A couple of Sundays ago, my flatmate and I stepped out to pick up a few things from the medical store. It was an hour before residents, dutifully following the Prime Minister’s words, came out to display diyas at their windows. On our way, as we crossed a dark street where the lights had been switched off, we could hear the azaan. It sounded otherworldly. I have a recording of it—which I ruined by talking loudly to my flatmate. But you can still feel the sound when you hear the recording, reverberating and bouncing off buildings, with little else noise to compete with, except some stray vehicles passing by, assuming a whole new, never-heard-before dimension.
I haven’t been to the main road since. I have been mostly at home—like everyone else. This has become the ‘new normal’—the lockdown began on 25 March, but many of us have been been social distancing from a week earlier—so the novelty maybe wearing off a bit. But in the initial days, I found myself being more alert to sounds: like a girl doing her riyaaz from a neighbouring house. Or the man in the next building, who has found a substitute for his evening walks by circling his compound with a purpose. He makes his business calls as he does this. Most of the times I don’t see him, I hear his loud, booming voice. Or the bread and egg vendor who comes in a cycle twice a day (8ish in the morning; and 7:30 in the evening). He rings the cycle bell and everyone in the neighbourhood knows that he is here.
When I heard birdsong one morning, it was so extraordinary that I recorded it on my phone—not something that I normally do. They start really early—or late, depending on your sleep cycle. Sometimes, late at night, when I am watching a movie that has chirping of birds built into its sound design, it becomes impossible to tell them apart. I found out later that a group called Bird Count India is inviting entries of audio recordings of birds recorded during the lockdown.
This is something that is happening all over the world. Closed Facebook groups of audiophiles and sound professionals are exploding with stuff recorded during the lockdown: the sound of a lone vehicle passing through a highway in Germany; the sound of rains in Netherlands. Cities and Memory, a global sound project, launched a crowdsourced campaign to map the massive shift in terms of how cities are sounding during the pandemic.
Closer home, Delhi based filmmaker Pallavi Paul is helming a similar project in collaboration with the Sunaparanta art gallery, Goa, titled “Share Your Quiet”, inviting people from across the world to send short audio clips recorded at their homes: someone playing a piano at her home in Mysore, birdsong from Australia. Paul’s work has political undertones, and she spoke to me over the phone about why audio has become a particularly potent element during the pandemic, and in some ways, is more transcendental than video.
“When you are recording sitting in one place, you realise that sounds from things you weren’t even consciously tuning into have leaked into the recording. So there is a certain kind of far-reaching leakiness to sound, which we find sensorially very moving,” she says, “When you playback and hear it, there is an element of discovery, which maybe the visual isn’t being able to give us right now, given the only visuals we can access is the ones from our homes. Or if you are video chatting with your friends your family, the way you frame the visual on your screen already imposed a certain kind of limit.”
I had reached out to some of the artists who work with sound to check what they are up to, how they are engaging with this new sonic environment. It’s not like the entire community is recording the lockdown. Some of them are. But I haven’t spoken to many others who might be doing it.
A friend put me in touch with Jayesh Malani, a musician who recorded a piece for his EP in the corridor of his building: a 36 floor high-rise in the Mumbai suburbs. Malani lives in the 10th floor, and the passage became an interesting space to record. It was not only horizontal, but with stairs running up and down, it was also vertical. It created a surreal effect that he described as “like playing in a church”. Malani says he doubts he would have made this discovery if it wasn’t for the lockdown. A saxophone player, who also plays the guitar and khartal, he performs thrice a week in a bar at the Trident. He told me that he feels a kind of energy when he is performing regularly, and when suddenly when he wasn’t after the lockdown, it was frustrating.
Sound designer Ateesh Chattopadhyay posted on Facebook about how his recorder inadvertently captured a funny little scene from a neighbouring house: Wife scolding husband for bringing home bad parwal. It’s as if you are being privy to a domestic scene without being there.
Malani normally rehearses in his room, and sometimes uses his hall. But this time he went “a notch higher” when he stepped out of the main door and started playing in the corridor. When he hit the first note, it felt electric. After discovering the space, it struck him that he could call a friend from the same building, who played the harmonium, to collaborate with him. A take on Tezeta by Mulatu Astatke, the father of Ethio-Jazz, it’s a moody melody, which has the quality Malani is talking about. The video shows the two musicians performing in that passage, silhouettes in the falling light, against a view of the city. Malani plans to release it in May, and use the space to record other tracks as well.
I didn’t plan to speak to a musician for this piece, but talking to sound professionals made me realise that it’s as much about spaces as it is about sound. And Malani’s strange story fit right in. The first person who I got in touch with for the piece was Ateesh Chattopadhyay, a batchmate from school and a National award-winning sound designer based in Mumbai. We are friends on Facebook, and I noticed his status updates. One, posted on the ‘Junta Curfew’ day, was a call to “fellow recordists” to record the city during lockdown. A few days later, he posted something about how his recorder inadvertently captured a funny little scene from a neighbouring house: Wife scolding husband for bringing home bad parwal. It’s as if you are being privy to a domestic scene without being there. You could say that it’s an invasion of privacy, but it’s not like Ateesh is going to use that recording for a film. Maybe he will recreate it someday in a film, he says. Now he has a real reference of how such how it can play out aurally.
