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The Music Career of Writer Amit Chaudhuri

Along with his recent album of archival recordings ‘Seventeen,’ there’s also a new book titled ‘Finding The Raga: An Improvisation On Indian Music’

Narendra Kusnur Jul 14, 2021

Author and musician Amit Chaudhuri in Kolkata. Photo: Suvashis Mullick/The The India Today Group/Getty Images

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Amit Chaudhuri is best known around the world as a novelist, poet, and essayist. His seven novels and a dozen other books have been reviewed in the most prestigious of international literary journals, and he has been awarded some of the biggest global writing honors, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Betty Trask Prize, the Encore Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, Sahitya Akademi Award, and the Infosys Prize for Outstanding Contribution to the Humanities in Literary Studies. 

Chaudhuri also has an alternate career as a singer and composer that has run parallel to his primary vocation through much of his life. Music has been as much a passion for him as his books. His mother was a trained singer, and it was she who first instilled the love of Hindustani Classical music in him. He discovered rock and roll and jazz in his youth and later in life toured with a fusion band that brought together all his musical influences. Most recently, he wrote a libretto for the only opera composed by Ravi Shankar, which was staged in London a few years ago. 

Chaudhuri’s eclectic musical interests can be seen in his twin releases recently. His new book Finding The Raga: An Improvisation On Indian Music is a personal meditation on Indian classical music; and Seventeen, an album of a collection of English songs that he performed on All India Radio in the late Seventies and early Eighties that has just been released on streaming platforms like Spotify. The album title refers to the age when he started composing the songs as a teenager growing up in Bombay. “Our music artiste this evening is Amit Chaudhuri. He sings his own compositions to his own guitar accompaniment. Words and music are both by Amit,” says one of All India Radio’s announcers on the recording. 

His mother Bijoya was an accomplished singer of Rabindra sangeet, who went on to train under Govind Prasad Jaipurwale of the Kunwar Shyam gharana. In time Chaudhuri would also learn from  Jaipurwale, but as a teenager, he wanted to be a rock musician. “Until 1977, when I finished school, I wanted to be a pop, then a rock musician. My father, an extraordinarily kind man, sponsored my enthusiasms. As a result, I possessed a Yamaha acoustic guitar with a sweet, expansive sound and an Ibanez – both procured from Denmark Street on trips to London,” he writes in Finding The Raga.

Chaudhuri was a student of South Bombay’s elite Cathedral and John Connon School. “At Cathedral, nobody listened to Indian music. A lot of people were later surprised when I told them I was learning Indian classical music,” he recalls. “I began by listening to early Bee Gees, the Carpenters and Neil Diamond and The Who. Slowly, I got into Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. I wasn’t too enamoured of Bob Dylan, except for the albums John Wesley Harding and Blood On The Tracks,” he adds.

Like in Europe and America, rock and roll was the big rage in Bombay’s affluent schools like Cathedral in the Seventiues.”We were in our own world, of Sad Sack and Archie, of Elvis and later Dylan. We felt Indian but somehow also felt Woodstock was our inheritance. Something about our formation made us feel naturally at home in the American Sixties. The English language dominated. In Bombay, the modern Indian languages were called ‘vernaculars’, and those who spoke them labelled ‘vernacs,'” Chaudhuri says in the book.

Soon he went from listening to music to writing and composing. “Somewhere, I felt I could write songs. So, I picked up my guitar and began practising. A friend and I began learning in Breach Candy. I was more preoccupied with learning chords than with sheet music.”

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He narrates an interesting anecdote about his early days of songwriting in 1978. “I had experienced short-lived glory when I won first prize in a competition in which the great Nandu Bhende, who’d played Judas in Alyque Padamsee’s Jesus Christ Superstar, was the sole judge. I liked Nandu’s Judas. I’d made sure that he’d received a copy of the words of my song, which was called ‘Shout.'”

When Chaudhuri ascended the stage and announced the name, people began to heckle him, repeating loudly, “Shout! Shout!” He adds, “They shut up when I began to sing. Performing self-composed songs was, of course, unheard-of, and I was stupid enough to embark on such an experiment. Nandu Bhende was studying my lyrics with a frown. This was because I’d forgotten them. Or it could be because they were written in an obscure Thick As A Brick (a Jethro Tull song) mode.” Eventually, he made up his own words. “When I was done, the hecklers exploded with approval. This catapulted me to glory for part of the year,” he says.

Soon, his mother was recording his songs on a two-in-one player. “The recordings of the songs played on AIR were always there with me. A song called ‘Untitled,’ where I use some Indian-styled vocals, and ‘Armistice Hour’ were among the early recordings. My mother had handwritten the titles. Of course, I kept playing these songs later. I sing ‘Shame’ often, and I played ‘My Baby’s So Cruel’ at the Kala Ghoda festival,” he says. The contest-winning ‘Shout,’ though, does not form part of the Seventeen compilation.

