APRIL 19, 2021
THE EARLY ’90s were unprogrammatic times, or rather, times subsumed by a program — neoliberal globalization — which claimed to end all programs. And yet it was in this environment that Amit Chaudhuri emerged: a writer with a program, it always seemed to me, even if the program had about it some irony. It wasn’t political, exactly, glancing at the idea of power with hostility and profound disinterest. Its project was more to carve out a space in artistic and intellectual life for the marginal, the everyday, the strange, the small, the provincial, the anti-essentialist, the difficult — values at odds with the commercial and professionalizing imperatives of world-liberalized culture, with its contradictory embrace of the “authentically” local and the sweepingly global.
“Fusion food,” “world music”: neoliberal globalization’s sad aesthetic categories also included, for Chaudhuri, the postmodern global novel, which he would sometimes shorthand to “magic realism,” or just to “Salman Rushdie,” a writer of sprawling national allegories. Against this, Chaudhuri recovered a hidden lineage of writers — from R. K. Narayan to Elizabeth Bishop, D. H. Lawrence to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra — whose work opened up aslant ways of seeing: internationalist rather than global, wayward rather than pointed, fleeting, small-time, and quietly worldly rather than monumental. Chaudhuri’s novels continued this tradition, which he sometimes summed up as “modernism”; his essays celebrated the way its aesthetic values grated against the present, or just went on doing its strange work in the shadow-lanes of a globalized world.
Meanwhile, he practiced music — releasing, in 2007, an album fittingly titled This Is Not Fusion, feeling its way through jazz, rock, pop, the blues, and Indian classical music. This last category, Indian classical music, is the subject of his new book, Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music, out now from New York Review Books. First embraced as a teenager, Indian classical music was for him a defamiliarized world of sounds that opened up his slowly forming world of aesthetic values. Finding the Raga brings together memoir and a kind of roving, essayistic criticism to reflect on the aesthetics of Indian classical music and its links to modernism: a porous, improvisational practice, alive to the street sounds straying through the window, that values “process over artifact.” We spoke over Zoom about the new book and the bad present. For me, it was early in the morning in Chicago; for him, late in the evening in Santiniketan, the site of Tagore’s famous school, where he went with his family to take a break from Calcutta.
WILLIAM HARRIS: Maybe a place to start would be the sense of opposition in your work, or the feeling that your writing has always been in discordant step with its historical moment. How did this start?
AMIT CHAUDHURI: My parents moved to St. Cyril Road in Bandra in the early ’80s, after my father retired. There I began to recuperate what was actually important to myself, which I hadn’t realized or had been suppressing because I didn’t have language to understand it. In the ’70s, I was attracted to absurdist theater and a teenage version of existentialism, which became the lens through which I saw things. It was only much later that I realized that those things which seemed in an allegorical way to be full of meaning but without particularity and detail, actually had particularity and detail. I had taken meaning from those things, meaning in terms of instruction, but no sense of joy or delight. Suddenly I saw that there was joy, there was specificity, and joy and specificity was the meaning of these artworks from which I was only taking meaning in a non-specific way. I’m talking, for instance, about someone like Bergman. Watching a film by him was an experience of being instructed in the seriousness of things. Yet part of me, even while watching and being instructed by Bergman, was reacting against that. I knew that I was not being completely true to myself. But I didn’t have a way to define what that meant.
So when that moment came — St. Cyril Road, my parents moved there, I returned to live with them after university, I discovered the place — I began to feel a change within myself, a sensory change, in terms of my connection with the world. And music — the discovery of Hindustani classical music, the way it led me to think anew about time, days, the seasons — was also doing that. It was there that I returned to Bergman and discovered things I hadn’t noticed before. It’s amazing what you can numb yourself to.
But since we’re talking about opposition — during this period I didn’t want to be oppositional, except to myself. I was opposing myself. I do remember that I was discovering the Irish poets, through Paul Muldoon’s Faber anthology, and Elizabeth Bishop, and this was the early ’80s, before the Bishop revival. And I remember being out of sync, because my contemporaries were reading García Márquez and the writers of the Latin American Boom. I had no interest in the novel, and I had no interest in that kind of novel. Instead I was reading the Irish poets because they seemed to represent a kind of vernacular experience. They were writing in English; they weren’t making their English consciously bear marks of difference, but there was something different going on with their English. And I liked that — I liked that the provincial could be an aesthetic in their work. And so without even fully understanding it, I was going against the grain of what was happening in terms of the reception of the Latin American Boom.
