When I first picked up Finding the Raga by Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri, I flicked through the 250 pages, set in a fairly large typeface, and thought it would be a light read.
Having now finished, I feel I need to immediately re-read it to fully absorb the intricate observations held within Chaudhuri’s seemingly simple prose. Finding the Raga is one of the most interesting books on music I’ve ever read – and that’s because it’s only partly about music. It’s a free-flowing memoir about a life spent in India and Britain, but also an exploration of Hindustani classical music from a man who is a committed practitioner of the Raga tradition – he sings one every morning. Along the way, Chaudhuri considers philosophy, literature, history, cinema, his teenage love of Western singer-songwriters, and his parents’ Beethoven records.
I started this book with some interest in Indian music, mostly explored through the Darbar Festival YouTube channel, but very little technical knowledge. Perhaps inevitably, the unfamiliar musical terminology here doesn’t all ‘go in’ on a single reading, but it leaves a strong impression of the sophistication of Indian music and its diverse strands.
Chaudhuri is refreshingly frank about how strange classical music can be to the uninitiated – both the Indian and European varieties, which are equally minority pursuits. He thinks perceptively about what music is and how it is culturally determined. And some of his most interesting passages take into account the meaning of silence, noise, and listening in British and Indian culture.
For these last reasons especially, I would urge anyone who has been brought up with a Western musical education to read Finding the Raga. It’s a brilliant read in its own right, but it’s also a useful corrective to the world-flattening ‘Great Composer’ narratives which are still so prevalent in our musical discourse. This book will expand your understanding of what music can be. I bought my copy on Hive.