A Rich Harvest of Accidents

The songs in Found Music are conversations between Amit Chaudhuri, at different moments, and Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, The Doors, The Byrds and The Beach Boys

01 March, 2011

A COMB, A TYPEWRITER COVER, a hat rack, a coat rack, a bottle rack and a urinal.

The sound of sparrows and the tanpura, women’s voices in Bengali and German, Indian classical music and a Tagore song, the ticking of a clock, an alarm going off, a hissing sound and footsteps, the closing of a door, a car horn, the tabla, the guitar, voices saying “Relax, relax” or “Henry, Henry”, and the sound of laughter.

“Found” anything common between the two sets?

“Tradition is the great misleader because it’s too easy to follow what has already been done,” said the French artist Marcel Duchamp, who with his famous 1917 display of a urinal (‘Fountain’), interpreted for modernism and modernity, the idea of “found objects”. Amit Chaudhuri, nearly 100 years after Dada, Surrealism and Conceptual Art movements, takes the same concept of the “readymade” and proves—for it does need occasional reminding—that art comes not from the museum but from mood, not from history but from home.

It is with found sounds that the album begins. The introductory sounds of ‘On Broadway (postcolonial version)’, with the call to Ganesh, the name pronounced in  his master’s voice, and the sound of the stirring of tea, bring to mind the mini-genre of ‘tea songs’ in Bengali, one of the most famous of which Chaudhuri has, himself, translated in his anthology on Kolkata, Memory’s Gold—Suman Chattopadhyay’s ‘Tomake Chai’ (translated as ‘I Want You’). Chaudhuri has often spoken about the virtues of daydreaming as a literary trope but to merge the Indian immigrant’s helpless nostalgia with the hopefulness of the American Dream is to invest a cunning politics into the concept of the reverie. The beauty of the song lies in the music he makes us hear in places where we least expect it: what music could there be, after all, in cooking, and by extension, the cook’s life? Listen, this is Chaudhuri’s poem, ‘Kitchen’:

These memories are melodies

you sing to yourself when you choose.

Dishes and pots left to dry,

moisture, and the gleaming hands

working like music, a servant’s

slow voice in a child’s ear

as water overflows mournfully.

And the old homelovingness

of light falling and touching the black

utensils; the bee-buzz of love,

partsong, part nature’s reverie.

“Memories”, “melodies”, “music”, “partsong”, “partnature’s reverie”: in the transition between poetry of the kitchen to the immigrant cook’s song, between home-living and home-loving, and between reverie and nostalgia, “homelovingness” becomes hummingness.

Why exactly those words “postcolonial version”?

Chaudhuri’s rendition and appropriation of the song have in, some way, their analogy in Rene Magritte’s famous 1937 painting ‘Not To Be Reproduced’. The painting, commissioned by Magritte’s English patron, Edward James, is a portrait of the man, but without his face, so that his back is shown to us as also, surreally, the reflection of his back in the mirror. It’s a triple reproduction of Edward James, and framed by this-is-not-a-pipe Magritte with the title, ‘Not To Be Reproduced’, it becomes a cheeky commentary on the process of reproduction. It’s a modernist trait, as also a postcolonialist’s trick. Chaudhuri does it in his writing, as when he revisits James Joyce obliquely through his short story about the English tutor in ‘Portrait of an Artist’. Having once taken up Rene Magritte’s ‘This Is Not A Pipe’ as a late modernist in the naming of his first album This Is Not Fusion, he now takes up the spirit of Magritte’s painting and invests it with the child’s joy of purposeful wrongdoing, the stubborn naughtiness of the “Not”. Adulthood, for all purposes, is a postcolonial situation, and the act of “mishearing” where Chaudhuri locates the origin of his music, followed by mis-doing, if I may use that as a liberating category, a version of the writing-talking-singing back and into, fills the songs with a delight, a joy, a carnival of creation. If one were to continue with the analogy of ‘reproduction’ of Magritte’s painting, this is not just the joy of procreation but also of post-creation.

