The Call of the Coppersmith Barbet

All afternoon the Coppersmith Barbet on the fig tree beside the river had been tonking away: tonk . . . tonk . . . tonk . . . , his call reverberated over the steely-still waters of the Mahanadi, while like a skillful ventriloquist the bird hid behind the large green leaves far from the inquisitive eyes of humans. Only the sound floated about. From where I sit I can see miles and miles of water; little wonder this is Mahanadi, the great river, the lifeblood of Orissa! A few miles off the trees I can see the rising concrete structure of the Hirakud dam in the district of Burla. The waters are stopped by the massive structure and canalized for purposes of generating electricity and to irrigate large areas of otherwise dry terrain. Now the river flows into the evening as darkness starts to descend slowly. One by one an array of lights come alive piercing the sky and water like arrows. Only the lapping of the strange silent waters as they caress the shore. And now the sounds of night begin–the chuk . . . chuk . . . chuk . . . chukkoor of the nightjar announces the settling in of the night. The cicadas and frogs take it up. Suddenly all nature is once again up and alive, the transference of light into life. Of course, what we see, what we feel, and what we hear, is only a tiny, tiny slice of nature. Life around us is so abundant, so very varied. And we are immersed in its being–our being is no different. And yet we see so little, feel so little, and hear so little.

Now, from over the waters I can hear bits and pieces of bhajans from some temple somewhere upstream where the devotees have gathered for puja and arathi. The voices and instruments are so soft, so very like the rise and fall of the waters of the Mahanadi. Like the deft fingers of the maestro moving over the tiny holes cut into the bamboo stem, the waters of the Mahanadi lap and lave over the sand shore. Everything blends so well. I am at peace. I could sit for hours like this while the bhajans die out and the lamps are put out. The devotees would troupe back to their homes and their home lights would come on. Life is so perfect!

In nature all sounds have meanings. We have also learned to mean much through our own production of sounds; in fact we have created a parallel acoustic world through our sounds and voices. There are hardly any human communities without speech or music. Of course, we have come so far away from the primitive noise making process and our super technologies have helped us constitute complex structures of the likes of Hirakud in terms of sounds and voices. Perhaps humans have almost forfeited their ability to listen to silence. We need to recourse to voice and sound to analyze, interpret, and mean. The worst part is what technology has done to our voices: we can record and replay and resort to a thousand ways of delivering the sound through a million modes and means. We can make it sound a thousand times over. An ordinary whisper can be magnified to resound like thunder. While the Hindu displays his religion’s magnificence through the loud notes played all mornings and evenings over the temple loud-speakers, the muezzin in the Islamic tower casts out louder verses from the Koran at the very top of his voice! Of course he needs to wake up the ardent devotee and remind him of his religious duties of worship. The Christians are not far behind: they have their own ways of keeping the spirit of religion alive and sparkling through the loudest of notes. Religion in the present depends so very much on the world of sight and sound. Sing aloud and thou shalt be heard! The Christians were missionaries before anybody else; they carried the word of god to all and sundry. Now the television has afforded them another way of televangelism! Indeed all religions have their own special channels for dispensing their version of truth! After all we need to tell the other how to live better and reach god faster, whether we need it ourselves or not! All sounds and notes of religions apparently are meant only for the other. One does not pause to consider whether the other needs it or not ever. Songs and sermons are blasted from over a million loudspeakers everyday and every minute, from all corners of India, tearing any remaining silence into shreds of disconnected dots and dashes. Religions are so loud these days, and they get louder by the minute. The word of god is to be treasured and meditated up on in our silent hearts and never to be violated like this. But who cares!

There are rules and regulations in our civil societies about personal space and private space. There are rules that one cannot hurt the other; neither should one trespass on what is termed private property. However there is almost nothing to stop one from screaming aloud one’s religion right into the other’s delicate apparatus of hearing! What violence, what aggression, when one considers the songs and slogans renting the sacred air of morning and evening in our towns and villages! This is sheer desecration of human acoustic space; no one seems to care! The genuine searchers of religious and spiritual truths have always left the marketplaces of the world to seek for silence elsewhere. Nietzsche wrote: solitude ends where the market place begins. The entire civilized world has become a market place of meaningless sounds and screeches. And yet the Mahanadi flows with majestic peace and silence. There is a genuine silence in the heart of any river, provided one can sense the same. This cannot be dislocated by the aural-oral discourses of the vociferous culture of our religions. All rivers are compassionate and they proffer their hearts to the listening ear.

Somehow we have come to believe that it is through a culture of sound we reach the other shore of communication and meaning. Bhartrhari, the Sanskrit linguist of ancient India, speaks of the Nada Brahmam, the Sound Absolute of the Eternal Spirit. Tyagaraja, the Saint Singer, writes of Nada Brahma as well, to where the song eternal would lead the singer ultimately. There is also the Sabda Brahmam, the articulate universe of sound. Between Nada and Sabda there is a world of difference. Sabda is definitely of the lower order in the scale, where the presence of articulated meaning and interpretation dwells. Sabdartha sahitam kavyam, says Bhamaha, one of the Sanskrit aestheticians–poetry is the perfect union of sound and sense. But sound and sense do not often go together. Most of our everyday life is replete with the former devoid of any sense. And many people mistake mere sound as meaning.

