Sound from the Ground: Pre-modern Sonic Practices in India
A pluck of the strings in the lower registers of the Rudraveena or the Tanpura produces sounds that are as plurivocal and multi-harmonic as the sounds of natural phenomena, such as thunder or rains, or heavy wind through the fields, representing a textural complexity and sonic saturation that are grounded and embedded in nature. The resonant grains in the sounds from the strings of these pre-modern instruments are often deemed desirable in traditional sound performances like Dhrupad and Khayal, to provide a situated and grounded sound, as close to natural temporality and spatiality as possible. I have shown in my earlier research (2021a, 2021b, 2022) how Ragas are reflections of natural temporalities: each Raga dedicated to a time of the day; for instance, Darbari is for midnight, and Bhairavi for early morning. The court music and devotional music-oriented instruments such as Surbahar and Nadaswaram are accommodative of intricate and often complex tonal formations. The outdoor and communal instruments like Ektara or a folk percussion instrument like Madal are also meticulously designed to produce sounds close to the ground. As sound-producing technologies and machines, these instruments have gone through innovative design developments and tunings as musicologists like Alain Daniélou have suggested (1995). As situated technologies, these instruments explicitly use natural materials. The Rudraveena‘s body is a tube made of bamboo or teak trunk attached to two large tumba resonators made from gourds. These pre-colonial, pre-modern sound-producing instruments and interfaces were conceived of and built in South Asia using indigenous technologies and pre-modern methods, in ways that destabilized the nature-society binary, contrary to the methods of European modernity. French philosopher Bruno Latour has argued (1993) that pre-modern communities made no distinctions between nature and society, while Western modernity was based on this exploitative dualism.
In the seminal treatise Natyashastra (c. 200 BC – 200 AD), Indian aesthetician Bharata discusses the uses of various sound instruments, proposing a four-fold classification of these sound-reproduction systems: tat (strings), ghan (solid), sushir (winds), and avanaddh (covered membrane). This was a systematic attempt to taxonomise sound technologies based on the type of sound-producing material, such as strings, solid body, air column, or stretched membrane, which are made to vibrate using different techniques of interfacing such as plucking, blowing, bowing, and striking. In the 1920s, the Indian physicist Dr. C. V. Raman conducted research to uncover the unique acoustic properties of Indian string and percussion instruments and the intricate technological innovations behind making them. Raman scientifically proved that the materials and techniques used in making as well as performing on these instruments result in microtonal and timbral qualities that are unique and not found in the musical instruments of the West. The custom-made curvatures of the bridge that supports the strings, and the tensile, vibrating membrane in percussive instruments like the Madal, the Dholak, and the Dhak were significant technological contributions that India made to the world of sounds. Contemporary Music Retrieval System scholars, such as Matthias Demoucron, Stephanie Weisser, and Marc Leman identify how Indian traditional sound-producing instruments are characterised by the presence of the sympathetic multiple string clusters called taraf and the curved wide bridge called jawari (often reinforced by a cotton thread), underlining the ways in which these intricate and sophisticated innovations make the sounds of Indian traditional music uniquely complex, embedded in nature, and grounded in the philosophy of multiplicity. They are beyond the analytical comprehension of today’s simpler computational algorithms based on Western equal-temperament tuning systems. This knowledge ecosystem was transmitted orally from generations to generations resulting, in multiple schools of thought and performative interpretations, and yielding agency for the many performers.
However, such non-Western sound technologies and embedded practices were often deemed “primitive,” and termed “indigenous” in the same vein as “pre-modern,” by the dominant Eurocentric sound and music culture that bore the colonial perspective of a provincial sense of superiority. Media scholar Marshal McLuhan’s seminal admission of oral systems as “primitive” is one such reflection of this colonial attitude. The invocation of the pre-modern as an inadequately developed opposition to the modern, however, is widely condemned today as European modernity’s representation of its Other. Scholars like David Mosse and Esha Shah have shown how the currency ascribed to the idea of the pre-modern (or what is otherwise loosely termed “traditional”, “primitive”, or “indigenous”) is not only founded on a binary opposition with the modern but also embedded in particular strategies of imagining a pre-colonial “primeval” past and the lived globalised present from a Eurocentric perspective, and therefore, putting in place a power structure in which modern technologies are posed as superior and capable of saving the world. These colonially positioned perceptions and views are far from being historically accurate. The usage of the prefix “pre” before “modern” should not suggest that modernity starts from a distinct temporal point and that everything prior was primitive: this, in fact, is a grossly colonial perspective that upholds Western dominance and supremacy. South Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent, housed sophisticated sound technologies, which is evident in pre-modern musical instruments such as the Rudraveena, the Surbahar, the Nadaswaram, and the Yaazh, among others, the tuning systems of the temple bells, North-East Indian wind chimes, and performative sonic accompaniments like Ghunghroo. All of these, and so many more, embody the handling of complex sonorities with innovative instrument design and tunings.
