Amit Chaudhuri and Anup Kutty riff on what makes music and how the great India story is appropriating the rest
THE FOUNDER member/guitarist of Menwhopause, Anup Kutty, is working with the rock band on their third album Haze, which revolves around madness. The author of The Immortals, Amit Chaudhuri, is also an accomplished singer in the North Indian classical tradition. He is writing a non-fiction book on Kolkata.
Edited Excerpts From A Conversation
TEHELKA: By being both into music and writing, do you forego the chance to be really good at either?
Amit Chaudhuri: Probably, but thankfully, the critics think otherwise (laughs). It’s a question of huge amounts of commitment to each but that commitment is undertaken because of a variety of reasons, including, I’m sure, genetic predisposition. These are things one can’t avoid.
Arun Kolatkar, the poet who wrote in English and Marathi, said that he keeps a pencil sharpened at both ends. You have to be ready for the opportunities that two languages or two genres or two arts present to you and then, you have to decide whether you are equipped and inclined to follow up.
Anup Kutty: Do you have a regime or a strict discipline that you have to follow?
AC: I do, not because I’m a disciplined person, but because I do Hindustani classical music and that enforces riyaaz. Classical music is like a sport, you need to keep training so that imposes a regime.
AK: That’s something I’m struggling with. I don’t have a discipline so I don’t know whether I should be playing the guitar everyday or not. I just go by what I feel like doing — if I want to write, I’ll spend a few days just writing or if I want to play then I’ll just play.
TEHELKA: Amit, you’ve talked about the recurrence of the pentatonic in musical scales across the world.
AC: I’m not interested in the pentatonic scale because of some anthropological or ethno-musicological reason. It’s something that has the amazing ability to be resurrected in various ways. It began to come back to me through certain ragas and mishearing. I heard the riff to Layla while I was singing Todi (a morning raga). It was the accidentality of those moments that was of interest.
TEHELKA: What about the writing process?
AC: I agree with Roland Barthes that in the end, the writing matters. What makes [his] essays about trivial things so interesting is that even while being about the forelock Romans have in Hollywood films or detergents or wrestling, it’s also about writing itself. The metamorphosis that is changing our view of wrestling or detergents is happening on that level. Writing entails a transformation.
TEHELKA: And songwriting?
AK: There’s no fixed formula. The music can come first, I could just think of a melody and the words come later. That’s the fun part of working in a band; the ideas can come from so many different quarters. There are a couple of songs which when I listen, I don’t even remember how they happened.
AC: I do two things broadly — one is taking a song or a part of a song, which already exists and referring to it or bringing it into a composition or new arrangement or just something which quotes from it. Like Good Vibrations has Kalavati and Abuli, which suddenly moves into the Beach Boys. I call it recontextualisation.
Or, suddenly something occurs to me that will not go away. Now, I have to decide whether this works best as a novel, a poem, a story or a song, and I must commit to it.
TEHELKA: You’ve talked about ‘found music’ in the past. Were you referring to a musical realm that can be tapped into?
AC: I was referring to the idea of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘found objects’. Music, or even sound or noise that’s already around you, and putting it in the domain of a composition. Duchamp took a urinal and put it in an exhibition space.
AK: Didn’t John Cage do that too?
AC: Cage was very interested in silence and everything that happens in the silence.
AK: We actually did a cover of 4 minutes 33 seconds (by Cage) in India. For four minutes and 33 seconds, there was just silence, and just one feedback loop.
AC: There you are. But there is still some sound. It could be a person coughing in the audience. When I listen to 4’33”, created in India, there’s always sound. Like say, the sound of someone scraping the bottom of a kadhai.
When you do a cover of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and let’s say you miss a note, is it the same thing or a thing of your own?”
AK: Wasn’t John Cage also questioning the essence of music, the essence of a particular concerto or a classical track? So when you do a cover of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and let’s say you miss a note, is it the same thing or a thing of your own?
AC: How do accidents and chance govern the creative act? Marcel Duchamp says, yes there are found objects but you cannot go looking for them. You have to wait for them. Waiting for them brings in an element of chance. Cage is throwing this idea of chance and an artist’s receptivity. One part of you must be attending to it.
AK: I guess the same applies to photography. Bresson said his best pictures came out of chance accidents. He didn’t know he’d taken them until he went to the darkroom.
AC: As Henry James said about that moment, the image, that sets off the novel. It has to catch things to it, like a spider’s web that catches every particle in its tissue.
AK: There was a debate about whether a writer is more important than the writing. Amitav Ghosh blogged about writers being performers.
AC: Oh well, he may just have been a little opportunistic, since he’s quite a performer himself. Coming from the Rushdie episode recently, we foster that culture where we talk very little about writing and more about the writers. Take MF Husain for example, who moved from writing to painting.
Here was a great painter who was picked up as a liberal cause, justifiably. But no one in this country has a clear idea of why he is a great painter. He’s called the Picasso of India. With Picasso, we know certain epiphanic moments in his life. He starts out making collages, he uses newsprint, he co-founds Cubism, he paints the fat woman, he uses the socalled primitive African art. Like him or not, but at least you have a clear idea of what the achievement is supposed to comprise. But with Husain, what is his development? What did he achieve? Which are his great paintings? Similarly, [the way] we talk about writers.
AK: Do you think the same has happened with Indian classical music?
AC: Indian classical music has suffered a lot because it has become pan-Indian music. We don’t talk about the music for what makes Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali Khan (they’re Pakistanis) different from Amir Khan and Bhimsen Joshi. We concentrate more on the kurta he is wearing and gestures, like touching feet. The khayal we hear now with ektal, slowed down to the way it is, is a fascinating invention by Amir Khan. But it has been appropriated like the flag, into an emblem of our nationality. You no longer need to talk about the music. All of that is part of the bogus reverence.
AK: So you’re saying it’s not even the market? One would think it’s the market that dictates we discuss the writer. But the same thing happens in art and music.
AC: In the end, everything is a part of this great story: India. Jettison India and throw it out of the window; if you want to talk about music, just talk about music. Because right now everything is grounded in that India story and people talk about writers, like they are a major part of India’s story, like sons-in-law: we want our writers to be successful, we want them to have PhDs; basically we want them to be like ministers and bureaucrats, and be interviewed by Barkha Dutt.