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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is historical novelist Anjali Mitter Duva @AnjaliMDuva
Soundtrack by George Ruckert, L Subramaniam, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Chopin
Music is at the heart of Faint Promise of Rain. The setting for the story — 16th century Rajasthan in Northwest India — had already been laid down by multiple visits to that stunning part of the world, where temples and fortresses rise up from golden sand, where textiles are jewel-toned, and the sky is devastatingly blue. The next story layer came in a very different shape: a class in kathak dance, a classical storytelling art from North India.
I’d decided to try out kathak, and stepped timidly into the dance center where a class happened to be offered just down the street from my home. As I climbed the three stories of steps to the kathak studio, the sound of ankle bells grew louder. Then I discerned the slap, stomp and drumming of dozens of feet, and the glorious sound of voices singing in unison. In kathak, the dancer becomes an instrument. In addition to studying dance technique and compositions, the dancer must become intimately familiar with the cycles in which Indian classical music is structured—the 16 beat cycle (tintal), the 14 beat (dhammar), the 10 beat (jhaptal) and many others—and develop an awareness at all times of where in the cycle she finds herself. In addition, dancers memorise their compositions and recite them in a series of mesmerising syllables that roll off the tongue: kita taka tun tun na tete dha dha dhin dha kita dha dhin dha. The hundreds of small brass bells around their ankles lend music to every step, a hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain, a deafening jangle indicating an exploding storm. And then there are the sounds of the feet, sharp slaps of entire soles coming down hard on the floor, deep drumming of heels, soft pats of tapping toes.
As I delved deeper into the dance, I learned of its early history, first among wandering minstrels bringing the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, from village to village, then as a devotional dance practiced in Hindu temples by devadasis, girls who were wedded to the temple’s deity and served it through dance, while also serving wealthy patrons as sexual companions. Soon, it all began to coalesce into a story—the setting, the history, the dance itself.
Music and rhythm in writing
From the moment I started writing the book, I was aware of the power of rhythm in writing. Word choice, sentence length, the sounds of the syllables on the tongue all contribute to the experience of absorbing a story. When it came time, in the manuscript, to convey through words a moment of dance, I found myself dancing the piece in my dining room, or in my head if I was writing in a cafe, willing the feeling of the music and movement to flow out of my body through my finger tips and into the keyboard. I tried to hear the musicality in the raindrops of the city’s first rain in five years, in the beat of hooves as a horse galloped over searing sand.
Music to transport me
I wrote the book in New England. There are some hot days, and many cold ones. Bundled up in a wool sweater as a Nor’easter rages outside, dumping two feet of snow and closing schools, it’s hard to imagine being in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. So I often turned to music to pull me back to the right place. One of my favorites for this is L Subramaniam playing his violin, especially in Raga Kalyani. The strains of the Indian violin are haunting, rich and emotionally charged. They always give me goosebumps, and conjure up images of India right away. L. Subramaniam is from South India, and plays in a Carnatic style that is not the one found in Rajasthan, but his music is all I need to feel back in India. I get memories of playing among the rocks on the coast of the Arabian Sea in Mumbai with my friends while the sun set smoggily and the air filled with the smoky smell of kerosene fires. I see myself standing wrapped in a shawl on the ramparts of the fort in Jaisalmer, looking out over the grey-blue desert as the sun rises and colors it with warmth. I think of sitting on an elephant, plodding through foliage dripping with the night’s condensation, listening for tigers at the break of day.
Once in an India frame of mind, I have some favorites that I put on while writing to elicit a certain mood, or to help with inhabiting a character’s mind. For scenes depicting dancers and musicians, I love the creative and melodious music of George Ruckert, sarod player/composer and longtime disciple of the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a true maestro. George Ruckert is the husband of my dance teacher, a professor, a mentor and a friend. His dedication to his art is inspiring, and so is having his music playing as I write. (He is also on the book trailer.) For energetic scenes, I enjoy the dynamic, celebratory qawwali (Sufi devotional) singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It’s hard to feel down when he sings. And for getting into the writing mood on a rainy day, I diverge to Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes. The simple beauty of the piano playing, stripped of any distractions, is meditative, and reminds me of the necessity of getting to the essence of the story and the characters.
