“Words are na na NA na Na na…” Amit Chaudhuri starts to sing the verse melody of the Beatles’ ‘Across the Universe’ over the phone, before drifting into a hum. He then transforms the same melody into a Hindustani classical delivery, using the “sa re ga ma pa” syllables, in a way recontextualising the original tune. “I’m coming to the melody askance,” he says. “I’m improvising over the melody, but I’m not planning to give you the melody.”
From here, Chaudhuri begins to wander into radical different directions, finding new ways to challenge and interpret the original notes, using the raga Rageshree. “This raga,” he explains, “gives me the freedom to explore a certain number of notes up and down, in a particular way. But ‘Across the Universe’ [the song] is giving me a context to make those improvisations. It allows me to go deeper into both the song but also my own cultural past, of which the song is one part.”
Chaudhuri is a novelist, poet, writer, critic, essayist, singer, music composer. In February, he released his new album called Across the Universe, the latest in his long-standing experimental project titled, ‘This Is not Fusion’. Of the five songs on it, one—titled ‘My Name Is Gauhar Jaan’—is an original song that he’s written and composed, inspired by the proclamation that Gauhar Jaan (one of India’s first recorded singers) ended many of her songs with. The rest, including the Beatles’ ‘Across The Universe’, ‘The End’ by the Doors, as well as a piece that starts off with ‘In a Silent Way’ by Joe Zawinul and transitions into the Indian national anthem by Rabindranath Tagore, are what he terms as reworkings or re-contextualisations. They may be evocative of the originals, and they undoubtedly rely on that source material as a foundation, but they’re never 1:1 recreations. Chaudhuri imposes his identity on these works.
Instead of your garden variety East-meets-West interplay, what we get here is an attempt at an inventive, meaningful, rounded interpretation with its own sense of self. A Hindustani classical idiom applied to jazz music; a confrontation with style and tradition. Within a rearranged framework of the songs he’s chosen to work on, he tries to find a particular trajectory and logic to the music, through his vocals particularly. “I’m hoping the improvising doesn’t sound like a khayal improvisation in a jazz context. The improvisation comes from the khayal. But I’m letting it hang in a delicate balance. It mustn’t sound like addition, but be a part of that environment.” He segues often, from Hindustani vocal styles to western singing, and back again. The point is for it to all make sense together as a whole, for it to belong together.
The album follows a sparse instrumentation featuring the guitar, piano, bass, and the tabla sitting underneath vocal flourishes and stylistic transitions by Chaudhuri. He began experimenting with this style almost two decades ago.
Chaudhuri has, over time, made a journey from western popular music to Hindustani classical music. After choosing to stay away from western pop for 16 years, he went back to it. That separation, perhaps, helped him develop a greater understanding of both Indian and western music, to cultivate a new approach to both listening and creation. He would, by his own admission, hear Hindustani classical ragas in the blues, and vice versa. “I think it was that self-imposed exile from that music which made it a memory in a very revelatory way. It was coming back to me with these signals; I began to find them in unexpected places.” One such example was when, while listening to the raga Gurjari Todi, he was able to discover something reminiscent of the guitar riff to ‘Layla’ by Eric Clapton. This was back in 2004, and it sparked a musical curiosity in him.
“It led to the question: Is it possible to explore these transitions coming up accidentally through memory? Through the memory of a person who has been brought up in an Indian metropolis, in Bombay, in the ’60s and ’70s, and therefore, there are no clear demarcations for him to do with Indian or western. These things are up in the air; one becomes a way of entering the other. One isn’t sure which one is which. The creation of this project,” he says, “is through accident, an accidental moment of mishearing.” It provided him with a perspective to create a new musical vocabulary of sorts. “This is not fusion. It’s not an ‘adding up’ of West and East. It’s a place for transitions to be explored.”
He paraphrases TS Eliot’s quote, about how immature artists imitate, mature artists steal (or, in this case, borrow). A lot of Chaudhuri’s music relies on the concept of “found music”, or mis-hearings, or unexpected discoveries. It’s a dynamic, lively approach to create a new idiom of expression. “Working with found materials is a powerful way of working in all traditions. The Romantic conception of art blinds us to this fact; makes us think that the work of art comes forth magically from an artist’s head or heart or culture. Ideas of originality in this conception are at odds with ideas to do with reworking. It’s up to that mature poet or artist to show us that this is possible.”
In addition to Chaudhuri’s voice and guitar, the album features Matt Hodges on the piano and keyboards, Paul Williams on the bass, Nafees Irfan on the tabla, and Adam Moore, who has also mixed and mastered it, on the guitars. Chaudhuri has composed or arranged the music in its entirety here, leaving some scope for the instrumentalists to improvise or play around alongside his vocal departures. These songs have been around for over a decade, and he’s worked on them at various points over the years. It was all finally recorded over two days in July 2022, at Fine City Recording Studio, inside a medieval church, in Norwich, England. The recordings were largely done live, with little by way of post-production overdubs or embellishments unless necessary, in turn allowing the textural quality and warmth of Chaudhuri’s voice, as also his ambitious improvisations, to shine through. To allow for a kind of immersion. “We wanted that calming sound to stay. We didn’t want it to become overproduced, or too busy.”
Each song he works on in this project, he tells me, tends to come from a prompt of some sort. From Gauhar Jaan’s signature line for the album opener, to discovering in Robby Krieger’s hypnotic guitar melody on ‘The End’ a sense of a jhala, allowing him to improvise in the style of dhrupad, there’s tales galore. One of his older songs, ‘Moral Education’, draws inspiration from the kitschy pavement posters of the “ideal boy” or “ideal girl”, the aadarsh baalak. “‘Wake up in the morning / You must brush your teeth / you must say namaste to your parents.’ It’s an attempt to turn that language into the text of a song.”
Every song, I suggest to him, is a self-contained story. He doesn’t disagree with the characterisation, but instead offers an alternative. “I would maybe use the word ‘argument’. I’d give it an additional association of making an argument in each song; even the name of the project—This Is Not Fusion—implies a kind of argumentation going on. It’s a particular kind of thrust I’m looking at over here.”
He dispels any notion that his work may be intended as an entry point, a point of access, to other forms of Hindustani classical music. “This is an experiment, just as the khayal is an experiment. I don’t think there is any valid form of music or artistic expression, which is not an experiment or a fresh look at something. There is no hierarchy here.” The idea of motion, of musical innovation and evolution, excites him. He talks of Ustad Amir Khan, whose work helped lead a radical opening up of the khayal in the ’40s, and his precursor Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan. “I think all forms of music that are compelling are doing something with pre-existing material. It’s more than a tame rehashing of it.”
At its heart, Chaudhuri’s music rebels against the idea of stagnation. Boundaries, limitations of form, are dismissed outright, as he looks to create a new language of communication that draws on existing disciplines, but also finds an imaginative new way of looking at it. “I listen to everything as a soundscape. That part of me, the ‘not fusion’ in me, is awakened, it comes alive—whether it’s a raga or a guitar chord, country or western music, the noise of a mixer-grinder. It all forms a landscape of sound. I don’t see any separation between music and thought. I see the raga as a particular form of thinking. I see what I’m doing as a form of thinking. I don’t see it as separate from the most sensuous and deep experience that affects me on a bodily level.”