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An Element of Risk: Amit Chaudhuri

Ilona Yusuf

Excerpted from an interview conducted by our Assistant Editor Ilona Yusuf of Amit Chaudhuri; published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 3 (2019). Click here to order volume three.

Amit Chaudhuri—novelist, poet, essayist, literary critic, singer and composer—is the author of several novels and collections of essays and short stories. His latest work is Friend of My Youth, in which—as in other works such as The Immortals and Odysseus Abroad—the central character loosely resembles the author. His writing, in its refusal to tackle historical or contemporary themes, often explores the lives of people in the world of music and writing in a rapidly changing society and challenges the accepted structure of the novel. As a musician and composer, he performs both Western and Eastern music genres, bringing each into the realm of the other.

Connectivity having taken over our lives, this conversation was conducted over the phone, scheduling having taken place over a series of typed exchanges during which Amit was often in the midst of travelling.

Amit speaks in long, measured, rhythmic sentences. It’s not easy to transcribe them, but I can’t help being struck by the way he can carry a thought through an extended sentence or set of sentences. In some places, it seems as if he is exploring a line of thought and resolving it as he speaks. I’m also struck by the sense of quiet, insistent rebellion against the academic, intellectual—and musical—establishment that infuses all of his work; a constant challenge of the status quo, often delivered with a puckish sense of humour.

As decided, the focus of our conversation will be his musical career rather than writing, (although I secretly hope that we can entwine the two) and, as we begin, he tells me that he has just finished riyaaz (musical practice) in his office. Currently in Paris (at the time of publication) on a fellowship at the Columbia Institute of Ideas and Imagination, Amit emphasises that the Institute’s aspiration is to widen the ways in which we think. Ergo, it is in tune with the line of thought he has been exploring for a while, in criticism and a series of symposiums under the title of ‘literary activism’—which is to discuss creative practice critically, looking outside academia, moving away from literary festivals and the academic conference.

‘It’s not like a writers’ retreat. We have sessions of critical discussion which refer to academic work and creative practice, in the way of thinking outside their narrow confines. Aside from this, during this fellowship I will take part in two events. One is a concert related to the Institute, in which five people, all of whom have some relation to Columbia, all of whom are musicians from an improvisational tradition—jazz, classical music, etc.—will perform. Another is my own experimental project, as a performer and composer making music within the parameters of the project I began in 2005, called This is Not Fusion.’

So, to return to the exploration of the taal, or time signature, in a performance. There is a charge from the audience when the performer sings. Why? The reason is that he is taking a risk in his improvisations, in which he challenges the rhythmic pattern of the piece, which he must then resolve—and when it is resolved it’s with a kind of mathematical beauty. You set yourself a problem, a task and you see whether the resolution will happen. When it does, there is a release of pleasure which communicates itself to the audience. A risk has been taken—and taken successfully…

Ilona Yusuf [IY]: Is writing connected to music in your work—does one feed into the other?

Amit Chaudhuri [AC]: I don’t think of connections when I’m writing. I look at it this way: writing is an inverse undertaking of a risk. Any subject might be a catalyst, however mundane. When I write, I don’t consciously decide to use an important subject. My subject, paradoxically, however mundane, completely absorbs me. I’m going to present something that might be a narrative drift rather than a significant moment in history. In exploring the pattern in that drift, I’m taking a risk. And there is no guarantee that this pattern will be of any importance.

IY: So, the element of risk cuts across both genres of creativity… But to return to writing, music as a theme runs through your writing. For instance, your novel The Immortals. It doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense of the novel; it’s more an exploration of and a meditation on music and the musical scene at a time when the nature of society was changing.

AC: The Immortals is an exploration of musicians—professional classical, housewives, young people in the realm of a world increasingly shaped by the market which has no clear idea of who the artist is. The artist is a curious figure, but he is also an enigma. Is he a creative person or a service giver? These shifting landscapes began to be palpable in the nineteen-eighties. I don’t go about writing in an orthodox narrative fashion, though. I allow things to grow around each other, presenting multiple glimpses and shifting perspectives.

IY: …That’s what I so enjoyed about The Immortals. There are so many anecdotal details which paint the multiple layers of society and the characters that inhabit it, their interpretation of music and the world of musicians.

AC: …When I argue against narrative it’s because it dominates and curtails what can be significant about a particular work—the significance of moments in life cannot be encompassed in history. It’s a nonlinear way of writing—it presents other ways about thinking about different ways of thinking.

IY: The idea of risk, or challenging existing forms and interpretations of music or writing, are constants in both your musical and writing careers then.

AC: Yes. For example, if we talk about Odysseus Abroad. I played with the idea of myself in the book—or about an uncle. My idea was, is it possible to write about an uncle or about Napoleon (since most novels today are premised on historical or contemporary events). Or to write about what I saw in the corridor (and what I saw was neither horrifying nor spectacular). It comes with no prior accreditation of being a light subject. This is the risk I was talking about earlier.

IY: I am reminded here of an excerpt from a review of one of Amit’s books. The passage describes a maid sweeping a room. The writing is almost sensuous in its attention to detail, the observation of rhythm and movement as she does so, expertly, imbuing this mundane task with an appreciation of work well done. When did you begin to write? Did writing precede music, or was the interest in both simultaneous?

AC: I turned to writing when I was very small. I was also surrounded by music. My mother sang Tagore songs, which she tried to teach me, but they didn’t interest me. But writing was the world I was in control of.

Music became my personal world later, when my father bought a record player. This is when I discovered pop and rock music. I began to listen to Western music and learned how to play the guitar. Daydreaming in writing and music became part of my world. I found school boring and literature—there was no music instruction—the only thing that survived the teachers’ attempts to make it boring. Misfits like me couldn’t envisage being stars like pupils who were good at sports. And rock stars were like sex objects, one could only view them with envy. So, one kept one’s proclivities secret.

IY: It was a very private world…

AC: Yes. It became even more private after the 10th standard at school. At the age of sixteen at that time in India one could stay at school and do the 11th and 12th standards there or one could study these at junior college—which I did, joining Elphinstone College. But I then dropped out and did my A-Levels by correspondence so that I could go to London to University College and become a writer and be published in Encounter. That was my aim.

IY: That reminds me of Anand in Odysseus Abroad

AC: Around this time, in this solitary phase of my life, there was a sudden and fitful transformation. After learning the guitar, both playing and composing, I began to be interested in Indian music. My teacher’s brother was the tabla player and his brother-in-law played the harmonium at my singing lessons.

That dreamworld in which I dream and think has extended throughout my life. Before I wrote Odysseus Abroad, I thought for a long time. I was going to write about myself as Telemachus and my uncle as Odysseus.

IY: This is the importance of thinking, or reverie, in the life of an artist. I wanted to ask, since your work is in two very different disciplines—music and writing—do you consider yourself more accomplished in one genre than in another? Or does this not matter?

AC: Just recently I had my first art exhibition, which was also an extension of my dreamworld. The idea of being good or expert doesn’t matter. Of course, it is a risk on many levels. We have no expertise in what we’re doing. One thinks, should one be doing this? But, be absorbed. Take the plunge. Explore it.

The art exhibition is called The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta and Other Ideas and is an installation of found objects: nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs of Bengali sweet merchants taken at a time when the photographic portrait became accessible both to politicians and the merchant class; a collection of unusable gifts presented to me on various occasions—which include a faux Tiffany lamp; and a collection of street signs in Hindi and English. Each item—particularly the gifts—is accompanied by a passage describing its origins.

Read the full interview in our third volume. Amit's photo courtesy: Geoffrey Pugh.


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