Many sound designers follow this mantra: Record everything you can, even a fart. Nothing goes to waste. Ateesh, who has worked as a sound effects editor in Udta Punjab and a dialogue editor in the web series Panchayat, has been a compulsive sound recordist for over a decade. Whenever he would travel—including trips from his hometown Kolkata to Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore in second class trains—he would take a recorder along. In the winter of 2008, he went to McCluskieganj, a small, non touristy hill town in Jharkhand. He didn’t own a recorder then, so he borrowed a friend’s. Cut to 2016, when he is a sound designer in Mumbai, working in A Death in the Gunj, directed by Konkona Sen Sharma, set in McCluskieganj.
Vipul Nigam, a Sound Engineering and Designing student at SRFTI, has been sneaking out early in the morning to the park across his house to place his recorder there, only to climb up back to his balcony and watch over it, lest it gets stolen.
By that logic, you could say, that only films set during the pandemic, in Mumbai or other cities in India, would be able to use these sounds recorded during the lockdown. Why would they be needed for a film not set during the pandemic? But here’s the thing—and it gets a little technical here. Multiple tracks go into the making of a film’s audio soundtrack. In normal times when you record a bird chirping in Mumbai, it’ll marred by the background noise of traffic–an uninvited guest for sound designers when they are trying to record intimate sounds in the city. The lockdown has provided a rare opportunity to record clean, individual sounds, tracks that can be used in a film set in everyday Mumbai by combining them with the track of noisy traffic sound. The overall result will be more refined, because the quality of the bird chirping recorded during the lockdown will be better than the quality of the bird chirping recorded in other times.
There are, of course, sound libraries from where you can buy or download samples of ambient sounds. But most of these recordings are done in foreign countries. Many sound designers working today want to be more authentic. They have their own sound banks—hard discs of many terabytes—to which they keep adding. (There is also a healthy file-sharing culture among the members of the community). Vipul Nigam (pictured in the lead image), a 3rd year student of Sound Engineering and Designing at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, has created a project, ESEFEX India, that records Indian ambient sounds and makes them available free of cost. Some of it is already online. He finds the existing ones problematic as they sound like “something recorded by a tourist.” Nigam lives in Gurgaon, 2 kilometres away from a highway that connects Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan: one of the busiest in the country. He recalls being stuck in traffic as late as 4 am. There is, apart from that, always “the constant low rumble of heavy machinery”. “The minutest of sounds are audible now,” he says. These days, he can hear sounds and guess its pathway: someone cooking in their house, four lanes away; people washing utensils in the terrace of a house, two roads away.
Nigam has been sneaking out early in the morning to the park across his house to place his recorder there, only to climb up back to his balcony to watch over it, lest it gets stolen. Labelled under Ambience in the Time of Corona, one of the clips he has uploaded in his website is of dog barks early in the morning, which echoes over a Gurgaon neighbourhood, giving you a sense of the streetscape. “When I took the recorder back home and played it, it sounded like I am in an amphitheater,” he says. You can listen to it here. Having done a number of recordings outdoors, he wants to record domestic sounds next. “An Indian apartment or a kitchen sound different than in the West: the furniture is different, the utensils are different,” he says. For this he doesn’t need to step out at all.
Ankita Purkayastha—who has worked as a dialogue/sound editor in films such as Raees and assistant location recordist in Veere Di Wedding—started recording from her backyard in Goregaon, Mumbai after she saw Ateesh’s Facebook post. Until a week ago, she was recording the same space thrice a day at fixed time slots. Purkayastha says she can hear birds she hasn’t heard from her house before: roosters, robins and sparrows. But what she’s been most interested is the 25 floor high-rise next to her place. Recording the building, angling her device in its direction at different times of the day has given her a chance to study the spatial nature of sound. She can make out that the tonality of someone speaking in the 7th floor differs from the tonality of someone speaking in the second. “I can hear the nice reverbs and echoes from the building: the actual acoustic of people talking. It gives me an idea of how to later create something of a similar environment,” she says.
Initially, my story’s focus was on how the sound designers can use the recordings in films, if they have found something that they can add to their arsenal. But I realised that for certain people, it’s something more… existential. According to Ateesh, it’s as natural for him to record as for a photographer to take pictures (He recorded every anti-CAA-NRC protest he attended). Both are the means to an end: to preserve a time, capture a moment in history. “No matter how many pictures you would have seen of the day India’s independence, when you hear Nehru’s speech, it’s a lot more alive,” he says.
“I’m recording a time when people are dying in this country, and in the world, just like any other time when I was happy and younger, when I was roaming around the country, when I went to places I had never gone before, I have been recording. So this is something that will just be a witness to me. That I am here. I have gone through this. This is where I was staying and that is the place that I have preserved,” he says. The mood quickly becomes more grave. “If I was staying somewhere else, and in a different economic condition, which floor I am in, it would have sounded like something else. Everything will change around me. I am stuck where I am, I can’t go anywhere else.”
Like many freelancers who don’t know when it will be safe to get back to work, a cloud of uncertainty looms over his life. “Everyone’s work has stopped….”, he told me. “A huge number of people like us, who haven’t grown up in this city… They send money home. There is no PF. We work really hard and earn little money. We are not as unfortunate as the daily wage labourers. But within the comfort of this class privilege there is still this whole group of us who are ultimately back calculating, that Okay I have these many days. After that I will run out.”