We find several connections of sound to the environment: Radha Kapuria

Down To Earth speaks to Durham University academic and author about the influence of the environment on music, visual and the performing arts

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Saturday 10 February 2024

A group of Sikh musicians play traditional instruments like the Dhadd (a small drum) and the Sarang (a stringed instrument) in the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) Complex in Amritsar, Punjab, northern India. The two instruments are used in the Vaar genre of Sikh and Punjabi music which usually consists of heroic ballads. Photo: iStock

The climate emergency continues on its march against the planet. This week saw scientists at the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service declare that not only has the world experienced a 12-month period where temperatures have exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C), but January 2024 has been the hottest January on record.

The crisis has unleashed a series of changes across our planet. Our food security is under threat. As is our water supply and clean air. Our non-human counterparts are vanishing in huge numbers. The Age of the Anthropocene is already here, as scientists confirmed last year.

But even our artistic and cultural pursuits may not be left untouched, if researchers are to be believed. The instruments that we have used for centuries, take inspiration from sounds in Nature. Many are manufactured using natural materials which are now in danger due to the climate change around us.

Radha Kapuria is a historian, academic and ethnomusicologist. The Assistant Professor in South Asian History in the Department of History at the University of Durham in northern England came out with her first book, Music in Colonial Punjab: Courtesans, Bards, and Connoisseurs, 1800-1947, last year.

The book is the first social history of musical life in undivided Punjab (which then included Pakistan’s Punjab province, the Islamabad Capital Territory, India’s Punjab state, the states of Haryana, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh as well as the Union Territory of Chandigarh).

The timeline of the book begins in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Empire and continues as the British take over it in 1849.

Kapuria spoke to Down To Earth about Nature and sound. The idea of the ecology and environment needs to be a bit more wide-ranging and all-embracing, she said. Nature and sound are a new field of research. But we will see a lot more of it in the coming years given the march of the climate crisis, she added. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai (RG): It was fascinating to read Ecology, Music and Community—Exploring Performance in South Asia (2022) edited by you and Priyanka Basu. Has this relationship between ecology and the visual and performing arts in South Asia been covered in older scholarship? Or is it only now that this is being done, given the Anthropocene?

Radha Kapuria (RK): There has been some scholarship on ecology, music, and performance in the context of South Asia. Most prominently, we have ethnomusicologist Stefan Fiol’s research on the Garhwal region and the music of communities in the mountains.

But I do believe I am right when I say that Ecology, Music and Community… is the first collection of essays where, under the stewardship of my co-editor Dr Priyanka Basu at King’s College London, a group of South Asianists have tried to collectively think about the relationship of the sonic, visual, and performing arts to the environment.

Indeed, this is an outcome of the advent of the Anthropocene. It is definitely something we will see more of. There are people who are doing research on this even as we speak.

With climate change and the pandemic, this has become even more important. It is a relatively new field of research and it is high time it took off.

RG: The essays in Ecology, Music and Community—Exploring Performance in South Asia present fascinating examples of the influence of ecology on South Asian music: For instance, the Kolkata tanpura and the drums in Kerala. Would it be fair to say that natural sounds have been the inspiration for musical instruments in most human cultures before the arrival of artificial acoustics?

RK: Yes. Nature has always shaped how our musical instruments have sounded. 

As Buddhaditya Bhattacharya’s essay in Ecology, Music and Community… suggests, the shifting sizes of gourds does impact the resonance that tanpuras produce. Climate change’s impact on gourd crops would thus affect how our sounds are produced. Outside India, scholars like Jennifer Post are studying the impact of environmental change on the production of musical instruments. Post’s recent work also reveals how the Kazakh pastoralist communities of western Mongolia have been creating songs concerned with preserving both ecological biodiversity and human well-being during these times of ecological change.

This is an example of the direct impact of environmental factors on music and dance. We realise how important Nature has been to the visual and performing arts when such changes happen.

Paolo Pacciolla’s essay on representations of rain and rain sounds on drumming practices in India shows that this has been the case for a really long time. He dives deep into the ancient texts to find out more about drumming in centuries past. These ancient texts suggest how important the sounds of rain and running water are to drumming practices.

We find several connections of sound to the environment. This also opens up questions of how shifts in industrialisation and globalisation change the environment and sound.

Radha Kapuria, author and academic. Photo: Durham University 

In his famous book The Soundscape, R Murray Schafer was the first to explore how the advent of industrialisation in the West paved the way for “sound imperialism” which radically changed our sonic environments.