‘On Broadway’ as well as the next song ‘Saraswati’, with its sound-prologue of conch-blowing and Chaudhuri’s brilliantly orchestrated BBC Radio 3 talk, whose sounds I have catalogued at the beginning, use the tropes of ‘ambient music’, a variety of found music, the sound that, as Brian Eno explains, exists in “the cusp between melody and texture.”. The radio talk is, albeit cheekily, titled ‘A Moment of Mishearing’. There’s irony in the title and there’s energy. It’s a jab against postmodernism where even misreading is often good reading. Its energy is one that comes from the aleatory, a moment he often speaks about, as in his BBC radio talk, later published in the Harvard Advocate:

An album had come out, very posthumously, of Hendrix playing the blues; I found myself listening to it. I could hear certain Indian ragas in what he was playing — like Dhani, Jog, Malkauns — not because I’d gone looking for them, but in a way that one becomes aware, one day, of another dimension to an outline: like, for instance, the duck-rabbit, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous mutant. Or it could have been something else—an echo returning from what I’d forgotten, made possible by the fact that the blues is based on the very same five-note or pentatonic scale that these ragas emerge from. But reminding me that listening isn’t only about naming, but about accident.

That is one thing that never leaves the listener throughout Found Music—the sense of the rich harvests of “accidents”.

If Not Fusion was energised by global travel, Found Music is propelled by the energy of the lived home. The home, conceived of as a space of rest, becomes the studio—in Duchamp, in Chaudhuri, and in some others the latter mentions often to trace and describe his lineage, the Tagores: “The nature of life at home (is) integral to my project.” Hence the centrality of the house in Chaudhuri’s first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address; of St Cyril Road in his poems and Afternoon Raag; of the secular calm of the lived space in Freedom Song; and most recently, in The Immortals, the creative energy, amidst the insane banality of its social neighbourhood, of the apartment in Malabar Hill. And so the Tagore house in North Calcutta’s Jorasanko, and his in South Calcutta’s Ballygunge. It is here, in the ‘recording room’, where, if one were to tweak Duchamp’s blurring of division between work and leisure that home-as-studio offers and celebrates, that the mesmerisingly beautiful ‘Saraswati’ and ‘One Fine Day’, in Raga Todi, were created. And so, also, the terrific irony—of a composition like ‘Country Hustle’ being possible only at home:

Whenever I fell ill in my house on the hill

I went sleep with my six-shooter

And dreamt of the cactus

and the tribe that attacked us ...

This autobiographical song, backed by a black-and-white photograph of his childhood in the notes, the boy Amit with his “six-shooter”, standing guarded but with the air of one standing guard over his parents, is a funny and fun essay about his childhood fantasies. That illusion continues for some time; with the refrain of “Hi ho, Silver! Away!”, you begin to sing along until, after the second listen, you are stopped by a particularly difficult word and the amusing rhyme pattern of “done-dungeon-Indian”: “I heard, someone sent me the word/ That I was something called an ‘Indian.’” Indian? I almost put a smiley there.


He finds out that he’s “Indian”. What else does Chaudhuri find? He finds some of the most popular English songs of the late-20th century—‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Norwegian Wood’—and makes them his own. There’s such beauty and play and breathtaking ambition in these compositions. “I’m picking up good vibrations/ She’s giving me excitations ...” is set to, as the liner notes tell us, the ragas Kalavati and Abhogi, and never could the Beach Boys have imagined how exciting the conversation between these two ragas would be. The Beatles number is set to the beautiful Raga Bageshri and the result is best described in my young driver’s words, after I’d asked him to play it again in the car—“Didi, yeh gaana toh maar daala!” There is a fortuneteller’s intuition at work in these compositions: it is, as John Cage has repeatedly reminded us, just one chance encounter. Here they turn out to be the equivalent of meeting the perfect partner.

