All the Raga

Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music BY Amit Chaudhuri. New York: New York Review Books. 272 pages. $18.
The cover of Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music

In the late 1970s, Amit Chaudhuri’s family moved to the top floor of a tony South Bombay high-rise overlooking the sea. Twenty-five floors removed from the hubbub of the city below, the teenaged Chaudhuri cycled through a number of sonic personas in quick succession: air guitarist, singer-songwriter, and student of Indian classical. Part autobiography, and part ethnomusicological treatise, Finding the Raga unspools this last turn as the novelist and poet moves to the United Kingdom and back, and learns to sing, hear, and finally, to listen.

What is the raga? Chaudhuri devotes the book’s lengthy first section to considering this question. In Indian classical music, the raga is a liquid framework, a constellation of notes and intervals for improvisation: not quite a scale or mode, though certain ragas might resemble Western melodic patterns. It undergirds both major Indian traditions, Hindustani (Northern) and Carnatic (Southern), but the book focuses on the former and its vocal tradition of the khayal, effectively grounding it in its musicological, sociopolitical, and theological context. A later section convincingly argues for the khayal—with its radical time dilation, deindividuation, and death of the author-composer—as a very early modernist development. Although the raga has no equivalent, Chaudhuri attempts to contextualize it vis-à-vis various European traditions, and there is pleasure to be found in treating this text as a kind of listening guide.

Chaudhuri explains that Western music is generally defined by a “mimetic ethos,” particularly in narrative-driven program music. In Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, for example, woodwinds imitate birdsong, while other instruments mimic a babbling brook and a thunderstorm. There is also an expectation that harmony corresponds to mood. Major keys are “happy,” minor keys “sad”; dissonance and atonality stand in for the trauma of the European modern. This idea is so pervasive that streaming-service closed captioning will readily describe a score as “[thrilling music]” or “[ominous music].” Contra post-Enlightenment expectation of representation, a raga is a raga just as a rose is a rose is a rose.

A number of other Anglo-Desi comparisons are made. Between the visuals associated with song in Hollywood—Broadway-influenced and choreography-heavy—and the stillness of midcentury Bollywood, for example. The maximalist song-and-dance routines that emerged in the 1980s, and are now all-but-synonymous with Bollywood are conveniently dismissed as an acquiescence to the market. It’s worth noting here that while Chaudhuri uses “India” throughout, much of Hindustani classical’s development occurred pre-Partition, encompassing what is now Pakistan, too.

The book’s subtitle, An Improvisation on Indian Music, prefigures its form. It is open-ended, riffy, occasionally virtuosic—[frenetic tabla solo!]—and often pedantic, getting into the musicological weeds with overly technical detail. A curious “invisible chapters” layout, where text ends partway down the page before picking up a new thread on the next, contributes to the fragmentary feel. In one section illustrating tempo and time dilation, blank space is used, Pokémon-like, over twelve near-empty pages to spatialize rhythm in a way that is both surprising and effective.

But the gentle meanderings and accretions of detail that make Chaudhuri’s fiction so lovely can make his arguments here frustrating to follow. Chaudhuri seems to cheekily preempt this critique in a section on improvisation and formal interrelationships between his singing and his writing:

I’m told I have a tendency not to come to the point. Some Indian critics, in particular, have taken me to task for this. The Anglophone Indian, in the last thirty years, has been impatient with digression, unless it’s connected to identity: "We Indians always digress."

To fully appreciate Chaudhuri’s work, you need a benevolent attitude towards digression. You’d also need formal training in Western music theory, an in-depth knowledge of European modernist poetry and Kantianism, and much else besides. The author’s erudition is impressive but not always reader-friendly: his disquisition on comparative modernities, and Hinduism and Buddhism’s influence on the same, can be opaque. Other notes in Chaudhuri’s improvisation ring false. For example, he locates the beginnings of nonrepresentational art in Indian court paintings rather than in Islam’s entire visual tradition; he also muses that the tabla may be the only percussive instrument, and drum, that employs glissando or “bent notes.” Whether or not these points are technically correct feels somewhat beside the point. The work is meant to be a little loose, and Chaudhuri’s braggadocious avuncular vibe—as opposed to a stern tone of assumed authority—is disarmingly charming.

There are sudden, incandescent moments of recognition too, particularly in the more memoiristic passages. The enthusiastic reception, in Bombay, of 1960s American culture is described as “a decade that had just passed and gone by, for us, without Vietnam,” while memories of watching proto-MTV Marathi performances where “the channel behaved as if it was a radio”—replete with graphic captions—bring me back to childhood summers spent with my grandparents, idly flipping between cartoons and the regional channels. Throughout, Chaudhuri’s family, music teachers, and neighbors are deftly sketched with admirable paucity, as is his palpable discomfort in the UK, and his exploration of how sound became racially charged.

Most intriguing is the intimation of terroir, that, as prominent Bollywood music director Naushad Ali once said, “it was this land that created these songs”—even as the sea is a much more prominent metaphor throughout the book. Ragas are associated with specific times of day and even seasons but these relationships, Chaudhuri insists, are never “narrative or representational, but linguistic.” (Later, he grudgingly allows that some monsoon ragas do indeed echo—and some believe, induce—a pluvial soundscape. He recounts repeatedly trying and failing to make it rain; on YouTube, I watch a man with an orange scarf seemingly raise winds and then a downpour with his vocal runs alone.) Western music’s representational quality allows it to be performed anyplace, anytime. Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 is about a bucolic springtime storm, but can readily be performed in the desert in winter. But the raga’s textuality, he says, encompasses qualities like light and the weather. “A springtime raga must be performed only in the spring, and one that is sung at the wrong time of day is subject to “jet lag,” as critic Raghava Menon puts it.

Similarly, for Chaudhuri, there’s a primal incompatibility felt when practicing the morning raga in drab, gray Oxford. Because rain is not rain is not rain. Used to warm rains and warmer seas, I remember being suspicious the first time I encountered a cold drizzle in the UK and, much later, upon moving to NYC, flabbergasted at how the Atlantic felt icy even in summer. The specter of climate change is raised too. Chaudhuri points out that natives of the subcontinent have been living with the same weather for several millennia. Could the raga survive a future with erratic rain?

Rahel Aima is a writer in Dubai. She is editor of BXD: The Postwestern Journal and an associate editor at Momus.