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Bio - Amit Chaudhuri



Upcoming Event [View More]
27th October, 8 pm, a concert at the Vortex Jazz Club. [View More]
28th October, a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies: ’Who is the Reader? Literary Activism and the Mehrotra Campaign’. [View More]
Readings at the Sydney Writers Festival on 21st, 22nd, and 23rd May: [View More]
Readings/talks related to the new novel Odysseus Abroad in and near London next week (all welcome)
The New York premiere, at the 15th New York Indian Film Festival, of the film A Moment of Mishearing, co-directed by Amit Chaudhuri and woven around his music, will take place at the Village East Cinemas – Cinema 4,181 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003, Thursday, May 7, 2015, 9.30 pm. Here are the details: [View More]
James Wood’s review of Odysseus Abroad and his overview of Chaudhuri’s work in the New Yorker: [View More]
Guardian review of Odysseus Abroad by Neel Mukherjee: [View More]
Chatting with Nicholas Wroe in the Guardian: [View More]
New essay on Joni Mitchell: [View More]

Biography of Amit Chaudhuri

‘What a headache Amit Chaudhuri must be for his publishers’: see below for Guardian editorial: ‘In praise of … Amit Chaudhuri’, editorial in the Guardian, Thursday July 31 2008 In praise of … Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri has, like Proust, perfected the art of the moment… [he] is a miniaturist, for whom tiny moments become radiant, and for whom the complexities of the fleeting mood uncurl onto the page like a leaf, a petal.’

Hilary Mantel, New York Review of Books

What I think of the work of this man is that we hear a lot now [of], and we have modules here on, postcolonial literature; and we live, in a sense – as we’ve seen with the recent referendum vote – [in a time] where identity politics seems to be on the rise, and taking a certain kind of form in our culture. And I think that what Amit’s work does is to really bust a lot of those paradigms. This is not work that comfortably sits in the ‘postcolonial thing’ or anything like that. What I think his work represents – and he’s a very fine novelist indeed and an extremely fine essayist and thinker about literature – what his work exemplifies is somebody who views the canon as everything; that there isn’t a form of canonical literature that makes you cleave to one culture or another. There’s a marvellous fragment by Borges called ‘Kafka and his Precursors’, and I think Amit is a writer like that – Amit is a writer who emerges with such force and power in his thought about ‘here’ and ‘there’, about the ‘other’ and what ‘identity’ is, that he creates an affinity between other writers that you weren’t aware of having existed before. So he’s a kind of primus inter pares.

– Will Self

Amit Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta in 1962 and grew up in Bombay. He was a student at the Cathedral and John Connon School, Bombay, took his first degree, in English, from University College London, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on D H Lawrence’s poetry at Balliol College, Oxford. He is married to Rosinka Chaudhuri, and they have one daughter, Aruna. His father, Nages Chandra Chaudhuri, was the first Indian CEO of Britannia Industries, and his mother, Bijoya Chaudhuri, was one of the greatest exponents of Tagore songs of her generation.

He is the author of seven novels, the latest of which is Friend of My Youth. His first major work of non-fiction, Calcutta: Two Years in the City, was published in the UK and India in 2013. It was published by Knopf in the US in September 2013. His first book of critical essays, the influential Clearing a Space, was published in 2008. His second book of essays, Telling Tales, was published in the UK in August 2013.

Jonathan Coe in the London Review of Books has said that ‘Chaudhuri has already proved that he can write better than just about anybody of his generation’, the Guardian called him ‘one of his generation’s best writers’, the Village Voice said he was ‘one of the most talented and versatile writers of his generation’, and, according to the Boston Globe, ‘In the gloriously crowded world of modern Indian fiction, Amit Chaudhuri stands out as a master craftsman who, with exquisite wit and grace, can depict a rapidly changing India in a single life and an entire life in a single detail.’ The Irish critic Eileen Battersby said in the Irish Times: ‘Even in the context of contemporary Indian writing in English, much of which is outstanding, Chaudhuri is the best’. In The Guardian, Neel Mukherjee observed: ‘Chaudhuri has been pushing away at form, trying to make something new of the novel’.

The critic James Wood cited him in the New York Times as one of his three favourite younger living writers, along with Alan Hollinghurst and Ben Marcus.

Among the prizes he has won for his fiction are the Commonwealth Literature Prize, the Betty Trask award, the Encore Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Indian government’s Sahitya Akademi Award. In 2012, he was awarded the West Bengal government’s Rabindra Puraskar for his book On Tagore. Also in 2012, he was awarded the inaugural Infosys Prize in the Humanities for outstanding contribution to Literary Studies.

His first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, is included in Colm Toibin and Carmen Callil’s Two Hundred Best Novels of the Last Fifty Years. It was published in a special 25th anniversary edition in 2016 by Penguin Random House India with a foreword by Colm Toibin. His second novel, Afternoon Raag, was on Anne Enright’s list of 10 Best Short Novels in the Guardian. He is Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia, and is editor of the Picador/ Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature. He has one book of poetry, St Cyril Road and other poems.

Chaudhuri is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the English Association, and was a judge of the Man Booker International Prize. In 2008, a Guardian editorial about him appeared in the newspaper’s famous ‘In Praise of…’ series, the first time an Indian writer was so honoured. In its editorial, the Guardian called him ‘a publisher’s nightmare’ for his artistic impulses and experimental tendencies.

