Kolkata Soundscapes

Conversation with Basudev Banerjee and Subir

Basudev Banerjee (Horbola)

Artist1. “We have a negative mindset about Horbola. By horbola, we usually mean a set of artists who can echo the various types of sound (everyday mechanical sounds) through their voices and enact it with their hands and faces. These artists are usually addressed with humour as if it is not a proper performing art. The artists are often asked to imitate the sound of a bus, the sound of fire crackers and so on. That the art can have its own space, own appeal and own importance are never thought of. The reason behind this is that this art form is very non-glamorous, it was not practiced popularly and there was no collective effort to promote it. To talk about the lost sounds of Kolkata the first thing that comes to my mind is that of the tram, something that will very soon stop plying on the roads of this city. We have included this sound in few of our scripts to give the audience a feel of travelling in a tram. Not only the sound of a tram but another lost sound that we have included in the script is that of the steam engine. Basudev babu, who specializes in it, will be able to tell you better. We keep a combination of various sounds in our scripts such as the ‘koo-jhik-jhik’ of steam engine, chirping of birds and other natural sounds found in rural areas, the sound that a rocket makes while taking off for the outer space and many more.”


Have you heard all the sounds that you can echo through your voices?

Artist1. “We have heard all these sounds and seen how the creatures make them otherwise it will be very difficult for us to imitate them. Also it will be an insult to the art form if you don’t know the original sound well.”


For example with each every new song there is a new kind of music, what happens in your case?

Artist1.  “Well there might be a change of the music but it’s notations and appeal remain the same. Similar case takes place when the horbola artists learn to imitate a new sound through their voices.”


Have you ever created any sound that is not very familiar to the daily sounds that we hear, like the imaginary sound (mentioned previously) you make for rockets?

Artist1.  “I don’t know whether this will be contextual or not but there are many artists who can create voices of many people at the same time. For example, a woman talking in the voice of a man is not usual to our ears, but horbola artists can do that. We have many artists in our group who can make such sounds. You will understand more once you get to see and hear.Basically horbola is an art where one can play with various sounds.  As is known by most people, it was the great poet, Rabindranath Tagore who named us ‘horbola’ which means someone who can make various sounds.”


Do you know that the word ‘horbola’ exists in hindi vocabulary as well? The use is found in one of the poems on Jhansi-ki-rani where it is used as ‘harbol’. The meaning might vary from the bengali one since in hindi it refers t the group of story-tellers who roam around narrating tales.

Speaker2. “Yes, even I think so. We too have horbolas on small poems which we call ‘horbola-kobita’ or ‘kobita-horbola’. Tagore’s poems form a part of our scripts where we try to make the words used by him come alive with sound. This is done mainly to create a feel of the scenario in which the poem was written.”


Can you give one example?

Artist1.  “If you listen to our CD, which is divided into many parts, you will find many such examples.”


I was really young when I saw horbola performances, so I don’t remember properly.

Artist1. “Like I said, horbola is a dying art form. To make it popular and appealing to our viewers and if the they are interested, we often teach them a few tricks by conducting workshops after our shows, just like magicians teach magic. This makes the art form interesting to everyone since you can practice while going back home from the show. This also helps us in getting more shows since if our viewers enjoy doing the art form they will call us back again. Our sole motto is to make this art form popular and thus save it from getting lost.”

Artist2. “Sumit da since you hail from my locality, you might remember that there was a point of time when ‘geeti-alekhya’ was in vogue in almost all the functions held during pujo. But slowly that became unpopular and made way for ‘shruti-natok’. Gradually its popularity got converted to Badal Sarkar’s third theatre. Third theatre made way for street-plays and this is how one form of art became unpopular and made way for new ones. But the effort remains the same though these changes take place. It is only our art form which never went through such gradual changes.”

Artist1.  “That we are capable of performing the art form gives us a very good feeling and that is what makes us different from others. This helps us go forward with it.”

Artist2. “I have learnt many rural sounds without visiting villages such as the sound of the cricket. Nobody taught me the procedure.”

Artist1. (about artist2). “He doesn’t have a teacher. He is totally self-taught. He is the own guru of his gurukul.”

Artist1. “Health is very important in this art form. If you are not in proper health you won’t be able to perform. So it very important to stay fit. Also an empty stomach is ideal for performing this. So though this art form is a neglected one but it’s not that easy to perform as people think it to be.”

Speaker1. “That is one of my important queries about the art form. Why do you think this is neglected and unpopular?”

Artist1. “The difference between ‘horbola’ and any other art form is similar to that between cricket and ‘kho-kho’. Not a single kid belonging to the present generation is familiar with the sport ‘kho-kho’ because of its unpopularity.”

Artist2. “If anyone reads out a passage from some popular novels or sings a song, just like any accompanying musical instruments we can provide them with various sounds.”

Artist1. “Basically he is talking about synchronizing different sounds with every kind of situations such as two lovers talking or chirping of birds. Many years ago when he started he was really young and he always tried to come up with known or unknown sounds. Because of his effort people came to know about the art form and those who liked him asked him to perform. He became so popular that people started calling him ‘Horbola Basu’. He never felt ashamed of it since in a way it made the art form popular which was his sole motto.”