Intimations of Greatness: The Fictive Music of Giridharan Rajagopalan

by Nakul Vāc
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Giridharan Rajagopalan has been diligently working at his short fiction since 2006 and it is indeed shocking that the collection published this year is his first, especially if one takes into consideration that some of the very best ones in this book have appeared online as early as 2013. Indifference being the permanently prevailing zeitgeist of the Tamil literary world, persistently cultivated in its reading, publishing and critical circles, one is left to cliched consolations of the “Better late than never” sort, although a life-long obscurity akin to Greysian Churchyards is still a very real threat confronting the Tamil writer toiling unknown in the vast wastelands of online publishing. Did I mention two of Giri’s stories (not included in this collection) have won awards in short fiction contests long time ago? Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, about the determining criteria (if at all such a thing exists) of Tamil publishers. Giri also recently won a prize last year at a Sci-Fi contest conducted by Aroo. I guess three prizes are what it takes? It is not coincidental that the best story in this collection borrows its title from a famous poem by Pramil that incidentally also laments.

ஆருமற்ற சூனியமாய்
தளமற்ற பெருவெளியாய் கூரையற்று
நிற்பது என்

Giri is no Gaddis (yet), so I guess we would still have to wait for our own Jack Green to righteously exhort them to “fire the bastards”. Be that as it may, it is still an occasion to rejoice when a writer, a deserving one at that, finally gets housed in that holiest of mansions, a book. Giri being a friend, let me assure you that the obligatory gushing-forth rituals such milestones entail, have all been diligently performed via WhatsApp and hence without further ado we can proceed directly to some of the stories.

The eponymous first story “காலத்தின் முடிவுக்காக ஒலித்த இசை” bravely gives itself an illustrious pedigree by borrowing its title from the legendary French composer Olivier Messiaen’s brooding masterpiece, “Quartet for the end of Time”. Written when Olivier was imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A in 1940, this magnificent piece of chamber music with its odd instrument ensemble (Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano) was first performed outdoors at the prison camp, amidst pouring rain with Olivier at the Piano in front of an audience of four hundred, comprised mainly of prisoners and guards. Nothing could be further from the topos of the Tamil short story, and the esoteric estrangement of the Western Classical Music theme (a Cerebral one at that) doesn’t help either. It takes some chutzpah to dare a story like this and only someone who is sure of his imaginative skills and a firm grasp of music fundamentals can bring it off. Well, almost bring it off.

The initial paragraphs with that memorably introduced old hag (“உனக்கென்னடா… சும்மா வாயை மூடிக்கிட்டு படு. உன்ன மாதிரி தடித்தோலா எனக்கு“), brilliantly humanizes the harsh realities of a POW camp in winter. The whole thing has a cinematic feel of a good war movie. The scene’s pathos is gradually heightened as we are given brief snippets of the snowstorm howling, the permeating cold and the little girl with a child in her arms hysterically pleading for water… Then suddenly, the sound of a clarinet wafts otherworldly, into this freezing circle of Hell. But bereft of basic necessities Man becomes unmoored and has no use for (or is unable to be even fathom a use for) art. The music hurts the inmates’ ears almost to the point of bleeding and they beg for it to stop. This provides a segue for the narrator to go into the adjoining room and confront the Quartet practicing there.

It is the age-old human conundrum that the young man articulates as he accuses the foursome of being Neroesque except in this case the fiddling happens when people are freezing to death next door. Olivier’s “I’ll die if stop playing music” brutally shuts him off and he heads back to his room and huddles beneath his blanket, trembling with impotent rage and disgust. But what literature asks, literature answers and if that well-meaning young chap had read his English masters, he would have known that “All art is quite useless,” and “We must all love one another and die.” But, not content with pithy maxims the story braves forth towards the concluding outdoor performance of the quartet and manages to establish art as a sort of Sisyphean endeavor against the relentless howl of time and mortality.

The passages that transcribe abstract music in human terms are pure gold and only someone with a deep understanding and love for Western Classical music can bring it off this elegantly. Having said that, I still feel the story misses a big opportunity to carve out an even larger territory for itself by daring to explore the ideas behind this intricate piece in a novel way. The Quartet uses the Book of Revelation as its springboard (the thunderous monody for all four instruments in unison in the sixth movement is appropriately titled “Dance of fury, for the Seven trumpets”), and re-imagines theology and metaphysics musically. The piano and cello have isorhythmic features while the violin and the clarinet both have the performance indication of “comme un oiseau” (like a bird). The isorhythms establish the weariness and sense of incompleteness produced by the “Abyss of time” and the birds (nightingale and solo blackbird) strive against it (“சக்கரத்தில் சிக்கிக்கொண்ட பறவை போல்” as the story phrases) as desire for light, stars, rainbows and jubilant songs.

