Amit Chaudhuri’s Clearing A Space

The key to this rich, provocative and not entirely accessible collection of essays lies in a little piece from 2007, reprinted here from the New Statesman. “Anti-Fusion” lays down an aesthetic that governs Amit Chaudhuri’s recent second career as a musician, and points towards a set of possibilites for the anglophone Indian fiction in which he made his name, a way to push aside the pop postmodernism with which, in his view, it is too often associated. The usual assumption is that fusion music “comprises a departure, scandalous or liberating, from the canonical music traditions”. But Chaudhuri argues that those traditions are themselves “hybrid forms”, and most creative when most restless: when, in trying to incorporate the new, an inherited form sustains an “inner tension between domestication and accommodation”. For him most “fusion” music lacks that inner tension. There might be a face-off between the different traditions on which it draws, but they do not quite manage to transform one another. Too often “the Eastern and Western elements in fusion have a designated static quality that they do not in their own contexts”. So Chaudhuri speaks on behalf of dialectic, not fusion; on behalf of quarrel and assimilation, and not the kind of multi-culti celebration that often winds up confirming our “unexamined beliefs about identity and where we come from”.

Still, Chaudhuri doesn’t quite call for a sense of perpetual flux. He is certainly interested in how newness enters the world. But he is drawn to older things too, and in particular to a conception of modernity that he sees as threatened by the succeeding idea of globalization. A globalized postmodernity excludes as much as it includes, and Chaudhuri is particularly troubled by the way indigenous high culture gets lost in the organizing narratives of postcoloniality and cultural studies. His sense of this has perhaps a touch of caricature. He writes here as an academic responding to the interpretative fictions of other academics, and overemphasizes the degree to which the university has put its weight on the side of popular culture. So I in turn will simplify his own views. He may like Bollywood, but he loves Tagore, and believes there is something wrong with a critical practice that has forgotten the profound moment of cultural dialectic called the Bengal Renaissance. There is more in the past than one thinks to help or enable an Indian writer’s encounter with the West.