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Azaan Amplified: The Politics of sound in India

A survey of neighbourhoods will testify to the escalating noise levels that accompany increasing instances of public worship Photograph: (Others)

Kolkata, West Bengal, India Apr 24, 2017, 01.09 PM (IST) Lakshmi Subramanian

The call to the faithful is no longer just that; amplified, it seems to have tested the patience of a sleep-deprived celebrity singer who expressed outrage at this sonic invasion, terming it gundagardi politics, no less. His views have generated sympathy and scorn in equal measure. Responses have been predictable, ranging from the sublime to the obvious; we have had touching affirmations of India’s syncretic listening practices: The azaan, the ghanta and the church-bell collapsing seamlessly into aural bliss followed by angry protests about allowing some minorities to enjoy unspeakable privileges! 

How seriously do we take these? Living in a soundscape where we all suffer from cognitive dissonance, do we see the reactions of the celebrity singer as the fall out of schizophonia? Or do we see it as a calibrated apprehension of certain ritual sound practices amplified as noise to be abhorred? And in which case does it become an issue of what constitutes appropriate sound, especially, in a public domain? I ask these questions not to add to the raging polemic but merely to take a closer look at the politics of sound in India both historically as well as in the times we live in now.

Amplification and technology were not easy or immediate choices for either ritual congregational practices or secular performances in India. In the case of the azaan, broadcasting the call to pray and also to communicate special prayers and instructions to a large flock through a loud speaker happened around the 1920’s. It became a matter of some debate and deliberation both among the leaders of the community as well as of the British rulers. The colonial rulers by this time had put in place a series of measures to restrict space and speech under the category of offences called "religious insults". 

 

Muslim divines were uncomfortable about the loudspeaker and concerns were expressed over the status of the voice that emanated from the loudspeaker
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It is also a fact that, by and large, azaan in British India, unlike Buddhist drumming in Ceylon, was not something that warranted regulation. In the few cases when there were complaints about noise, the issue was almost always resolved by local mediation with contesting parties who were familiar with each other’s religious practices. More often than not, the parties came with perceptions of what was proper noise in a public domain. 

Ironically, Muslim divines were uncomfortable about the loudspeaker and concerns were expressed over the status of the voice that emanated from the loudspeaker – was it that of a machine or that of a human? 

Recent writings have drawn attention to the fact that it was ironically the non-Muslim responses to the amplified azaan that convinced the faithful of its emotive powers. Muslims saw it as a force that their antagonists could regulate only by treating it as noise. This brings to the fore the question of treating ritual based sonic practice as noise that then had to be regulated as well as made to conform to standards of acceptability. 

Is this what the present controversy is all about? Are we then moving away from possibilities of informal accommodation to a more regular regime of subjecting some, if not all, sonic ritual practices to scrutiny and regulation? Where would that leave more secular practices of wedding celebrations, of revelry in civic festivals and how would that be brought under the category of acceptable noise in the public domain? 

Clearly, legislating against sound pollution has not helped; even a rudimentary ethnographic survey of neighbourhoods will testify to the escalating noise levels that accompany increasing instances of public worship – of multiple versions of Tara, of Ganesh, Loknath Baba in Kolkata, of celebratory Kavad processions in North India replete with bands and recorded, amplified music. There has been no protest, and while one may well argue that these features are not diurnal as the regular azaan call is, the question remains about the legality of noise in the public domain and how this can be framed. 

It may well be useful to ask whether we are witnessing a newly emerging demand for acoustic privacy that does not recognise or appreciate the subjectivity of sound perception
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Can this be done without the obvious communal slant? If not, then it is easy enough to feel scepticism about the issue at hand and see this as one more instance of smoke and mirrors to ratchet up divisive trends in our social milieu. 

The more serious aspect of the contemporary urban condition, in fact, lies in the nature of the sensorial assault that we face in our cities and towns. Without for a minute making a case for aural regimentation, it may well be useful to ask whether we are witnessing a newly emerging demand for acoustic privacy that does not recognise or appreciate the subjectivity of sound perception, in much the same way that Europe witnessed in the beginning of the 20th century. This was a time when Frenchmen began to complain of the ringing of bells in the early morning, laying claims to one’s morning sleep. Then, there were the Dutchmen who began to deal with the problems of gramophone noise, and a concerted attempt at noise abatement was made. 

India has had its moments of aural governance – we have had legislation against sound pollution but this has been ineffective in terms of enforcement. It is perhaps because everyone claims the right to make noise, in private or in public, and because an exaggerated oral/aural culture helped, especially, by the runaway success of the mobile technology, a degree of normalisation of noise. 

There are no clear answers but if the present controversy helps move the debate beyond the narrow confines of communal argumentation, we may perhaps be witnessing a much needed discussion on noise and nuisance, on mechanical and non-mechanical sound, on the appropriate devices to measure it and finally to reflect on how to deal with the obvious conundrum that some one’s idea of relaxation may well be another’s idea of punishment. 

(WION)

Lakshmi Subramanian

Lakshmi Subramanian is professor of history, Centre for Studies in Social Science, Kolkata.

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