The daughter of an Indian father and an American mother, Anjali Mitter Duva grew up in Paris, France. After completing graduate studies in urban studies and civil engineering at MIT and launching a career in infrastructure planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. A switch to freelance writing and project management allowed her more time for her own creative pursuits. Additionally, she is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. In delving into the dance’s history, Anjali found in it, and in the dance itself, the seeds of a quartet of novels. Faint Promise of Rain is the first. Find Anjali on her website, Facebook, and on Twitter @AnjaliMDuva
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is media doctor and award-winning writer Carol Cooper @DrCarolCooper
While music isn’t always playing while I write, I sometimes need it to get into the right frame of mind to face a blank page. For me, The Beatles are creative Viagra. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band isn’t my favourite album, but its invigorating opening track makes it the one I find most conducive to spilling out words. Though Taxman from Revolver is pretty damn good. Then there’s Back in the USSR from the White Album and Come Together on Abbey Road… OK, so the Fab Four were pretty hot at opening tracks, and they followed up pretty well too.
Some music evokes specific characters in my novel One Night at the Jacaranda. Geoff, Laure, Sanjay and the others are in their mid-to-late-30s so they’d be very familiar with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Preoccupied with his own cancer, Sanjay enjoys listening to artistes who are dead (like Hillel Slovak from the Chilis).
They found a taxi. Geoff glanced at Laure in the half-light. Her face was hard to read, but her warm fingers were interlinked with his. Unprompted, the driver ranted about immigration, or possibly lenient judges. Geoff lost the thread halfway through, but the gist was that the cabbie thought the country was going to hell in a handcart, and everything the government did was tantamount to throwing away all they’d ever fought for during two world wars.
Anything is possible
I find the Chilis incredibly alive, and love them for their offbeat rhythm and their beautifully bonkers lyrics where anything is possible. My favourite album is By the Way. No wonder I found my novel taking strange new directions. The characters did things I hadn’t intended, like jumping into bed with people they shouldn’t. Sanjay’s cancer didn’t progress quite how I’d foreseen either, though maybe as a doctor I should be used to that.
As can happen when visiting Cuba, I felt totally immersed in music, especially son, on a trip to Havana a few years ago. There was live music on almost every corner of Habana Vieja. Many artists have recorded El Cuarto de Tula, but the late Compay Segundo’s version is my favourite. The tune is catchy and the lyrics suggestive. It’s a song is about a young woman’s bedroom being on fire, and it makes a great spur to writing sizzling sex scenes.
Geoff squeezed Laure’s hand experimentally. She squeezed back. He closed in for a kiss as the cab went over a speed bump. They kissed at length as the cabbie went on about not trusting any politician as far as he could spit.
Sometimes lyrics get in way of finding the right words, and I might need an instrumental piece. Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is one of my favourites. Evocative and imaginative, it never fails to put me in the mood for writing. My soundtrack includes a John Williams rendition, but I’ve recently heard the young Montenegrin guitarist Miloš Karadaglić and I can’t wait for his interpretation on his new album Aranjuez. While I’m no expert in classical music, I’ve never known anyone make a guitar sing as he does. Sheer magic.
For those that don’t know, qawwali is the musical version of devotional poetry practised in Sufi Islam. The beat is endless and hypnotic, the lyrics ethereal and repeated. Although the characters in One Night at the Jacaranda aren’t particularly religious – and after all this is a novel about dating – they do have a basic creed which I think qawwali eloquently captures. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is said to be the king of qawwali. Listening to his album Rapture helps unpeel their spiritual layers of my characters, and imbue them with just the right amount of faith and hope.
As a student, Carol Cooper used to write music reviews, which got her into the best gigs in Cambridge. Carol is now a family doctor in London and a journalist for The Sun newspaper. Her latest book One Night at the Jacaranda is a raunchy romantic novel with a heart-rending medical strand. It comes after a string of non-fiction health titles and an award-winning textbook of medicine, co-authored with colleagues from Imperial College Medical School where she teaches. She is now working on a sequel to her novel, taking some of her favourite characters into new territory. Her blog is Pills and Pillow-Talk and she’s on Twitter as @DrCarolCooper.
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I’ve long suspected that the music writers use for work is not necessarily their favourite listening. My guest this week supports this theory. She says music is her creative Viagra, but that her choices sometimes surprise her – thus confirming for me that Undercover Soundtracks belong to a separate department in the mind. She describes her work as raunchy romance with a heartrending medical strand – she is also a doctor and the author of several health books, as well as a journalist for The Sun newspaper. Her musical colleagues include The Beatles, the BBC proms and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Carol Cooper will be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
PS Do I dare put Viagra in the tags for this post?
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2021. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'