A few days ago, I found myself among 50 odd listeners, soaking in the field recordings, narrative-snippets, perceptions and emotional responses of singer-songwriter Moushumi Bhowmik and two sound artists Robert Millis and Gilles Aubrey. Two other collaborators – Sukanta Majumdar and Renee Lulam – were present through the recordings and stories as rendered to us by the narrators. They have been travelling to Shella at Meghalaya’s border with Sylhet, Bangladesh.
Primarily it was an ethno-poetical exercise with elements of a narrative thrown so that the pure formalism of the sound-notes receives an anchorage of sorts. Nevertheless, the experience was aural and auditory. We were greeted with two five minute fragments: the first one, a steady and relentless drone with occasional sounds of chirping, barking and swishing – we were told later that it was the sound of a 17 kms. long conveyor belt carrying limestone from Meghalaya to Bangladesh. The French multinational Lafarge is in charge of the belt and much else in that area. Surveillance is pervasive. Animals and humans – the guards apparently claimed – were not allowed to travel across the border. But the limestone could. And birds too, for they are like sound—travelling free in the ether of our existence.
The second snatch brought the sounds of boots – heavy, creaky, leathery – over the deck of a suspension bridge, so that the metal clanking of the vertical suspender cables, ricocheting against the sound of the boots created a span of tension which, primarily distributed among the suspenders, was transferred to us, the listeners, once we got into the rhythm, eyes closed.
Much later in the show, another snippet shall bring us back to this theme in a variant manner: we shall hear the resonant sound of an old ropeway (which also carries limestone from Meghalaya to Chhatak, Sylhet), as a contrast to the conveyer belt: the crackling and clunks of the ropeway buckets, workers voices, a sudden holler. The ropeway passing across the fence which has a strange materiality to it, we were told. Here Moushumi, who was kind of the raconteur in the show, suggested how this ropeway somehow seemed more human with the laboring process more tangible and less abstract, unlike the Lafarge belt. This intuitive humanizing of sound, worked out between the tangibly busy and the alienated, is a constant preoccupation. To this we shall return later.
With this tantalizing preamble, the narrative went into a more lyrical mode and here Moushumi and her co-recordists referred to a picture perfect village which was trying to revive a pre-colonial Khasi past. A sound extract followed—a short musical recital by the young ones of that village; an exercise in engineered spontaneity And a couple of more song-and-dialogue exchanges between the recordists and the Bengali and Khasi population living in that area—largely nostalgic about the past, talking about open borders and about quitting and relocating. But not being able to caught in the maya of the place. Sounds of Sunday mass from a church far away. And sounds of the town-crier. The communicative mode is affective, worked out quite strategically by the ethnographers.
The whole exercise came to an end with a performative crisscrossing of sound bites, contrasting the city with Moushumi’s childhood spent in the hills. Her own song about childhood pasted alongside Nazrul Islam’s Shunyo E Buke PakhiMor Aye Phir Aye Phire Aye (To my forsaken bosom, O my bird come back, do come back) with the deliberate repetition of a gramophone pin stuck, unable to unspool itself.
As is characteristic of Moushumi’s forays into ethnomusicology and in her particular interest in sound, on the one hand it is evident that she and her collaborators are acutely interested in the historical aspects of trying to make sense of life-worlds: in this case the ideas of border and bordering. Her sense of life world is processual and hence historical. So, her sorties are not about disinterested music in ecology or creation or non-habitation. The very juxtaposition of the intrusive borderlessness of Lafarge-like companies alongside its obverse—nativist soil and blood musical routines— is perhaps a pointer towards the consciousness of deepening and exploring the overlapping and heterogeneous worlds within a region. This is what a good archivist would do—refract a realm through a crisscrossing of various options and positions. On other hand, the selection of the snippets themselves and the whole thrust of the narrative takes the listeners to an ethereal zone, the direct outcome of that very phenomenological deepening. There is a pantheistic, mystical element of some rarified nostalgia lurking somewhere—and that element queers the sense of any situated critique and questioning of her chosen habitus. Intuition is the predominant mode that she operates in and also expects from her interlocutors and audience. There is scope of being self-reflective about the exercise but she stops short of that. As a result, a sort of residual formalism and restorative idealization creep right back into her renditions and recordings—through soundscapes in this case. The understanding of such a rich realm, as it were, stops just before it could take off to an analytical plane—especially after the enormous work done on issues of integration, permeability, work, crossings & transitions, change and freedom in border and boundary studies.
How does one analyze intuition finally? Perhaps Moushumi, Robert, Gilles (incidentally he seemed to thinking theoretically in his conversations) and Sukanta are not enthused by the idea of any shrill structural critique. Perhaps the affective archivist does a better job of mapping a territory by simply entering into the interplay between the subjective and the mimetic rather than coming with an ideology critique. And by leaving it there. There is belief, humility and empathy among their subjects, listeners and the milieu they explore. The belief gains ground from their confidence in communicating therapeutically with a veiled world. The ethnographer is the medium in a séance as it were, the bridge who will give us an inkling of startling possibilities. Like the paintings of Friedrich, the fog is not merely an allegory of the secrets of nature but it rather attracts our senses paradoxically by playing on the idea of opacity in defining border and borderland. In this case the session quickens our auditory sense instituting an oscillation between our inner and outer eyes. As listeners we go back time and again into our inner eyes in order to imagine the whole borderland that we wish we could see. This accentuation is quasi-spiritual—a Spinozian offshoot often seen in the very styling of the ascetic, contemplative anarchist. But the spiritual flight, from time to time, is reduced to the level of an artistic sublime by summoning everyday sensuous history so that the listeners can emotively and imaginatively participate in a distant world. The distance between the sensible and the intelligible is thus reduced by refracting objective ethnography. The sound recordists use scale in order to partially reduce our perceptual opacity. And yet they do not allow a complete liberation of the borderland as a spatio-temporal realm. The veil is left half unraveled.
The impulse to archive in such a manner (placed against the restive world of activity) could stem from or lead to a dogged mission of conserving forms of authenticity. And keep us suspended from any possible transformation—within and without. The rest is unsaid.