There’s a rich tradition of folklore associated with Hindustani classical music – how Tansen lit lamps with his rendition of the raga Deepak (singing it caused fire in the area of performance, according to legend), how a well-rendered Malhar can make rain clouds appear in the sunniest skies and so on. Amit Chaudhuri’s new novel The Immortals isn’t looking to add to this cache. In fact, he does just the opposite. In The Immortals, Malhar induces rainfall three days after it has been sung.
The transcendental music that is so revered by its followers is merely a means for one of the novel’s main characters to earn a living, and is a hobby for another.
‘The music is always spoken of in a really waffly kind of way,’ says Chaudhuri, speaking to Time Out in a telephone interview from Kolkata. ‘That’s partly because there is no rational reason for why we are disarmed by it on occasion, and partly the result of the nationalising project that made classical music a national ritual, with the raga being a thread of continuity with a glorious past.’
If this sounds like the introduction to an essay, it’s because Chaudhuri initially thought he’d write a non-fiction piece about the relationship of the middle class to art. Along the way, he realised his point would come across better as a novel – especially one that is full of personal resonances. Music in The Immortals is more a device than a muse for Chaudhuri, who used musical metaphors eloquently in his 1993 novel Afternoon Raga. Here he uses music to examine the attitudes of the Indian middle class of the ’80s. His cast of characters includes Shyamlal, a music teacher; Mallika, a housewife with dreams of being a singer; and Nirmalya, an idealistic youth. Each has a very different outlook on music.
For Shyamlal, it is his ticket to wealth and a more comfortable life. Mallika begins with ambitions of becoming a singer, but ultimately music becomes a neglected hobby as she focuses her attention on being the ideal wife for her successful husband. For Nirmalya music is a pure, romanticised ideal. ‘There is a slightly comic and melancholy misunderstanding between the boy [Nirmalya] and the teacher [Shyamlal],’ says Chaudhuri. ‘He wants the teacher to be more like an artist in his kind of vocabulary, the romantic vocabulary that he has absorbed. He wants this man to reject the world that he himself has contempt for, be more of a recluse, reject the commercialism. But what he sees is a teacher who has no such compulsions. Shyamlal wants to be successful in this world.’
The book allows us a glimpse into Chaudhuri’s disdain for the middle classes. ‘The middle class justified itself and its own entrenchment in society,’ says Chaudhuri. ‘This led to a lack of self-assessment. It was free of taint. No one owns up to the apartheid systems we have lived by.’ It’s the same sense of ‘triumphalism’ that he sees when Indian writing in English is celebrated and he refuses to associate himself with it, despite the many awards he has won since his first novel, A Strange And Sublime Address, in 1991. ‘There is a passive jumping around the moment someone wins something and a paucity of critical thinking,’ he notes.
Much of The Immortals is an exploration of the yearning and the ambivalences that characterised the ’80s. It was the period when the middle class, armed with their corporate earnings, became the patrons of culture. Even as the arts were becoming ‘ossified into a nationalist construct’, as Chaudhuri likes to put it, critical perspectives took a backseat.
Alongside the aggressively marketed ghazals (poetry with rhyming couplets and a refrain), and the film music that became more and more cacophonous, there was a yearning for something that wasn’t so commercial. It was this yearning that cemented the notion of the middle class as being liberal and discerning. Chaudhuri shows the attitude running through many of his characters, even less pleasant ones like Rasraj whose unappealing personality is mitigated by his musical talent.
In some ways, Nirmalya is made up of elements of Chaudhuri’s own youth. Like him, Nirmalya discovers the world of classical music by chance when he is in his late teens, and the boy’s disdain for the ’80s culture of excess and consumerism is clearly taken from Chaudhuri’s personal memories. ‘As a young romantic, it was a very depressing time,’ he says of the ’80s. ‘Looking back, it was a kind of a cusp between the Nehruvian, patrician world and the free market world that lay ahead. Then I thought it was all crap. Now I see it as more interesting. This whole novel has come out of it.’
The Immortals is published by Picador. Dhs111, available to order from Magrudy’s.