The day after I watch Amit Chaudhuri and four other musicians, mostly in glasses and subfusc clothing, meld the music of Gershwin, Eric Clapton and the Beach Boys into such ragas as Malkauns and Todi, he explains to me, in the contemplative (some might say funereal) calm of the India International Centre, why the music he makes is not fusion.
"I have nothing against people who do fusion," he says in the tone of a man who harbours a sizeable grudge against people who do fusion. "But my premise and intentions are slightly different. There doesn’t seem to be a conceptual basis for fusion music, beyond bringing people from different traditions together. It’s a utopian, romantic idea but you don’t get the sense that it progresses as a genre. It’s difficult to identify a classic fusion composition, but you have classic blues compositions, classic rock compositions, classic Hindi film compositions..."
Chaudhuri has developed a formidable reputation, without quite troubling the bestseller lists, as a novelist who excavates the quotidian—no detail is ever too small—and an elegant, perspicacious essayist. Also an accomplished Hindustani classical singer, he brings the sometimes ponderous tone of his writing to bear on his music too. At the Kamani Auditorium, the first ‘This is not Fusion’ performance outside of Calcutta (part of the recent celebrations of India’s 60-year relationship with the UN), it was difficult to tell what the audience thought of his songs. Many in the crowd didn’t stay till the end, but Chaudhuri insists he "got a good response from the people who think about these things".
Not that Chaudhuri is anticipating popular acclaim: "There is a certain level beyond which Indians will not pay attention. I think we only value things when they come to us readymade... as to discovering, assessing and assigning a place to something new, to create a critical language in which we say that something interesting or new has happened here, that’s rare." For all that, ‘This is not Fusion’ only rarely fulfils its titular claim; too often, fusion, well-intentioned but essentially unwieldy, is exactly what this is.
But Chaudhuri admits his idea, only just over a year old, is in its inception. He is trying to capture a "contemporary, cosmopolitan, urban polyphony" all of us who live in cities are familiar with. It’s an admirably ambitious undertaking.
This piece first appeared in Outlook Delhi City Limits, 15 November, 2005