In your essays you often framed this oppositional quality in aesthetic terms, but it had political stakes too, in that you were opposing the commercial values of neoliberal globalization. It seems to me now, though, that we’ve entered something of a new moment historically, in both politics and literature: in politics, with the decline of liberal globalization’s exclusive hegemony and the rise of the far right, in India as in the United States; in literature, with the Rushdie-style global novel’s loss of prestige and the critical ascendancy of autofiction. How do you relate to this moment? Has there been a meaningful shift, or does describing it that way mask something more continuous?
You say politically things have changed — yes, yes they have changed. Even 10 years ago, no one would have expected the kind of attack on democracy happening now in India. I have to say though — nor did I expect that capitalism and its bubble world would be so tenacious. Cultural hegemony still belongs to the liberal elite. I had a feeling in the early 2000s, as did others, that “theory” was passing and something else was taking its place, as represented by the emergence of the essay. It seemed like a new generation would emerge that would throw off the constraints and dichotomies that came into existence from the late ’80s and into the ’90s in the Anglophone world. But that didn’t quite happen. Some people tried to create a non-professional space in which the essay could exist. But otherwise many people from that generation, and also your generation, have gone off into jobs and become increasingly professionalized. They’ve gone with the hegemony of the times — by which I don’t mean the dominance of the right wing in governance, but whatever is at work in academia.
But leaving aside academia, during the 2008 crash, at a time when all of us were impacted economically, some of us felt a tiny of bit of schadenfreude. We rejoiced just a little bit, even though we were losing out too. Because maybe now the structure would become looser — which is all we wanted it to be. It’s not as if we wanted total revolution. But we wanted a more fluid structure. And we thought maybe writing, publishing, living, and other things were going to breathe now a little more, courtesy of the chaos and pain of the 2008 crash. But that didn’t happen either. The corporate structures became stronger. And now everything that seems to assail that structure makes it stronger, and gives further reason to those in control to tighten control.
On the one hand, in right-wing governance you have the intolerance of multiculturalism, the intolerance of tolerance. And on the other hand in academia or in publishing, the 2008 crash and now the pandemic has given further control to managers and corporate structures. Now in academia professors play a diminishing role — things are decided by managers. And even the calls for decolonization and the Black Lives Matter movement — one has to be very careful not to let this energize the way managers take increasing control. The change has to come from teachers and students. But not through “policy.” Policy is another step toward increasing the stranglehold that exists in publishing and academia. So you have the rise of intolerance and also the rise of capital, and the very real dictatorship of capital in the world of thinking and education and writing.
We are all concerned about what the right wing are up to. But how far is the new liberal intelligentsia aware of what’s happening with this dictatorship of capital? In the past 25 years, there’s been a general disregard and erosion of the vocabulary of the desultory and the wayward. There’s not much possibility of feeling imaginatively free right now. Maybe more of that could have happened in some way, I’m not sure, if in the early 2000s more of that non-professional space had come into being and hadn’t been appropriated by corporatizing institutions in which the liberal elite became spokespersons for values, but within a certain milieu. We needed a different milieu.
It should be said that you’ve tried, in recent years, to create space for a different milieu, through Literary Activism, a sort of counter-institution you’ve built up. This started as a set of symposia, but is now much else besides, that promotes activism not in a political sense exactly, but as interventions around the status and possibility of the literary. You’ve now held six symposia with a range of writers, scholars, journalists, artists, and others — on themes from “de-professionalization” to “against storytelling” to “decolonization” — you’ve published an edited volume on the subject, and launched a website with a magazine attached. How would you reflect on this kind of counter-institutional experiment’s direction and progress, a few years on?
I’m happy about the way it’s gone. I know that people respond to what’s happening in that space. They respond to the mix — that it’s possible to speak about science and critical theory and 19th-century Bengali poetry in the same space. Something happens when you implicitly create new maps, new conjunctions where these things are meeting each other. But I’m not sure who I’m reaching out to and what kind of difference it’s making. I’m cautious about feeling optimism on that score because of the way I saw people I thought would be different becoming appropriated and speaking in exactly the same way.
I also wonder — but really these are pretty childish thoughts — I wonder what people look for now. I said to my wife the other day: do you remember that we used to look for things which were difficult? We had an antenna out, ready, and when we sensed there was something difficult — whether in film, or music, or writing — we went toward it. And even if we disliked it for its difficulty or didn’t understand it, there was a part of us which wanted that experience of encountering difficulty, something out of the way that still seemed to have promise. And now I don’t know whether people still want that encounter of strangeness — because Literary Activism is about encountering strangeness, making that encounter possible. So I hope it finds a place in some way. I’m optimistic at least in that I had the opportunity. I had the platform, some kind of support — at least for that I’m hopeful.
Turning to the new book, Finding the Raga, maybe we can start with what first drew you to Indian classical music. You get the feeling in the book that it wasn’t a straightforward attraction.
