Sounds of nature

March 1, 2020

Has urban-dwelling ruined our sensory reception of art and nature?

Nowadays, everyday life in cities has been taken over by digital technology. There appears to be more authenticity in information one receives on their digital devices, rather than from one’s own eyes and ears.

Even in the arts, the mediated package one receives seems to be more appealing than viewing art and places directly, or hearing surs (notes) live. What the eye sees or the ear hears is now considered downright bland in comparison to the visions and sounds one is exposed to after the post-production processes. These devices have really become our eyes and ears, hence in the process also construct values against which the criteria of good and art bad, is framed. One sees people scroll their phones for weather updates, rather than experiencing the weather themselves. Once they see that the temperature is high or low, they determine whether they feel hot or cold accordingly.

Where does this all leave the art forms created in direct response to nature? Once living in a purely agricultural society, with economics tied to seasons – life was coloured by those seasons, and the responses in art too completely dovetailed. People living in urban spaces are already underexposed to the elements, and have lost the awareness and sensitivity that were considered to be the building blocks of understanding and emotional receptivity. Life patterns now revolve around office timings and work schedules of the industrial regime rather than being in tune with the sowing and harvesting of crops. Rain in cities is seen now as relief from the relentless summer or the cause of urban flooding, rather than being assessed by its impact on agricultural produce.

People associated with agriculture are at times appalled by the total lack of awareness of the weather and its effect on crops, and their concerns appear as outsiders in the cityscape where dwellers have other concerns and priorities. This must have happened to Europeans as well, at the onset of the Industrial Revolution when their life patterns began changing and a certain estrangement entered, which remains as a refrain in the art created in industrialised societies. The supreme alienation, fragmentation and disenchantment that grew out of the post WWII situation, presented a model emulated by the rest of the world, in their quest for modernity.

Although we did not go through industrial revolution, via colonial and imperial legacies we can detect similar social patterns. No corresponding changes in our manner of thinking and emotional responses took place. It was as though, something happened on its own, and placed societies like ours on the receiving end of it.

Our musical expression is integrally connected through metaphoric relationship to the various festivals that emanate from this land and its seasons. The tradition of music as it evolved over thousands of years absorbing, assimilating and then coalescing the various external influences into a unified form, till the first half of the twentieth century, did not see a divorce in this relationship, though there may have been certain phases of estrangement.

In music the various ragas like basant and bahar have been sung since times immemorial and have many facets to their inevitability. It is not only joy at the regeneration of nature but also an expression of our integration with it. This élan, the energy or force, that gives birth is celebrated all over and so basant becomes a symbolic representative of it. And since our home and habitation is this particular piece of territory, distinct from all other territories, for our emotional well-being we need to sing praises of its landscape and contours without any reservations or doubt and accept its full ownership.

These ragas with horis/dhammars have been played out and expressed, they are also compounded with others ragas as misr male and the same aesthetic emotion is evoked for example in mukhari, handol bahar, adana bahar, basant bahar to name a few. All art is about regeneration, the journey comes to an end with the lovers meeting and sealing their union with kisses, sweet and twenty.

Some of the most enduring compositions, both in raga basant and bahar are attributed to Amir Khusro. Some of these were inspired by the relationship between Nizamuddin Aulia and him, especially relating to the phase when the former was recovering from a severe illness. All this went into the making of the Indo-Muslim civilization that is our cultural bedrock.

All this might appear alien to urban dwellers, they may find it nearly impossible to relate to it and be in unison with the forces of nature. The art forms included singing and were means by which this very relationship was reinforced and reaffirmed. Its natural reason for being there was re-emphasized as nature receded to the background and became dormant, yet when we hear of it, it is rearing its head as a menace through the fear of climate change. Wherever a calamity or natural disaster occurs it is blamed on climate change and fearsome nature, uncontrollable and larger than human machinations.

It may be about time that we arrive at a new synthesis with the forces of nature. That may be happening at the level of science but in the arts nature has to be viewed against the backdrop of all the mediated levels that rest between humans and the elements.

Sounds of nature: Has urban-dwelling ruined our sensory reception of art and nature?