Finding The Raga: By Amit Chaudhuri, Penguin Random House India, 256 pages, ₹499.
Perhaps this seesaw between autobiography and commentary is in the nature of an amorphous literary beast like Finding The Raga. Like Romantic writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s inspired treatise, Biographia Literaria (a unique if, at times, infuriatingly digressive work), Finding The Raga resists formal boundaries. It defies structural tidiness, even though it begins with a long expository section titled alaap, mimicking the introductory segment of a khayal. Chaudhuri refers unabashedly to a multitude of materials—from classical texts like Bharata’s Natya Shastra to the structuralist poetics of philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure. He is equally intrepid with invoking analogies.
Two instances stand out: the audacious but exciting equivalence between the Terence Stamp character in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s movie Teorema and Lord Krishna’s erotic and destructive force. The passage may feel like a stretch but it is interesting nonetheless for the possibilities it opens up. Another analogy, involving Bob Dylan and bhakti poetry, is no less ingenious, and brave too. A few claims are baffling. “There was spiritual yearning in the Tagore song, but no Radha or Krishna,” writes Chaudhuri early on. On the contrary, the young Rabindranath did compose a sublime song cycle, Bhanusingher Padabali, celebrating the romance between Radha and Krishna, and set it to music later.
At times, Chaudhuri champions his aesthetic preferences rather too forcefully, such as in his critique of the embellished styles of Rabindrasangeet legends Kanika Banerjee and Suchitra Mitra, as opposed to his praise for the calm interpretations by Subinoy Roy and his own mother, Bijoya Chaudhuri. However, many of Tagore’s songs were written for dramatic performances first, and their performance therefore demands abhinaya, or enactment.
In his description of ragas, almost always luminous, Chaudhuri sometimes gets fixated on the versions he likes to the exclusion of others. In a stellar discussion of the monsoon raga Ramdasi Malhar, Chaudhuri fails to mention an odd but significant variation by the great Mallikarjun Mansur of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, who skipped the natural third, or shuddh ga, employed by others like Amir Khan. Such digressions are par for the course because even though bound by grammatical rules, ragas have always been (and still are) interpreted with a degree of poetic licence and fluidity by different gharanas.
At his best, Chaudhuri is unfailingly compelling and eloquent, and there are many such moments in the narrative—in this comment on the abstraction inherent in Hindustani classical music, for instance. “The raga is not about the world; it’s of it,” he writes, delineating the moorings of the khayal from the mimetic urges of Western classical compositions. That remark alone can act as a key to unlock the mystical power of the khayal, a gift that keeps giving.
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