With Indian classical music, I became aware, around the age of 16, of its beauty. Allowing myself to listen especially to its vocal music, which growing up I would’ve found the most difficult thing to understand. Ravi Shankar playing the sitar, moving toward a climactic ending with the tabla playing at full speed — all that was exciting, even if I didn’t listen to it as much as I did to Joni Mitchell. By the time I was 16, because I was becoming so malformed internally, I would’ve had to overcome my prejudice toward the Ravi Shankar–type climactic endings, with the tabla playing at full speed, and an audience going crazy — I would’ve had to overcome that resistance. And what I came to realize, through my classical music teacher, but also through listening to Hindustani vocal classical music, with its care and unarguable aspect of tranquility, was that it’s not just about virtuosity, even if its singers are great virtuosos. You cannot deny this encounter with an expansive state of deep calmness, this intervention of calm. And then detail, and beauty, in a way I hadn’t understood was possible.
I loved Western pop music — I’m sorry, I don’t like saying “Western” pop music, but there are so many kinds of pop — and American folk music, I loved those sounds. And there are commonalities there with Indian classical music, too, in the kinds of chords they use. There’s a trance-like feeling to some of those added-ninth chords or sustained fourth chords. There’s a deep melodiousness, suspended in a kind of stasis, in those chords in the American folk and pop music I was listening to, and also in Indian classical music. But I hadn’t noticed in the pop music this level of play and meditation on detail. The production of certain kinds of mood of course depends on detail, through harmony, but it wasn’t the same kind of detail that was happening with the melodic, rhythmic detail of extremely subtle kinds I was encountering in Indian classical music, where the dropping of one note or the making flat of one particular note conveyed a great fleeting but momentous impact. That kind of detail I hadn’t come across before.
And improvisation I thought of as a form of virtuosic play, but I realized it could also be this very tiny modulation on which North Indian classical music was based, on which its emotional impact was based. I had to begin to hear the significance of what it meant for that note to be dropped or to be evaded in a particular raag, allowing a note to be sung both sharp and flat. I had to realize why I was being affected by these little changes, to be able to hear the beauty of these changes.
Much of the book is about drawing a relation between Indian classical music and what you call modernism. Could you explain that relation?
When I was first drawn to Indian classical music, I had some sense of what modernism was, but not a deep sense. And again, I would have seen it as worth paying attention to because it bore the marks of seriousness. But I didn’t actually know that much. But eventually, and Indian classical music played a large part in this, I began to see it more deeply. Now I see modernism, and any kind of improvisational play, as fundamentally liberating. I see it as an unshackling. I see it as joyous, and I can see it that way because I’m aware of modernism as an Indian (and I’m using “modernism” as shorthand, I’m not completely happy with having to use this word). I’m aware of modernism in Europe, in India, and in other parts of the world. Whenever I encounter it, I feel a great deal of joy. Sensory delight takes over — not just through the world, but also through language itself. The primary response for me becomes one of unshackling, unfettering, and unfettering as delighting. We only think of unfettering in moral terms in the West — but we don’t think of how its consequences have to lead to joy.
Being the kind of Indian I am, where I grew up, my disagreements with various things including other Indians, it means that I don’t have to turn to modernism as an allegory of a particular history because that history isn’t completely my history. There were other things happening here which made the 20th century a really interesting period. Not only was freedom gained, but there was freedom. As the British were colonizing and building neoclassical buildings and basically being very uninteresting in India, there was freedom to be interesting. And, of course, there are ways of delegitimizing this history too, from a left perspective. But there are enough left people in India who feel the wonderful resonances of that modernist inheritance. So it’s possible to see this artistic and imaginative movement of unfettering from the very boring masterfulness, but also insidious masterfulness, of the Renaissance and the neoclassical — it’s possible to see it not as disenchantment but as enchantment. The Renaissance must’ve been a period of growing and deep disenchantment, compensated for by these kind of figures on steroids in the paintings and statues and monuments of the time. A complete crushing of the everyday, and deep disenchantment with the everyday. So when modernism comes, it seems to me that after a few hundred years of soul-crushing disenchantment there is finally enchantment. That’s where I place my experience of modernism.
And the music, khayal, is very much a part of that wonderful opening up. I see it in my everyday experience. As I say in the book, Amir Khan slowed down ektaal [rhythmic cycle] so much that the tabla player I practice with, during a part of ektaal which can be played with only a few fingers of one hand, has the time to quickly unscrew the top of a water bottle with the right hand, continue playing with the left hand, drink from the bottle of water, put the bottle down, and return to being back in time to play when you have to use both hands again. This is only possible because of that kind of unfettering, which doesn’t mean disorganization but a new kind of thinking about these everyday time cycles. This too is part of an everyday modernist fracturing sensibility, but fracturing not in the Western sense of breakdown, but of something old being fractured and something new being created. And when I say it’s not in the Western sense, I think a lot of people in the West also share this joy. Not everybody buys into this modernism as trauma equation.
