A Playlist to Accompany ‘Finding the Raga’

Amit Chaudhuri, author of the recent NYRB title Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music, has assembled a special playlist of songs to accompany his memoir. You can listen to the playlist on YouTube and, below, read explanations and excerpts from the book to go with each song.

1. Bijoya Chaudhuri - Eso Nipabane (Tagore song)

“From my mother I unwittingly inherited the template that the singing voice must be pitch-perfect, saturated in sur, and that it must be calm. As a child, I took this to be ‘normal’ . . . Not that she was calm. As a child, I preferred my father’s company: a very patient man.”

2. Bijoya Chaudhuri - Se Je Moner Manush (Tagore song)

“My mother removed herself from the interpretation, putting the song centre-stage. The note must be allowed to speak for itself.”

3. Julie Andrews - Wouldn't It be Loverly (from My Fair Lady)

“There’s a tendency in Anglophone society to associate the ‘aw’ and ‘oh’ sounds with socialisation, politeness, civility. The ‘ah,’ in comparison, is unbridled. It must be contained. You could see My Fair Lady as a socio-spiritual allegory, where destiny and music are shaped by pivotal vowel sounds.”

4. Joni Mitchell - Song for Sharon

“Just as I’d been a Canadian singer-songwriter, I became, for a while, an Avadhi poet. I began to compose devotionals – the effect of my getting to know Meerabai, Kabir, Tulsidas, Surdas, and a poet I’d never heard of before – Chandrasakhi – whose songs my teacher sang. I didn’t imitate them. I became their contemporary, as I’d been Joni Mitchell’s contemporary, and Neil Young’s.”

5. Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral), 1st movement (conducted by Herbert von Karajan)

“While listening to the Pastoral, I was stirred by images of meadows, trees, weather, and valleys I’d never known – just as a period film is incomplete without an appropriate score, a score requires the right kind of visual accompaniment: not an actual film, but one you’re making up in your head.”

6. Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 7, 2nd movement (conducted by Herbert von Karajan)

“Looking out at the sky and the massive clouds, I could construct majestic inner narratives while listening to the Seventh. . .”

7. Amit Chaudhuri - Shame

“Until 1977 (when I finished school), I wanted to be a pop, then a rock, musician. My parents, probably thinking I’d become a chartered accountant, allowed me this fantasy. . . . I made progress on the guitar very fast, and started writing songs when I was sixteen. From a pop-rock singer, I transformed that year [1978] to a Canadian singer-songwriter in the making.”

8. Balgandharva - natya sangeet or theatre music in raga Yaman

“Something spiritual happens when a voice departs its accepted register, which is often determined by gender. This was true of Balgandharva. His singing had a bodiless freedom and pliability.”

9. Kishori Amonkar - slow khayal, raga Sampurna Malkauns

“I saw Kishori Amonkar on this programme, replying to a question and then singing a few notes without any accompaniment. I was struck by the dark flow of the meends or glissandos and the voice’s purity.”

10. Bhimsen Joshi - Jo Bhaje Hari Ko Sada (bhajan by Brahmanand)

“From Bhimsen Joshi’s rendition of a bhajan by Brahmanand, I grew conscious of an ambition that was shocking yet compelling. The bhajan begins, ‘jo bhaje Hari ko sada / so hi param pada payega’: ‘Whoever meditates always on Hari / will get the supreme reward.’ What reward? Property; happiness; heaven? The answer comes towards the end: ‘phir janam nahi ayega’; ‘then you won’t have to be born’, the incentive declared without overt excitement. On hearing it, the seventeen-year-old self’s ears pricked up.”

11. Vishmadev Chatterjee - fast-tempo khayal in raga Gaud Malhar

“One didn’t have to listen to the second-rate, let alone the bad. There was an abundance of the enthralling: Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan; Kishori Amonkar; Veena Sahasrabuddhe; Rasoolan Bai; Jasraj; D. V. Paluskar; Bhimsen Joshi; Jagdish Prasad; Vismadev Chatterjee. . .”

12. Pandit Laxman Prasad Jaipurwale - raga Bahar, drut or fast-tempo khayal

“The rhythmic play of his compositions shows great intellectual powers; the melodic forms show not only mastery, but delicacy. Some of the lyrics, to do with Radha and Krishna, are sensuous and life-loving; others, as in a slow khayal in Puriya Dhanashree, give evidence of the world-denying impulses people mentioned. . .”

13. Bob Dylan - Don't Think Twice, It's All Right

“The other work that felt close to a bhakti poem at the time was Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’”

14. Bijoya Chaudhuri - Tu Dayalu Deen Haun (Tulsidas bhajan)

“The more a bhajan praises, the more it seems to shield from blame; the reproach is implicit, and inseparable from an affection which is finally indifferent to God’s shortcomings: it knows them, and ignores them.”

15. Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale - tappa in raga Mishra Sorhat

“He sang softly, without insistence, and almost never sang the same phrase twice. His aim, achieved with modesty, was to surprise and be surprised.”

16. Pandit Govind Prasad Jaipurwale - thumri in Mishra Jhinjhoti and ragamala (or “garland of ragas”)

The composition is set to a mix of raga Jhinjhoti and Manj Khamaj – once the ragamala begins, the singer covers Malkauns, Bageshri, Kedar, Shankara, Jaijaiwanti, Kamod, Darbari, Hansdhwani, Hindol, Bhupali, then back to Malkauns with which he began the ragamala (“raga-garland”), and then onwards to Yaman and, finally, Kafi. So the ragamala section covers twelve ragas in all. He moves, moment to moment, between ragas with very disparate notes, often via notes they have in common. He ends by descending and ascending through minute taans or embellishments on the twelve notes of the scale – an inhuman feat, like attempting to replicate, with added modulations, the final bars of “A Day in the Life” with your voice.

17. Mohammad Rafi - Kabhi Khud Pe (from Hum Dono)

Two soldiers (both played by Dev Anand) are having a drink. One of them begins to speak about the strange contingency of first meeting each other during this war despite having lived all their lives in the same town; about what makes men go to war; and his longing for home and loved ones. Then the other starts to sing at 1.50 mins.

“‘There are two birds, two sweet friends, who dwell on the self-same branch,’ says the Mundaka Upanishad. ‘The one eats the fruit thereof, and the other looks on in silence.’”

18. Ustad Amir Khan - medium-tempo khayal in raga Ramdasi Malhar

“Some ragas can wait for centuries to be sung. Ramdasi Malhar comes to mind.”

19. Ustad Amir Khan - slow and fast khayal compositions, raga Darbari

“Among those impacted by Wahid Khan’s style and experiment was the young Ustad Amir Khan, the most influential khayal singer of the last century, who largely gave to the form the slow (to some, bewildering) meditative and digressive quality that marks it out today. Ustad Amir Khan wasn’t a student of Abdul Wahid Khan, but he saw the opening the latter had created, and opened it up further.”

20. Subinoy Roy - Bahe Nirantara Ananta Anandadhara (Tagore song)

“Tagore was a poet, which implied that his words contained a meaning that had to be forcefully conveyed and dramatised. Two artists took a different position: my mother, Bijoya Chaudhuri; and Subinoy Roy.”

21. Amit Chaudhuri - slow and fast khayal and tarana in raga Jog Bahar

22. Amit Chaudhuri - Summertime

“My subconscious could have been alert to these correspondences only because it had had its seed-time in metropolitan sixties and seventies Bombay, in a kind of sensory hum arising from The Who and Hindi film music and car horns and my mother’s Tagore songs and Joni Mitchell and Kishori Amonkar and sea breeze.”

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