Teaching Music in Bombay

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 2, 2009 | Go to article overview

Teaching Music in Bombay


Byline: Sudip Bose, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It wasn't all that long ago when Indian novelists were all the rage. New writers from the subcontinent were emerging with astonishing frequency, though the lesser talents among them dabbled in a kind of false exotic chic, making a fetish of the distant aromas, rituals, mysticisms and customs for which, they believed, Western readers hungered.

Through it all, a few writers showed us a different India, an India rooted in the modern world. Amit Chaudhuri's refined and elegant novels never overwhelm the senses with colors and spices. They never trade on cliche. Rather, they go about their business quietly, illuminating the mundane routines of daily life with the intense light of poetry.

Mr. Chaudhuri's latest novel may occupy some of the same terrain as his second book, Afternoon Raag - both are meditations on Indian classical music and the role of the teacher in the life of the musician - but The Immortals is a sprawling work where its predecessor was slim, a canvas filled with numerous characters both large and small.

Whether Mr. Chaudhuri's delicate, intimate style works on such a grand scale is a matter of debate; I'm not quite sure it does. But in its evocation of music and the artist's life, Mr. Chaudhuri cultivates a pervading melancholy that perfectly matches his elegiac subject matter.

The Immortals is set in Bombay during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a heady time for a class of businessman with access to wealth unheard of two generations before. Into this world come the Senguptas - father Apurva, mother Mallika, son Nirmalya - displaced Bengalis who find themselves ascending into the city's upper social echelons. As Apurva rises to the top of his corporation, the family becomes immersed in a life of poolside cocktails, five-star hotels and rarified company parties, while moving from seaside flat to seaside flat, one more luxurious than the next.

All the while, Mallika must dutifully play the part of big shot's wife. And as a consequence, her great talent for singing remains largely undeveloped. To what extent can an amateur artist, with no prospects for commercial success, experience fulfillment? This is the larger question Mr. Chaudhuri is posing here. And though Mallika may not be able to abandon the role she has so expertly played for decades, in order to give herself over to her art, the possibilities are brighter for the Senguptas' son, Nirmalya.

Nirmalya's coming of age lies at the heart of The Immortals. Like his mother, he studies singing with the great Shyam Lal, scion of a legendary family of musicians, and as the boy grows older, he falls under the spell of Indian classical music while recoiling from the world of flash and facade in which he finds himself.

As Nirmalya discovers the ragas that form the basis of classical music, his understanding of what it means to be an Indian undergoes a sea change. While his friends absorb the likes of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and Gilbert Chesterton, their knowledge of Indian history restricted to the memorization of dates of conquests and kingdoms, Ashoka and Chandragupta, Akbar and Shahjahan - an education of mere rote - Nirmalya immerses himself in the prophetic poetry of Meera, Tulsidas, Surdas and Kabir. For his friends, only Kabir, among them, was 'hip,' because he'd been taken up by Ezra Pound. …

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