There’s a phrase that stuck out to me in the book, that seems to indicate a key part of what modernism means to you, especially modernism as a kind of unshackling from European Enlightenment values: self-extinction. I wonder if you could say a little about that. Self-extinction, losing yourself amid the sensory unfolding of life in a way that’s fractured, incomplete, radically open: is this something like the fundamental stake of your aesthetic project?
With music, it’s the raag, it’s the note — you want to avoid interfering, to avoid in any way advertising yourself. When you improvise vocally in Indian classical music, some kind of tightrope is being walked where you want to explore the full possibilities of play, but not constrained by having to exhibit what you know. While singing the notes, and going deeper into the notes, and growing aware of the sound of the notes and the sound of the voice and the form of the raag which you are rediscovering again at the moment of performance — even though you know it, you’ve known it for years and years — it’s important not to be bringing yourself into it. You’re surrendering yourself to the note; the only thing that matters is the joy of the note. The self begins to feel of secondary importance for a moment. Not in a spiritual hierarchical way, but so that something else may be released. Because as long as your sense of self is in control, this other thing cannot find a home in the world. For it to come into being, you have to suspend what you thought was important — about your self and what’s happening in the world.
Something I really appreciate in the book is how the celebration of a certain kind of distracted everyday listening is also a celebration of a certain kind of looking. You don’t put these things in opposition. Listening is widely valued today, but looking not as much: often it’s associated with the gaze, with reduction and naïve transparency, with superficial commercialism. But you have a very different idea of looking, as deeply bound with listening: looking as “losing yourself.”
What I’m trying to say in the book is that for me, looking and listening are both forms of a particular kind of desire which is connected to self-extinction, to return to that phrase. I like certain critiques of seeing or looking as a form of perspective and control, like those of Derrida or D. H. Lawrence. I think the form of looking at play in a Renaissance painting has some connection with looking as a way of knowing in its entirety, being distant from and untouched by the object you’re looking at, and being the master of the scene — just as you’re the owner of the painting, you’re the master of the scene.
Someone who talks about this kind of looking is David Hockney, in a documentary he made in the early ’90s about a 14th- or 15th-century Chinese scroll depicting an emperor visiting a town, or a village. On the one hand, he gradually unfolds the scroll and makes us look at its various scenes, so we see it’s not quite a narrative because the scroll features a variety of things happening simultaneously. And then he makes us consider that we are looking at him on television, so there’s a frame around him and he’s standing there. Then he points us to a Canaletto painting of a canal or something, and he makes us look at the painting’s vanishing point, and at the painting itself, pristine in its reproduction of itself and its color, and of the reality it’s showing us and allowing us to consume and master without actually having to enter it and become touched by it physically. Then he shows us the Chinese scroll again and he makes us notice that some of the houses are oddly created through a wishful sleight of hand, in that they observe the rules of perspective from this angle, but contradictorily they also observe the rules of perspective from that angle. They have a three-dimensionality, but at the same time they can be looked at from different sides. One of the things he says about the scroll is you can enter it at any point. It doesn’t have a vanishing point. So you don’t feel that this is the way to go in, which you feel with the Canaletto painting, where you feel as if here is this window, you have to go in here, and you have to keep going deeper and deeper in until you’ve reached the end of the painting. With the Chinese scroll, there’s no one proper place of entry.
Why do you want to enter a painting from all these different angles? Why are you happy that there are so many points of entry? It’s because you desire to be in that world. You desire to be in that marketplace, or among those monks standing there, in that little bit of gossip between one shop and another. The eye is the organ that allows you to feel this desire to be outside yourself, to be somewhere else and enter. It’s a kind of inadvertent window that’s been left open — a point of escape for this leakage, this desire for the person who wants to be out of themselves from time to time, whether it’s a street or that scene in the Chinese scroll that draws them.
For me, when I began writing A Strange and Sublime Address, it was the street, the street in Calcutta. I needed to escape this existential sense of the self, as I understood it as a teenager. I needed to get out into the street. And that could only happen because the ears and eyes had been inadvertently left open. Seeing and listening are those inadvertent moments where the self is escaping out while whatever is supposed to control it is unmindful. But this is happening because something is drawing itself outside of it and the self wants to be drawn to that. And that’s really my only interest as a writer — finding new beginnings, new ways of entering the world.