Though the quality of the home recordings is rough, Chaudhuri says the good thing is that the finished songs are available. “It’s about me at that point in time. When I heard those songs later, they didn’t make me feel embarrassed,” he says.

In fact, for someone in his late teens, the songs come across as mature. On “Shame,” Chaudhuri wrote, “You made me what I am baby, but you left me the blame, how was I to know you’d bring me shame; I lie awake through the night, I know you too are alone, I know the grief you brought me, was really your own.”

On “The Trouble With Being Lonely,” the lyrics go like this: “The trouble with being lonely, is that you think you’re the only one sometimes living in the universe, and if it rains upon the glass, you think the rain will never pass, and nothing will get better now or worse.”

“The songs were in keeping with my surroundings, with what I heard, with what I read. A lot of these influences were subconscious,” he says. At home, his bookshelves were filled with classic Bengali novels, books from the Grolier Classics series, T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poems and biographies of Jackie Onassis and Marilyn Monroe.

He never gave Western classical music a fair chance – not because he disliked it, but because he disliked its followers. As he explains, “I’d noticed that most Indians who enthused over it were tone-deaf. They had clearly acquainted with it for reasons other than pleasure. They mentioned the names of compositions as if referring to privileged friends.”

However, there were exceptions, like filmmaker Satyajit Ray, whose contributions to musical scores for cinema was profound, and the Parsis of Bombay, who had produced Zubin Mehta. “Though I’m not an expert in the field, I became familiar with four of the Beethoven symphonies. I became prone to receiving Beethoven in a dramatic, narrative way. There’s something about Western music that lends itself to such representation,” he says.

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With time though, under the influence of Jaipurwale, English songwriting gave way to a rising interest in Hindustani classical music. “Govindji was a great pleasure to listen to – the tone of his voice and mastery that made you believe that he could do anything with it he chose to. He sang softly, without insistence, and almost never sang the same phrase twice. His aim, achieved with modesty, was to surprise and be surprised. I wanted to do what he was doing,” Chaudhuri says.

Soon, he was watching episodes of the Marathi TV programme Pratibha Ani Pratima on Doordarshan, which often featured classical musicians. The first one he saw had doyenne Kishori Amonkar, who sang a few notes without any accompaniment while replying to a question. A few weeks later, he caught the legendary Bhimsen Joshi, followed by an episode with stage singer Bal Gandharva. Though Chaudhuri understood very little Marathi, the music of these legends played a big part in his decision to shift focus towards classical.

Studying Hindustani classical music also helped Chaudhuri look at popular western songs from a different perspective. However, music took a relative backseat when he was student in England in the Eighties and the early part of his career as a writer in the Nineties. Things changed when he came back to Kolkata. “I had stopped listening to rock for many years, but when I resumed after returning to Kolkata, I found similarities between certain songs and Indian ragas. Once, I was listening to a recording of the blues by the late Jimi Hendrix. Some of the passages seemed similar to ragas Jog, Dhani and Malkauns,” he says.

It inspired him to rework many of these songs, blending them with Indian ragas. On his 2007 album This Is Not Fusion, he begins with “The Layla Riff To Todi.” He says, “I noticed similarities between Todi and the song ‘Layla,’ made famous by Eric Clapton and the group Derek & The Dominos. Likewise, I found something common between George Gershwin’s standard ‘Summertime’ and raga Malkauns. So, I worked on another track with that idea in mind, but with a departure. There were other such similarities I discovered – like the one between ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and raga Pahadi.”

His second album, Found Music, released in 2010, followed a similar path. Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” was transformed into a suite with extracts from raga Mishra Kafi, Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Arajuez” and songs from the Hindi films Pyaasa and Dilli Ka Thug. The R&B classic “On Broadway” was reworked using raga Gavati, while the Beatles hit “Norwegian Wood” was rendered in raga Bageshri, with sargams.

Chaudhuri spent the last decade mainly writing before returning to music with Seventeen and Finding The Raga. Viewed together, they seem like creations from two different worlds. The book delves deep into the nuances of Hindustani classical music, talking about khayal, thumri, devotional music, ragas, voice texture and riyaaz or practice.

On the other hand, Seventeen has the innocence of a teenager, not sure where his career is headed. As he writes in the book, “The path I’d taken from air guitarist to pop musician to Canadian singer-songwriter to Indian classical vocalist involved a journey, in which the last was a turn, a straying off, an inadvertent wandering, until I was where I hadn’t expected to be.”

Listen to ‘Seventeen’ below. Stream on Apple Music here.

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