it is to our fortune that he continues to defer and evade.