A listener’s first encounter with Amit Chaudhuri’s new album This Is not Fusion is mediated through its cover. An imagined hybrid animal is sculpted in dokra, a metallic alloy; a saffron-clothed figure’s gender is left undefined; ‘Berlin’ and ‘Calcutta’ appear side by side; a tanpura is on the front, a guitar on the back. This music is “not part of two different worlds,” Chaudhuri declares in the liner notes, “but a common inheritance … inlaid into different parts of a single self, a single memory.” Perhaps aware of having already declared, in the album’s title, what his music is not, Chaudhuri later sings: “This music has no land/ This music has no name/ Don’t know where it began/ Don’t know from where it came.”
Chaudhuri is no sentimentalist, and This Is not Fusion contains no nostalgia for that romantic notion of a time before ‘East’ and ‘West’ hardened into specific lineages. The 45-year-old writer, who was born in Calcutta and grew up in Bombay, has instead created an anthem for people (maybe even generations) who, when they sleep, dream without subtitles in any language. The saffron-clothed figure on the cover holds a special meaning: Chaudhuri, in an earlier essay, “Thoughts in a Temple”, had said that saffron “is the colour not of belonging, or fitting in, but of exile, of the marginal man”. By extension, Not Fusion becomes the music of the exile. But this is a self-imposed exile, an exile from the oppressiveness of the ‘East versus West’ traditions.
What is ‘fusion’ music? And why is Chaudhuri so reluctant to take up its surname? “In East-West fusion as we know it here,” Chaudhuri explained in a recent article in the Times of India, “the Indian representative is commonly a classical performer, and the bearer of an ancient tradition; the Western representative, often a jazz musician, a well-known type of modern, the exhausted romantic who’s had enough of modernity, and must renovate himself through contact with immemorial cultures.” He continued: “One of the more problematic features of fusion is its wide-eyed transcendence, not only of nationality but of locality, with the old ideal of the ‘universal human being’ reworked into the cunning, grasping innocence of our globalised world.”
Within compositions that are branded as ‘fusion’, there is a piece of proto-fusion music, one that demands a particular conformity from its practitioners. Such proto pieces are not the classic pieces that one might expect. Rather, in the rarefied world of subcontinental fusion music, we generally find a deliberate synthesis of two heterogeneous forms of music – jazz and Carnatic, for instance, or Western classical and Hindostani classical. Such a situation creates a platform where there is no dialogue. Two people, two systems, speak in their native tongues, as though speaking in sign language, comprehensible only to their practitioners. This exclusionist practice succeeds because of the listener’s lack of education and exposure, which partakes in and helps to accentuate the closed nature of such fusion work. This is obvious: there is no school, no gharana, of fusion music.
Fusion music, by laying claim to individuality, supposes to challenge the notion of the ‘pure’ or the ‘authentic’. In so doing, it sanctions as its inheritance a kind of unexplained rootlessness. This is precisely where the problem with ‘Indian’ fusion music lies. A deliberate positioning of disparateness discounts history and its complex network of veins, which function as a framework to any piece of music, giving it body and weight. Indian fusion music, an oxymoronic nomenclature, has proliferated on this scavenged ground of selective amnesia. Musicians from different traditions come together and create assemblages, rather than organic entities that have the capacity for self-sustenance.
While musicians and listeners alike have revelled in the aesthetic of the patchwork, this kind of ‘fusion’ has resulted in the assembly-line production of pieces of music where ‘and’ has become synonymous with fusion. But mere addition is not gain, as any musician will attest. The music may gain girth, but lose its sense of a centre of gravity, lose sight of its origin. The average piece of Indian fusion music has, therefore, neither beginning nor end. There is no imperfection in Indian fusion music. This is not because there are no faults, but simply because such a piece of music can never be perfect. The genre has become something like the parrot’s song – mimicked without context and, therefore, sounding similar after a few listens.
In “so-called world music”, the cultural-studies scholar Paul Gilroy has argued, “authenticity enhances the appeal of selected cultural commodities, and has become an important element in the mechanism of the mode of racialisation necessary to making non-European and non-American musics acceptable items in an expanded pop market.” The effort to be ‘authentic’ in an age of digital remixing can often be hilarious. In Karan Johar’s 1998 film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, for instance, the bhajan “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram” is sung to the beat of military marching music, with the Indian and British flags hung at half mast, as if in symbolic compromise. Often, an Orientalist construct is attested by a contemporary globalising mission (as evident in the famous works of Philip Glass), where the world lays claim to Indian music like a tourist carrying a favourite tune back after a holiday.