My favourite, however, is the Cohen-Chaudhuri: “The preamble to the first movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is extended by improvisations in raga Mishra Kafi....woven into Cohen’s song are verses from two songs from Fifties’ Hindi films, the first about love and the riverside, the second of the falseness of worldly success...Dilli Ka Thug...and Pyaasa,” Chaudhuri says in the DVD notes. ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ is a husband’s letter to a friend who’s betrayed him by having an adulterous relationship with his wife.

Chaudhuri’s weaving in ‘Yeh mahlon, yeh takhton...’ from Pyaasa is a masterstroke. For those who are aware of the personal ecology of the song, the actor-director Guru Dutt’s relationship with the lead actress Waheeda Rehman and the mirroring of that tumultuous relationship in the film, Chaudhuri’s hearing the two  songs about similar subjects in a shared space brings something inexplicable into the rendition. No song about adultery has ever been this addictive!

And what did I find? I discovered the old Bengali joy of the adda in them, for these are songs, true, but they are also conversations, full of musical dialogues and repartees, between Chaudhuri, at different moments, and Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, The Doors, The Byrds and The Beach Boys.

So “mind the gap” and “stand clear of the doors”, phrases that fill the aural consciousness of those who take the London Underground, with its Duchampian functionality, are defamiliarised with a unique beat-pattern in ‘Messages from the Underground’:

Mind the gap between the rich and the poor

Hugo Chavez—OAS—TELEsur...

This is such a clever composition that it really makes the listener note the “gap” that ought to have existed but doesn’t, for when Chaudhuri changes its direction after “Stand clear of the doors” with “they’ll blow you away... You closed your eyes/ Jim Morrison died/ Stand clear of the Doors... Break on through...”, one is almost left waiting to catch one’s breath: it’s been one long journey.

‘Messages from the Underground’ weaves the character of Berlin (with its “Einsteigen bitte and Zuruckbleiben bitte” of the U-bahn) with the political intent of the newspaper-selling Turkish refugee’s song ‘Motz’ from Not Fusion. The sound of the trains, the rhythm of movements, of the stream of modern-day travel punctuated by a CCTV consciousness—this is chance music, and one can’t help being reminded of the aleatoric relation between modern music and the train. (Brian Eno, one of the best known proponents of ‘ambient music’, a variant of ‘found music’, has said that he wouldn’t have been a musician had it not been for the train.)

A few days ago, as Found Music played in my room, my six-year-old niece, visiting me after a long time, came and asked me a child’s question: “Is this new?”, pointing to the music system but, of course, meaning the music. I said it was. She stood there for some time listening to Chaudhuri singing ‘Rain’, based on the Raga Megh, and one of my favourites in this album. Then, as if I’d betrayed her with an adult’s lies, she said, “It’s very nice...but it’s not new, it’s old.” The little girl, without knowing it, had come up with a wonderful description of the music. In his novel Afternoon Raag, Chaudhuri had written about the raga being a history-keeper: “Each raag was once a folk-melody, a regional air sung, with tiny variations, to different words by members of a community of families...a web of interrelationships and festive occasions.” The Bengali writer-singer Hemanga Biswas, who spent a lifetime collecting folk songs, had made a very interesting point about lok-geeti, the song of the people: lok-geeti did not have a “gharana”, such music could only have a “bahirana”.

Classical music, as, say, embodied in the raga, had a gharana, a code of lineage, a home, and even a joint family. Lok-geeti, being the song of the people, said Biswas, had only a bahirana, the outside, a courtyard, a crowd, as it were; and being a leftist, Biswas interprets “bahirana” as a kind of “provincial historicism”. The category offers an interesting way to look at Chaudhuri’s journey as a musician—from a classical singer of the Kunwar Shyam gharana to a composer whose songs are encoded with bahirana, a history of reception, of a rich provinciality, the journey from popular to people’s song—the wellspring of my niece’s intuition of the marriage between “new” and “old” music.

Amit Chaudhuri, who’s been called “upsettingly multitalented” in a review of this album in England, where it’s also been picked by Chris May as one of the best releases of 2010s in All About Jazz, has found the ultimate compliment in the little girl’s words.