'Taj Mahal Foxtrot' author riffs on Mumbai's forgotten jazz age

Naresh Fernandes speaks at the Indian Summer Festival July 18 about India's history of jazz, a Cold War propaganda tool of the U.S. 

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NN: I would imagine younger jazz artistes in India have a hard time; they are subterranean to an indie scene that is in itself subcultural to Bollywood music. I can picture them seething with envy upon reading that their musical forebears, as it were, were once the toast of the city’s smart set. It’s almost a cruel irony.

Fernandes: So my book starts in the 1850s, which was a popular time for a musical performance called minstrelsy, which is a bizarre thing — its basically white folks putting on blackface to look like African-Americans. And this was particularly popular (and odd) in Bombay where white artistes would put on blackface to perform in front of brown people. And then later, opera and jazz became popular, so Bombay has always been absorbing global trends. Jazz was popular in Bombay when it was popular overseas. And then as jazz went into decline around the world and rock 'n' roll took its place, the same thing happened in Bombay.    

NN: It’s been three years since your book was published. Did it at all revive the jazz scene, at least in Mumbai?   

Fernandes: Oh, no way (laughs). If only books could do that. But, you know, it did spark a few things. Anurag Kashyap made Bombay Velvet and there was another movie: a Konkani film which was set in the same period, based on an essay that I had written. But I hope kids go back to that era and play its tunes in a new and different fashion, which is what jazz is all about; it’s picking out traditions and making them contemporary.   

NN: I was thinking about Indian historical fiction and non-fiction the other day in the context of the kind of emphatic reception that they receive both in India and overseas. Suffice it to say that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children jumpstarted this kind of occidental fetishization of historical narratives from India. We see it in the way Amitav Ghosh’s fiction, or Pankaj Mishra’s ideologically charged non-fiction, retain a cultural centrality in the anglo-American world of letters. I suspect it’s because India still remains an under-imagined or, if I conform to the Arundhati Roy school of thought, an erroneously-imagined place. What do you think?     

Fernandes: Actually my book wasn’t published abroad. And everyone who took a look at the manuscript said that this is just another American story — they see it as an American story playing out in another part of the world. So yes, there are books about jazz in China, in Japan and this, to them, is just one of the books. But they want to see Americans as being a part of the story.    

NN: I’d read last year that AMC, the producers of Breaking Bad, had picked up Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games for a cable series. And I was delighted to read early this year that Taj Mahal Foxtrot will be adapted into film as well. These are but two examples but it seems to me that of late, film studios and international festivals are warming up to more complex Indian narratives that could potentially function as correctives to the more identifiable tropes — the exotic squalor, the call centre chronicles.

Fernandes: So Bob Ezrin, who bought the rights, is not a filmmaker; he’s a music producer. He’s produced music for Pink Floyd, Nine Inch Nails and Alice In Chains. S, he was attracted to the music part of it, along with the story. Ezrin is Canadian and I’m actually going to meet him in Toronto on my way to Vancouver.  

NN: I had read somewhere that Rahul Khanna’s character in Wake Up Sid, a curmudgeonly lifestyle editor with an egregious interest in jazz, is allegedly your cinematic doppelgänger.  

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