Given a more egalitarian and equitable shift in the medial perspective now, one may ponder upon the archaeology of what is commonly understood as “technology” – which is often a Western concept of linear progression, and, in essence, instrumentalised as a colonial tool of surveillance, and plunder. Indeed, if we take a historical perspective, in South Asia, the transfer and transmission of modern technologies took place as a colonialist and imperialist strategy of control, that would enable the exploitative inventorisation and governance of local resources. In India, the advent of such technological manifestations, such as railways and factories, happened through colonial models of development and profit-making that went on to primarily benefit the Raj. Western media technologies, such as recording, photography, radio, and cinema, all contributed to these administrative systems. It was only the colonial subjects who gradually hacked into these technologies and reclaimed them to produce new hybrid kinds of aesthetic practices. Of course, the Global North’s condescending approach towards the colonised South didn’t allow for an equal distribution of power, knowledge, and aesthetic understanding. That is why pre-modern sonic practices from India, like many such rich practices outside of Europe, are not considered part of the canon in the process of making a taxonomy of what is termed “tech arts”, “media arts” or “sound art” in the West. However, India has been home to some of the oldest and most time-tested technologies and practices in the visual, literary, and sonic realms, as well as in urban design, water management, and agriculture. There would be no justification for a hierarchy of knowledge systems and cultures if we listened to pre-modern and pre-colonial aesthetic practices where a pre-modernisation concept of technology existed with a grounded, community-driven and embedded vision, which was as intricate as its global counterparts, though largely ignored in Western histories of science and technology. Musical instruments are some of the most prominent examples of these technological innovations. If we unpack the dexterity with which sound-producing instruments were built in India using home-grown technologies of tuning and design, we will find that pre-modern technologies and sonic practices were as sophisticated as the technology we know today from a Western colonialist standpoint. Therefore, it makes no sense to adhere to the hierarchy of “high tech” and “low tech” which conflates the pre-modern with the primitive and to define creative practices only from a Western taxonomy of sound and media arts. Given these historical examples of artistic practices and innovations from India’s pre-modern past, sound art needs to be redefined with an aim to decolonise sonic practices, giving due credit to artists and artisans from the Global South.
Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya (2022). Sound Practices in the Global South: Co-listening to Resounding Plurilogues. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya (2021a). “Uncolonising Early Sound Recordings”. The Journal of Media Art Study and Theory Vol. 2, No. 2 (Special Issue: Sound, Colonialism, and Power).
Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya (2021b). “Unrecording Nature”, in Kuljuntausta, Petri (ed.), Sound, Art, and Climate Change. Helsinki: Frequency Association.
Daniélou, Alain (1995). Music and the Power of Sound: The Influence of Tuning and Interval on Consciousness. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.
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Demoucron, Matthias; Weisser, Stephani; and Leman, Marc (2012). “Sculpting the Sound. Timbre-Shapers in Classical Hindustani Chordophones”, in Proceedings of the 2nd CompMusic Workshop (Istanbul, Turkey, July 12-13).
Latour, Bruno (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Shah, Esha (2012). “Seeing like a subaltern – Historical ethnography of pre-modern and modern tank irrigation technology in Karnataka, India”. Water Alternatives 5(2): 507-538
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is a contemporary artist, media practitioner, researcher, and writer. Incorporating diverse media, creative technologies and research, Chattopadhyay produces works for large-scale installation and live performance addressing contemporary issues of environment and ecology, migration, race and decoloniality. Chattopadhyay has received numerous residencies, fellowships, and international awards. His sound works have been widely exhibited, performed, or presented across the globe. Chattopadhyay has an expansive body of scholarly publications in the areas of media art history, theory and aesthetics, cinema, and sound studies in leading peer-reviewed journals. He is the author of four books, The Nomadic Listener (2020), The Auditory Setting (2021), Between the Headphones (2021), and Sound Practices in the Global South (2022). Chattopadhyay holds a PhD in Artistic Research and Sound Studies from the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Leiden University, and a Master of Arts in New Media from the Faculty of Arts, Aarhus University. Chattopadhyay is currently a Visiting Professor at the Academy of Art and Design, Basel.