Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music by Amit Chaudhuri - review by Keshava Guha

Keshava Guha

Singing Constellations

Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music


Faber & Faber 258pp £12.99

When I was ten or eleven years old, my father began to take me to concerts of Hindustani classical music. His own family was happily unmusical; he had been introduced to Hindustani music as an undergraduate and it has been his greatest source of joy and refuge ever since. He would sit in the front row; I would make my way to the back, where I could occupy myself with my Tolkien without offending the performer, who was usually someone very distinguished. After three or four of these evenings, it was evident that the bug wasn’t catching, and that was more or less that.

Hindustani instrumental music had a global moment in the 1960s and 1970s. Most Westerners of a certain age know the name Ravi Shankar and the sound of the sitar. But my father’s favourite music, Hindustani vocal (the dominant modern form is khayal), is, as Amit Chaudhuri says in Finding the Raga, alien not only to the rest of the world but even to most Indians. It is a difficult form, one that challenges our expectations of what art and music are meant to be. As a child, I assumed this must be because it was ancient; I felt like someone being taken to watch Sanskrit theatre with no knowledge of the language. But, as Chaudhuri suggests, much of what makes khayal so difficult – and rewarding – has to do with modernism rather than antiquity.

Chaudhuri discovered khayal at around the same age my father did, but at home rather than at university. His mother was an accomplished practitioner of Rabindrasangeet, the songs of Rabindranath Tagore. The teenage Chaudhuri was himself a singer-songwriter in the Canadian school of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Then he

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