Unlike so-called fusion or world music, however, the compositions in This Is not Fusion are all bound by a spirit of ‘historical provincialism’. The need to contextualise subcontinental fusion music comes from the need to create a genealogy for it. As Chaudhuri has argued, fusion music cannot be an ahistorical monster. Is This Is not Fusion, then, a piece of history? Yes and no. Yes, it is a tract of personal history, the history of one displaced and still moving – the history of the global citizen interpreting his reflection in the window with the provincial vocabulary of his self. It is an indirect critique of globalisation, a process that has killed provinciality and rendered the local paralysed. Not Fusion is perhaps one of the last sighs of the century, escaping from the global citizen’s lips – a regret for what could have been rather than what once was. Chaudhuri’s work celebrates history with a footnote. Its creators do not fight over legitimacy. Their music, unlike most contemporary music that calls itself fusion, does not ask the irrelevant questions of ‘When?’ and ‘Then?’ It is simply an exploration of the possible.
Readers of Chaudhuri’s fiction and poetry were perhaps prepared for his new musical work. The titles of his literary works – Afternoon Raag, Freedom Song, E-Minor – had made evident the leaning of their creator’s mind. The 2002 short story “White Lies” was a strong political commentary on the sudden revival of the ghazal and bhajan traditions in India during the 1980s. Dictated by commerce (and its ally, mediocrity), this revivalism, Chaudhuri showed, had been urban in nature, and was responsible for the death of many non-metropolitan traditions. In many ways, “White Lies” was also a contemporary fable about music in the age of mechanical reproduction, about the triumph of the technology-enhanced recording over the simple human voice.
The impulses at work in Chaudhuri’s fiction are evident in his music as well. By placing a stanza or two from the songs of Tagore or Nazrul in the narrative, he deconstructs one with the other. Here is an example, from his 1998 Freedom Song: She began a familiar song:
On a verdant road
I gather strewn flowers
By myself. Park Circus; Shamsul Huda Haq Road. A pharmacy and a sweet shop at its entrance. Only a twenty minutes’ walk from Khuku’s house.
The aesthetic remains the same in This Is not Fusion. The nameless mythical animal juxtaposed against the names of streets and places on the album’s cover is emblematic of the familiar and unfamiliar, one interpreting the other to create the template of a provincial discourse, even before we hear the music. This is an enriching provinciality, a temper that is gradually drying out amidst the fierce forces of globalisation. We later find this to be the voice of the flaneur (a “gentleman stroller of city streets”, in the French poet Baudelaire’s words) – moving, roaming, discovering, commenting on and interpreting, for himself and the not-yet enlightened world. This flaneur is a 21st-century modernist, picking up things for later use: texts from the backs of Indian trucks, sounds from the Berlin underground, the twanging of a dhunuri (a tool used for cotton fluffing) from the street, shouts from refugee newspaper-sellers in Europe in the morning and the All India Radio theme tune in the evening.
Just as Chaudhuri’s four novels begin and end with various comings and goings, his music is full of metaphors of travel, the rhythms of movement, of trucks, of the dhunuri man walking the streets of old Bengal, of the gradual movement of the day’s brightness dying into evening (a sound that can only be sensed through music) – and finally, of the movement of music itself, from one tradition to another, the sounds of musical osmosis.
The musicians of Not Fusion clarify their politics at the outset: that of the secular, modern Indian, who finds “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” in his self. It is therefore no coincidence that Ramakrishna Paramahansa is Chaudhuri’s emblem: “The liberal humanism of the Bengal Renaissance formed the basis of the secular Indian state,” Chaudhuri wrote in “Thoughts in a Temple”. “The experiments of Ramakrishna, in which different ways of seeing existed in a sort of tension within oneself, formed the basis of the creativity of the modern Indian. It is no accident that every significant Indian writer or artist has negotiated seemingly antithetical world-views or languages in his or her work.”