Messiaen the highly cerebral composer once wrote that his mode of composition is related to “l’ atrophie du moi’ or the wasting away of the petty self. Moving away from the “will domination of post renaissance Europe” he reached back into pre-renaissance practices to what he christened “Rhythmic pedals” (talea in Latin and Tala in Sanskrit). The techniques that he used to keep the rhythmic aspects of his music variable (not only the beats per measure and also the lengths of the beats themselves) he attributed to the musical theories of India (the 120 Desitalas presented by the 13th century Indian theorist Sarangadeva in Samgitaratnakara was a major influence). Similarly, the rhythmic palindromes (arrangement of note values that read the same both forward and backward) that Messiaen was fond of are also Indian in origin. Simplistically, for lay listeners like a majority of us, Messiaen was groping for the invariance that will anchor us amidst temporal variability to aesthetically represent the eternal truths (which to him were religious) through music.

All of this is to say that there is a rich trove of background material in Messiaen that can be mined specifically for its Indian subtexts. But the opportunity is not taken and Giri settles for a sort of easily won Minimalism that he was enamored with at the time he was writing this story. Ironically Olivier himself was a Maximalist influenced heavily by the ideas of Scriabin (whose unrealized Project, Mysterium, was to be an all-encompassing ritual enactment lasting seven days and seven nights, in which there were to be no spectators, only participants, performed only once in a specially constructed Temple in India!).

Personally, I would have liked the story to be structured more polyphonically, preferably with four voices mimicking the Quartet. This would have made it more nuanced and provided the space to explore some of the subtleties described above. Yes, we need to demand “bigger than the biggest”, our authors have to offer, demand the generosity that Anne Tyler once advocated in her introduction to the 1983 issue of “Best American Short Stories”: ‘The most appealing short story writer is the one who’s a wastrel. He neither hoards his best ideas for something more ‘important’ (a novel) nor skimps on his material because this is ‘only’ a short story.”

இருள் முனகும் பாதை“, easily the best story in this collection is a brilliantly realized fictional accounting of the great composer Robert Schumann and his wife Clara Schumann’s biographies. The title is an appropriate one, chosen from Pramil’s poem, a stanza of which laments:

யாரோ நான்? – ஓ!ஓ!-

யாரோ நான் என்றதற்கு
குரல் மண்டிப்

தேறாத சிந்தனையும்
மூளாது விட்டதென்ன?

மறந்த பதில்
இருள் முனகும் பாதையிலே
பிறந்திறந்து போடுவதோ

It is one of the first stories of Giri I read and needless to say I was dazzled and jealous. I have a personal fondness for this story due the fact that my son’s high school musical evolution is bookended with him playing Clara’s beautifully balanced Piano Trio in G minor (with its hauntingly evocative opening bar) at one end and winning a prize at the New England Concerto competition playing Schumann’s Concerto in A minor, Op.54 at the other.

Kaleidoscopically structured Schumann’s letters and his diary entries which we read through the eyes of his friend William Sterndale Bennett, Bennett’s contentious relationship with Clara, snippets of Clara’s regimented childhood in which she is groomed to be a musical prodigy…, the story effortlessly manages to compress large swathes of biographical material in an interesting and coherent way. Most readers will most probably experience the frisson of this story in the forest scenes where the composer and piano virtuoso Isaac Ignaz Moscheles teaches Schumann to experience the essential core of music as something universal and connected with the entire Cosmos. My preference however are the Clara parts, especially where the legendary Goethe falls on his knees to kiss the girl Clara’s hands that have just concluded a virtuoso exposition of pianistic technique, with the kid wondering all the while if the Grand old man in front of her was two hundred years old.

On first reading this story, I felt a bit angry that it was slanted heavily towards Schumann at the expense of Clara. I had written the following in an email to Giri:

“While the great one was busy transforming ‘the whispers from the dark’ into magnificent art, poor Clara had to support the family of 10 through her concerts. One is reminded of Larkin’s Poem, ‘The Literary world’ and V. Wolf’s famous words that a woman needs money and a Room of her Own in order to indulge in artistic creation. Schumann’s grappling with his artistic demons, is straight out of the cookbook of ‘Romanticism” isn’t it? It’s in Clara where the dramatic interest lies, where the “Howling screams of everyday reality” don’t give two hoots about Art.