Even in South Asia, anthropogenic changes to the environment influence how we understand the world around us.

I am currently finalising a project titled Punjab Sounds with Dr Vebhuti Duggal of Ambedkar University, Delhi. It has an interesting paper by Dr Sakoon Singh from Punjabi University Chandigarh which looks at the sounds produced by objects like the ghara (clay pitcher) in Punjabi folklore.

It also looks at how the sounds related to pottery and other rural professions are part of our folk poetry as well. So that is another track of research.

RG: The essays also offer perspectives and insights on the intersection between ecology, music, dance and historically marginalised groups including women, peasants and artisans. Do you plan new research into these themes?

RK: Marginalised groups are an abiding interest of mine. My book, Music in Colonial Punjab: Courtesans, Bards, and Connoisseurs, 1800-1947, based on my PhD research, looks at groups like the Mirasis (traditional bards in northern South Asia) and female performers like tawaifs and courtesans during the colonial period.

There is definitely an interest in marginalised groups. But we do need to see how the environment and ecology impacts the musical output and repertoires of these groups as well.

Like Amitav Ghosh has said in The Great Derangement, this needs to be an urgent concern for all intellectuals, scholars and researchers. It is, in fact, too late in the day that we have started thinking about these things.

The idea of the ecology and environment needs to be a bit more wide-ranging and all-embracing. For instance, in Punjab, the ill-effects of the Green Revolution have resulted in phenomena like Bathinda’s ‘Cancer Train’. This also impacts folklore. Folk songs are being created around these shifts. The year-long Farmers’ Protests on the borders of Delhi in 2020-21 were the most significant as there was so much musical output and production on the subject of agriculture.

But yes, we need to think more holistically. Intersectionality needs to be urgently used to relate to the environment as well, so we can bring in that wider non-human perspective.

Traditional musicians play Chenda drums and cymbals during the Thrissur Pooram festival in Thrissur, Kerala, southern India. Photo: iStock

RG: Music is powerful. Can it be used as a tool to quicken the pace of the debate on the climate emergency?

RK: If something enters the realm of popular culture — say there are enough musicians talking about the trauma of climate change and what is going to happen to the planet — I am sure there can be a change.

Currently, there are only a few of them. But in 10 years, I can foresee that number increasing given the drastic impact of climate change. Like Amitav Ghosh says, once the water rises above us, this will be the theme of a lot of popular music and folklore in both, urban and rural areas.

Some people are already researching along these lines. We just need to connect with them and make that contact.

RG: What new insights does your latest book offer about ecology and music in colonial Punjab? How did the various geoscapes of the province – its rivers, its deserts, the Salt Range – influence or continue to influence its music?

RK: This is a question that I did not explore, to the detriment of the book. That is because as historians, we research on cultural, social, environmental or regional history. I tried to tick three of those boxes – social, cultural and regional. I have not looked at how the environment impacted music in colonial Punjab. This was more an idea that emerged after the PhD and it found an outcome in the paper Singing the River in Punjab: Poetry, Performance and Folklore, authored by me and Naresh Kumar of Kamala Nehru College. But there is a lot more to explore on that front.

The environment and ecology figures in Music in Colonial Punjab: Courtesans, Bards, and Connoisseurs, 1800-1947 in so far as it looks at how the agricultural landscape of Punjab changed with colonialism. Many areas, especially in West Punjab, which were not under the plough were brought under agriculture.

The historian David Gilmartin has written about how the Indus Basin was reimagined and changed under British colonialism in his book Blood and Water: The Indus River Basin in Modern History (2015). Prof Neeladri Bhattacharya has also looked at how shifts in colonial policy changed the folklore produced by the Mirasis of the region to be more in line with what the colonial master would have liked to hear in his book The Great Agrarian Conquest.

My book is in a similar vein. It is a social history on how ideas of the environment affected human perceptions about Punjab as a region of folk culture — of agriculture and not culture. It is very much in the old mould where historians and ethnomusicologists outside the field of environmental history tend to give it short shrift. But this is the next step — to look at how environment is not external to our social, cultural, and political histories.

My upcoming co-edited book Punjab Sounds looks at environment in the context of sound and the region. It looks at how one identifies and distinguishes a sound as being from the Punjab. In that way, this idea of the landscape and the ecology very much informs our investigation into our sonic pasts. 

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