Music, Noise and Reimagining South Asia

by Prof. Sasanka Perera

On 4th December 2011, I went to see the South Asian Band Festival hosted by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Ministry of External Affairs and Seher   at Purana Quila, Delhi. On my part, it took quite an effort: to travel through the Delhi traffic in the evening, sitting on a motorcycle and eating the dust and the smog for more than an hour. Besides, it was somewhat chilly as well. But I assumed that the spectacle that awaited me would provide warmth for my body if not for my soul. I assumed so given the cultural variation South Asia as a region has to offer.

Purana Quila was an excellent choice for the event: an ancient, imposing and elegant site that had seen better days now lay in ruins. Curious people walked in and out of it all day long, not necessarily mindful of its place in history. It was the same this evening; but the enthusiasm of the youth was electrifying. They were clearly having fun with the ‘music.’ Some were moving their bodies to the pulse of the predictable beat. Lights lit up the walls of the old fort, and a selected few trees. I guess that the deities in those trees must have fled in the midst of this chaos and noise as their lives in the heyday of the Quila would not have trained them for this. But then, welcome to contemporary times and present day Delhi. Simulated smoke, another very unimaginative South Asian stage devise was emanating from the stage amidst the blaze of color; I wondered if this was some sort of an exorcism where the idea was to expel demons who were being a nuisance in Delhi. But sarcasm apart, the idea of infusing the ancient in place and the contemporary in practice was an excellent idea, and it worked well in so far as it went. The remnants of the past do not always have to be hands-off the cultural artifacts that must be gazed at from a distant. They can be, as in this case, a lived part of contemporary everyday life which adds its own elegance, part of which comes from the past and the rest from the present. Purana Quila on this occasion became a kind of visual poem that was recited in the chilly night under the moon that had nothing to do with the music; it had to do with the nature of the place and its momentary transformation.

I was very intrigued by the way the notion of ‘South Asia’ was imagined and manifested in the show. In the imagination of Seher, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Ministry of External Affairs South Asia was a very different animal altogether than what the official voices usually say. In this imagination, Myanmar is also South Asian as the ‘Metal Zone Oasis Band’ from that country took part in the show.  So let us all welcome Myanmar to SAARC. On the other hand, all non-Indian bands were introduced as from this country or that, which we are quite used to. So, ‘Zeb and Haniya’ supposedly represented Pakistan while ‘Kingdom Hum’ represented Bhutan and ‘Robin and the New Revolution’ represented Nepal. In this categorization and politics of representation, somehow it was deemed possible for a single band to represent an entire country in all its variations in music, culture and politics. However, when it came to India, this limited sense of South Asia expanded quite a lot; in that context, the local and the regional were emphasized. So the ‘Indian’ bands were specifically introduced as from Mumbai (Petri Dish Project), Mizoram (Boomerang), New Delhi (Advita), Cochin (Mother Jane), Chennai (Junkyard Groove)  and so on.  But for some inexplicable reason, Salim and Sulaiman was presented as from India. In their case, any sense of regionalism was expelled; the burden of representing the whole of India in all its extreme complexities were on the duo’s rocking shoulders.

Now we come to the music. I am not a musician. But I have a sense of music and a very electric taste in it. I expect music to talk to me, allow me to mediate, disturb me and so on; I do not expect it to shout to me even when it comes to rock which I sometimes listen to. The problem I had with the music I heard at Purana Quila had to do with its shocking lack of variation despite coming from countries and regions with very rich traditions in both ancient and contemporary music. In general, it was sheer noise for me. Without exaggeration, I could not discern much of a difference between the Delhi traffic I had come through and was dreading to go through again and what was being played on stage. It was undifferentiated and undiluted noise, and I cursed myself for not bringing my toilet paper to block my aging ears. But the large number of young people milling around were thoroughly enjoying the beat and the noise. It seemed to speak to them and with them in one voice just as much as it did not speak to me; it moved them; it made them seemingly happy.

In the midst of this noise/music, nationalism was played out on a very different level than what one usually sees in regional cricket matches. The distinctly identifiable Nepali national flags were waved in the air by the audience when the Nepali, Sri Lankan and Indian bands were playing. And the same could be seen with regard to the Indian flags as well as the thousands of spectators from Delhi itself. For them, ‘nations’ however they may be defined, seemed to matter less than the noise, which I appreciated. At  that  time, entities like SAARC still have not been able to open regional borders for relatively free travel and at times that nationalisms in the region are entrenching themselves and becoming more and more exclusive, here, like the noise itself, nations seemed to have become undifferentiated and their borders diluted. They were all drowned and made invisible in the noise.

My grouse with this experience quite simply is this: can’t these bands  be interested in producing a contemporary music  by fusing and borrowing from the multiplicity of old and more recent traditions of music that the region so readily offers? Can’t it still be a kind of music that could speak to the youth across the region, which could move them equally well? Does it necessarily have to be this kind of undifferentiated noise and its accompanying cultural paraphernalia and practices that are so unimaginatively simulated on the basis of a few North American and Western European models?  For that, what is needed is an imagination in innovation and an imagination in taste. Right now, most of us have become poor suckers for the free flow of cultural practices and objects through globalization from the global north. In that context, we have mostly become mere recipients and not innovators; we are satisfied with the most basic of simulated practices and have forgotten to demand for something better.

And I continue to regret that I forgot to take my toilet paper to the show.

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One comment

  1. I have no sense of music but I like to listen it loud on my devices. However, it seems to me that your visual experience was quite a treat. Life’s a curate’s egg. I wish you get distinctive bands performing the next time.

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