If there is any tradition in which we can categorise the musicians – the vocalist, Chaudhuri himself, and the accompanists of Not Fusion – it is in this: that of not belonging to any single tradition. “It’s only natural that we belong to several places,” Chaudhuri has written elsewhere, “all of us, not only because of fashionable air travel and possibilities made open to the diaspora, but because of history … All these people, those who possess and those who don’t possess, belong to a number of places.”
Musafir hoon yaaron
There is no pure; all cultures are hybrid. This Is not Fusion is the music of the early-21st-century urban Indian. “What else but the subconscious can make Milton, Imre Nagy, The Seventh Seal, Mozart, the Ramayana, Nischindipur, Basavanna, Kerala, Chicago, Calcutta and France seem part of a single literary history?” Chaudhuri has asked in an essay. “It is the dimension of the subconscious that distinguishes this tale of modernity from the postcolonial narrative. In the latter, a confrontation takes place between empire and local culture.”
But in Chaudhuri’s story of ‘fusion’, “the battle, the struggle takes place within the self, not just between the self and an enemy outside it.” The narrative of modernity, he argues, is as much a story of self-division as the postcolonial narrative is one of empire, domination and resistance. In the postcolonial narrative, the mother tongue, the ideas of ‘Indianness’ and ‘Bengaliness’ are natural properties of the colonised, threatened by the processes of empire. In the story of modernity, the mother tongue and the English language are part of a transaction that, “through disowning and recovery”, define the ‘modern’ self.
This Is not Fusion is about cultural diffusion, in which the old artefacts of identity are passé. In the process, it tries to find a grammar in which these fluid identities can be cast, at least temporarily. Beyond anything else, this is what Not Fusion celebrates: impermanence, evolution, freedom, the opposite of inertia. In other words, process. In so doing, it also leaves a listener without a sense of an ending – as indeed all things in ‘process’ must. The moral is perhaps this: in our postmodern fables of pastlessness, the only journeys possible are, ironically, through memory. So, remember.
It is no coincidence that most of the compositions in Not Fusion are about moving, about ‘history … passing’, about the sound of the wheels on roads, or the wanderings of the Bauls in Bengal. Not Fusion is not just a Whitmanesque song of the roadside; it also belongs to the tradition of songs of the journey of the Subcontinent – “Musafir hoon yaaron,” I am a traveler, says one well-known Hindi film song.
Not Fusion does not follow the easy routine of borrow-replace-create; rather, it creates a new vocabulary of exchange, which proves that dialogue is possible between cultures. It works between certain moods of traditions, not as mere elective affinities of musicians, whose inspiration results in material representations of two cultures yoked together by violence. If the album fails, it will not be because of its musicians; we the listeners will be responsible. We are so used to ‘system’ writers and musicians that any work we cannot fit into our store of codes scares us.
“It is doubtful if the discriminating minority will go for a hybrid if they can find the meat in a conventional movie,” said Satyajit Ray, about the new wave of Indian cinema. If we fail to grow an attachment with the hybrid called This Is not Fusion, it is simply because we are still uncomfortable with a part of ourselves.
The collaboration between Indian and Western musicians dates back to the 1960s, to Ravi Shankar’s work with Bud Shank and with The Beatles. Soon after that, Miles Davis, the jazz musician, started to create ‘fusion’ sounds with such musicians as Khalil Balakrishna, Bihari Sharma and Badal Roy. In the mid-1970s, the British guitarist John McLaughlin began to collaborate with Southasian musicians Zakir Hussain, L Shankar and others in the influential fusion group Shakti. For a while, the incorporation of Indian influences and instruments was relatively widespread, including such popular Western bands as the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Traffic, the Incredible String Band and many others. London during the late 1980s saw a resurgence of this form, in the coming-together of Indian and Western traditions to create forms like the Asian Underground (see accompanying article).
The late 1980s was also a time of formation of many Indian bands that tried fusion, particularly Indus Creed, Parikrama, Pentagram, Zero and Nexus. Contemporary artists working in this category include Bikram Ghosh, the tabla player who heads the fusion band Rhythmscape, Maqsoodul Haque and his band Bauliana, and Naquib Khan and his band Renaissance.
~Sumana Roy teaches English at Darjeeling Government College. She is currently on research leave in Poland and Germany.