There is a novel by Janice Galloway which has Clara thinking: “More to the point, that she worked, and she earned and that mattered, dear goodness, that mattered. One day, she thought, …she’d say something dazzling. …One day she’d say something to surprise them all”.

I think your piece, though very good, would have been even better if it had counterpointed Clara’s tragedy against Schumann’s angst more overtly. It is there as a sort of sub-text but could have been explored further.”

Now I feel that Clara could indeed be construed in some readings as the real protagonist of this story. There is nothing more tragic than a “damn good artist” realizing that the bridge leading to greatness is a bridge too far. What would the darkness have whispered in Clara’s ears, we wonder and realize that such intimations aren’t solely the prerogative of the Greats. We all have stared into the abyss at different points and have found our own ways to move on. But the great ones transmute those dark whispers through the alchemy of their art into a humane “Yawp” that echoes resoundingly “over the rooftops of the world” against the threatening abyss. I have no doubt in my mind that this story will be the new bar that needs to be cleared for all future attempts in Tamil to fictionalize musical biography in a short story.

I don’t intend to talk in detail about all the stories and will leave that pleasure to this book’s future readers and critics. “நந்தாதேவி” reads like something out of Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World” and fans of that travel classic will understand that there can be no higher praise than that comparison.

நீர் பிம்பத்துடன் ஓர் உரையாடல்” is ambitious in the way it relates the interplay of global imperial history and its social ramifications across multiple colonial outposts as seen through the eyes of a painting. The first half is quite riveting but the story peters out in the second unable to sustain the same interest. But it has the best sentence in the book, that may be worthy of a Saul Bellow: “கண்கள் மட்டும் பக்கவாட்டில் துடுப்பு போட்டபடி இருந்தன

A line from Andal’s Thiruppavai, “பல்கலனும் யாம் அணிவோம்,” is appropriated for the title of a Sci-Fi story that won a prize last year. Later on, the story will use a bit of Nammalvar’s biography to explore mental constructs like Consciousness, Un/ Sub-conscious etc. It explores the symbiotic man-machine relationship by taking it to it its dystopian logical dead end and transcends the danger of metallicizing the story, a pitfall that threatens many amateur Sci-Fi writers, by the felicity of its style and being rooted in Indianness.

மரணத்தைக் கடத்தல் ஆமோ“, is one of the better Gandhi stories that have appeared in recent times. Beginning as a chronicle of a death foretold (by a horoscope), it explores the complexities and contradictions of Gandhiji’s mental makeup and its evolution, from the vantage point of his future death. The conversations between Gandhi and Rajaji are delectable and way the story arrives at its ending reconciling the seemingly contradictory Karma and Free Will is well done but feels a bit facile.

Of the remaining stories, “திறப்பு“, “நிர்வாணம்” and “பலி” (barely) become interesting because of the vantage points lodged in them that allow their readers to reevaluate them differently while others like “தர்ப்பை” and “மௌன கோபுரம்” fall flat without any dramatic interest. “அகதி” is partly salvaged by  descriptions of life in East London and Tororo but its ending is too cliched to make a lasting impact.

All in all, a pretty interesting collection that has enough narrative breadth ranging from music, biography, History, travel/ adventure. immigrant experience, Sci-Fi to keep our interest piqued. Some of the stories indeed make it a bit of a mixed bag, but one doesn’t judge a short story collection using some sort of average metric (even by that standard this collection fares quite well) but by the enormity of the elephants it sets out to spear and the degree of success it has managed to achieve in that endeavor. This book easily passes that test by the heights it manages to attain in stories that have music as their prime concern. For that reason alone, in keeping with Schumann (and Goethe), the fingers that wrote “இருள் முனகும் பாதை” deserve a reverent kiss.

Congrats Giri!

Source(s) / Further Reading:

ரா. கிரிதரன், காலத்தின் முடிவுக்காக ஒலித்த இசை, தமிழினி, 2020

Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 4, pp 229-242

Note: A Tamil version of this review originally appeared in issue #216 of Solvanam magazine. ஆகப் பெரிதின் அறிவிப்புகள்

1 comment

Kasturi G May 1, 2022 - 8:02 pm

Fantastic review by Nakul

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