Contribution to Criticism

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the most influential critics of his generation. His monograph, D H Lawrence and ‘Difference’ was called a ‘classic’ by Tom Paulin in his preface to the book, and a ‘path-breaking work’ by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books. His book of critical essays, Clearing a Space, was called the ‘best work of criticism by an Indian’ by Caravan magazine, India’s leading journal of the ideas. In 2013, he became the first person to be awarded the Infosys Prize for outstanding contribution to the humanities in Literary Studies, from a jury comprising Amartya Sen, the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University), the critic Homi Bhabha (Harvard), the South Asia scholar Sheldon Pollock (Columbia), former Indian chief justice Leila Seth, and the legal thinker Upendra Baxi (Warwick).

In his congratulatory address, Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner and jury chair of the first Infosys Prize for the Humanities, said: ‘He is of course a remarkable intellectual with a great record of literary writing showing a level of sensibility as well as a kind of quiet humanity which is quite rare. It really is quite extraordinary that someone could have had that kind of range that Amit Chaudhuri has in terms of his work and it could be so consistently of the highest quality.’ Chaudhuri is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the English Association, and was a judge of the Man Booker International Prize. In 2008, a Guardian editorial about him appeared in the newspaper’s famous ‘In Praise of…’ series, the first time an Indian writer was so honoured. In its editorial, the Guardian called him ‘a publisher’s headache nightmare’ for his artistic impulses and experimental tendencies.

Forms of Activism

Calcutta Architectural Legacies

Amit Chaudhuri has been engaged in two forms of activism. The first has to do with Calcutta’s architectural inheritance, and the importance of buildings outside the ‘heritage’ list. Chaudhuri’s writings and work on this matter challenge, in fact, the notion of heritage. He and other like-minded people have come together as a group, Calcutta Architectural Legacies, whose website can be seen here: cal-legacies.com

Chaudhuri’s ideas, and the aims of his campaign, are stated in this article:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jul/02/calcutta-architecture-heritage-destruction-city-campaign-amit-chaudhuri

Literary Activism

From 2014, Chaudhuri has organised a series of annual symposiums in India on behalf of the University of East Anglia to explore the literary in the present-day world, and create a space for discussion that is distinct from either the literary festival or the academic conference, a space that the cultural studies and literary commentator Simon During called a necessary ‘quasi-academic space’, and the philosopher Simon Glendinning named ‘a space for misfits’. The mission statement for ‘literary activism’ can be read here:

http://ueaindiacreativewritingworkshop.com/symposium-on-literary-activism/

Neologisms and new concepts

1. Constitutional secularism – This term was coined by Chaudhuri in his introduction to his 2008 book, Clearing a Space, to describe an official constitution-endorsed idea of the secular that pervades India. Against this he posits the secret life of the secular in India: how we experience and value things, often everyday things, whose significance doesn’t derive from religion, and whose importance to us is largely private, and expressed only through literature, art, and cinema.

2. Wahhabi Hinduism was first coined by Chaudhuri in December 2015, and referred to by him in the Times Literary Festival in Delhi, to describe a new kind of Hinduism being fashioned by the BJP. His words were reported in this Times of India piece: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/litfest/litfest-delhi/news/Wahabi-Hinduism-has-hit-pluralism-Amit-Chaudhuri/articleshow/49991088.cms

Chaudhuri wrote about it in a London Review of Books ‘Diary’ piece at around the same time: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n24/amit-chaudhuri/diary

3. ‘Literary activism’ – This term was reinvented by Chaudhuri, put into currency by him in December 2014, and used with a very specific purpose that is outlined in this statement: http://ueaindiacreativewritingworkshop.com/symposium-on-literary-activism/

4. ‘Market activism’ – In the same statement, a link to which appears above, Chaudhuri invented this term and defined ‘market activism’ as a mode of valuing literature and art – ever since the free market became the dominant economic model – solely according to commercial parameters, but only using terms exclusively to do with literary and artistic value, and hardly ever speaking in the language of commerce.

Further thoughts on literary and market activism can be found in this essay by Chaudhuri: https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/the-piazza-and-the-parking-lot/

5. ‘Deprofessionalisation’ – A term coined to critique specialisation and professionalization in creativity, used in this way in the concept note for the second ‘literary activism’ symposium: http://ueaindiacreativewritingworkshop.com/programme-for-2nd-symposium/

His talk on ‘deprofessionalisation’ can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ku9NsrTMjnQ

6. ‘Non-fusion’ – For a statement on what Chaudhuri means by ‘not fusion’, or ‘non-fusion’, see this piece in the New Staesman

7. Non-heritage’ – For Chaudhuri’s critique of ‘heritage’ as an inadequate term, see https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jul/02/calcutta-architecture-heritage-destruction-city-campaign-amit-chaudhuri

8. ‘Boutiquefication’ – For Chaudhuri’s use of this term, see here: https://www.firstpost.com/living/there-goes-the-neighbourhood-author-amit-chaudhuri-talks-about-kolkata-its-decaying-heritage-whats-being-done-to-stop-the-rot-2658460.html

Some studies on and responses to Amit Chaudhuri:

  • James Wood’s review of Odysseus Abroad and his overview of Chaudhuri’s work in the New Yorker:
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  • Colm Toibin’s foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of A Strange and Sublime Address:
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  • Sumana Roy’s essay/overview in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
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  • Deborah Levy on Chaudhuri’s essays in the New Statesman:
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  • Essay by Jonathan Coe on Chaudhuri in the London Review of Books:
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  • Neel Mukherjee on Odysseus Abroad:
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  • Saikat Majumdar’s monograph Prose of the World (Columbia University Press):
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  • Peter D McDonald’s Artefacts of Writing (Oxford University Press):
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  • Frank B Farrell’s Why Does Literature Matter? (Cornell University Press):
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  • Simon During on Chaudhuri’s The Immortals:
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  • Symposium on Chaudhuri’s writing and criticism in Caravan magazine (contributors: Anjum Hasan, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Nakul Krishna, Saikat Majumdar):
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