Neil Kulkarni's Eastern Spring
I recently read Neil Kulkarni’s Eastern Spring: A 2nd Gen Memoir (Repeater, 2012), a short-and-sweet book filled with essays oriented around identity, writing, music and so forth. It was very refreshing. Kulkarni’s most visible driving force is music; I was very pleased to encounter learned opinions on the aesthetic resonance between various forms of Indian music: classical ragas and Marathi song – lavani in particular – and various strains of experimental, seemingly cutting-edge post-war Western music, from the prog of Moondog through the mutations of jungle. He specifically situates the 70s experimentalism of Miles Davis as perhaps the only modern Western music that is comparable in atmosphere and sophistication to the various sediments of the Indian (or Indic) tradition. In my more facetious Indo-centric moments, channeling the uncle wisdom from ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, I would make sweeping remarks of similar sentiments, so it is fairly amusing and interesting that someone imbued in Western musical criticism would make this point in such an evocative manner. All told, in switching from Pandit Kumar Gandharava and Ustad Bade Ali Khan through to Miles Davis’ Get Up With It it is hard to get away from the contrapuntal synergy, a cosmic atmosphere of deepening resonance. Light listening this is not.
What is interesting is the manner that Kulkarni relates this musical interest directly to his childhood development, his sensory exposure to Indian musics, but one that he links later on in life as a formative aesthetic education that influenced his musical taste in the environs of 80s and 90s Coventry. Visceral feeling and a pieced together system of explanation are working in tandem on the page in his prose. Kulkarni details his family history, through the dual brahmanical backgrounds of his parents cathected through the cipher of diasporic leftism. His mum’s side in particular are part of a small jati of Brahmins—the Chitpavan or Konkanastha Brahmins—who provided the initial base for much of the Hindu nationalist-fascist movement, something for which he, naturally, abhors. At the same time, he is fairly pointed about the jati tradition, and caste system in general, being preservers of tradition, providing these ancient links to originary sound cultures that he felt in the present. Its fairly interesting, and honest, way of tackling the warped and sticky ground of diaspora and caste, if a little undercooked in places. Does sound contain the destructive ideas internal to and resistant to dominant historical structures? Would an iconoclastic monotheism inhibit access to such intangible culture and informal socialities?
In any case, this inward critique and self-consciousness provided the basis for Kulkarni’s outwardness, a subculturalist cosmopolitanism where modernist rat-a-tat fizzles and spews. Writing, in this book and across his vignettes strewn across music mags and publishing dens, is treated as instrument in its own right, one that trails and traces, seeking resonance, enrapture and interrogative form. This is no mere tool for sociological capture or the disciplinary nature of the paltry chronicler. In doing so, Kulkarni refuses to be mired in the prison of identity in all its psychopathological trappings, instead affording us an erudite unhingedness that decombulates subjectivity, understanding the fragility and unevenness of life as unsettled ground. Miles knew it, so too Kumar Gandharava, Asha Bhosle, Bismillah Khan…..