Sound is so often a corruption of silence. Sound can also be seen as defiance and disturbance. Perhaps sound is one way man defies god in the face of the absurdity of his existence. It could be that sound issues forth from his disordered mind or brain. Often enough mere sound could also substitute the sense and spirit. However, the louder we make out sounds the farther we move from the logic of meaning; the maha satta, or the ultimate meaning remains seated so far deep in silence, one cannot wean it through the disturbances in the acoustic space, neither can one defy the might of the silent spirit that is both immanent and transcendental at the same time. Those who know this, move away from the cacophonic conglomeration of our absurd world of sounds, the repertoire of our weak minds, the noise of our perturbed souls. The Mahanadi moves and yet moves so still in time.

All sounds in nature apart from those made by us humans sometimes have an intrinsic balance. We too can sing, we too can whistle, we too can make a million other ways of expressing delight and pain. However, the moment we resort to the complex technological modes of delivery and broadcasting, we begin the de-sacralization of nature and spirit. The human ear has a fine delicate sensibility to sounds and voices to noises and notes. We have the great ability to distinguish the slapdash from the harmonious–or at least some of us have.

The human ear can receive and respond to sounds of a certain decibel range, below or beyond which the audibility ceases to be. Many animals and bats have inbuilt sensitivity to sound waves of amazingly lower and higher range. The vibrations our sounds make in the air can either be sensed as audible or even inaudible. Even if a large tree falls in a deep jungle where no human ear is available to receive it as audible sound, the vibrations it causes ranges through the entire cosmos. Even the closing and unclosing of butterfly wings can travel miles and miles of apparently silent space. There is a sense of sound as we humans make it out and there is a sound of sense which we often times ignore. The Mahanadi’s lapping waters speak to me of the age old wisdom of the saints and seers, in a language of silence, where the gaps and crests hold equal sense, an uncanny balance.

The calls of the Coppersmith Barbet has left this shore so long ago and yet they will be traveling for all eternity.

About Murali Sivaramakrishnan

MURALI SIVARAMAKRISHNAN-- poet, painter, professor and literary critic, is the author of The Mantra of Vision (1997), Learning to Think Like Myself (2010), Communication, and Clarification: Essays on English in the Indian Classroom (2014), and a number of critical essays and seven volumes of poetry. As artist and poet he is a committed environmentalist. His paintings have gone on display at several major exhibitions. He is a member of the scientific committee of English Studies, University of Valladolid, Spain. He was also a Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti, New Delhi, and an Associate of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. He is member and coordinator of research of the Herman Hesse Society of India. Dr S Murali is the founder President of ASLE India. Murali’s Nature and Human Nature: Literature, Ecology, Meaning (2009) is a pioneering work on Indian ecocriticism. Its sequel, Ecological Criticism for Our Times: Literature, Nature and Critical Inquiry (2011)--ASLE India’s second book—has also received high accolades. He was awarded a Fulbright Postdoctoral Travel Grant to teach and do research in the University of Nevada at Reno(2006), and was invited to read his poems as part of the inauguration of the International Conference on Poetic Ecologies, held in the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, in May 2008. Murali’s sculpture (cast in fibre) of Prof CD Narasimhaiah, now adorns the conference hall of Dhvanyaloka, Mysore. Murali was featured as Poet-Artist in Indian Literature, Jan-Feb 2010, 255, pp. 127-132. The books he has authored include: South Indian Studies (Ed) (1998); Figuring the Female: Women’s Discourse, Art and Literature (2005)’ Tradition and Terrain: Aesthetic Continuities. (both co-authored with Dr. Usha V.T.); Ecological Criticism for Our Times: Literature, Nature and the Critical Inquiry ( 2011); Under the Greenwood Tree: Reading for Pleasure and Comprehension.(Ed) Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2011;Image and Culture: The Dynamics of Literary, Aesthetic and Cultural Representation.(2011); Inter-Readings: Text, Context, Significance. Ed. (2012); Communication, and Clarification: Essays on English in the Indian Classroom. 2014; Sri Aurobindo’s Aesthetics and Poetics: New Directions. 2014; Strategies and Methods:Relocating Textual Meaning,2018; Losing Nature,2018 and Roads to Nowhere,2019. Awards include the Life-Time Achievement Award for Poetry by GIEWEC, Guild of Indian English Writers, Editors and Critics, 2014. And IMRF Excellence Award, 2015 His poetry volumes include Night Heron (1998); Conversations with Children (2005); Earth Signs (2006); The East-Facing Shop (2010); Selected Poems (2014) Silverfish (2016) and Notebook of a Naturalist (2020)
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