Kolkata Soundscapes

Religious Sounds

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Kolkata is a city of moments; moments of joy and moments of derision, moments of absolute complacency and moments of uproarious revolution, of invigorating unification and depressing isolation, of caprice and wisdom, of nerve-racking clamour and lulling quietude. These moments are an assault on the senses as well as gratification of the same; both the sense of smell and the sense of sight but remarkably, also the sense of hearing.

Sounds in Kolkata are not only numerous but also diverse. They are an integral part of the conundrum that is the city of Kolkata. Religious sounds, amidst other varieties, form a great chunk of the city’s soundscape.  In Kolkata, religion is as much a part of the city as its trams, its bharer cha and its intellectual repartee.  What is interesting is how different religions in this city have amalgamated to result in a potpourri of resonances.

My journey to discover the religious sounds of my beloved city began one early morning after waking up to the call of the azan; the Islamic call for prayer that is cried out by the muazzin five times a day. A stroll down to the nearest Ganga ghat revealed to me the sounds of numerous people chanting  Sanskrit  mantras while performing their morning ablutions. A little later on and a little further away, tolling of church bells were heard, summoning the faithful for Mass.  Notes of Gurbani were also heard wafting through the streets of Kolkata throughout the day. A visit to the nearest temple during aarti divulged sounds like chanting of mantras, jangling of the bells and rhythmic clanking of kansor.

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It is fascinating to note how religious sounds in this megacity are not just limited to religious places of worship: Kirtaniyas begging for alms, along the lanes and bylanes of Kolkata, singing kirtans and playing the cymbals and the mridangam; bhajans sung in almost every household; ululating during pujas and the blowing of the conch every evening.

One of the most enthralling aspects about religious sounds is that although essentially they represent sentiments pertaining to piety and bliss and epitomize tranquillity and bliss, there are several religious sounds that are associated with morbid events, such as death, as well. For instance, a trip down Keoratola Ghat brought to my ears the chant of “bolo hari, hari bol”. It is a rhythmic prayer invoking the gods to ensure that the deceased’s soul reaches the heavens.

Sounds often dictate our actions and while some of us are aware of some of it, others actions have become instinctive. A case in point is Muslim women. Muslim women automatically cover their heads whenever the call of azan is sounded.  People who are lying down immediately sit up, as a sign of respect, on hearing blowing of the conch which indicates that the evening aarti is being performed.

What follows is a collection of the most common religious sounds of Kolkata. To the casual browser, these may be just sounds while in reality they are a glimpse into the very soul of Kolkata.