South Asian Soundscapes

Every environment has a distinct sonic landscape, a set of characteristic noises that are unique to that location. It might be the squeak and crunch of a foot on rubbery sand, the rattle and scrape of a ski on a freshly groomed ski slope, or the crisp crack of a branch resonating across an otherwise silent forest – each sound has the ability to transport the hearer to a moment beyond the present, helping to evoke a sense of place.

This is especially true of South Asia, somewhere frequently defined by the assault it performs on every human sense. The first thing most people notice when stepping onto this sub-continent is the hot touch of humidity on their skin, and then the collage of unfamiliar objects and alien situations that flood their vision. Next, an exotic mix of smells raids their nostrils, infused with the tang of spices and the musty sweat of determination, all of which is brought vibrantly to life when the first taste of South Asian cuisine is introduced to their lips.

And then sound washes across the scene like a wave tumbling onto a beach, irrepressibly encroaching from every direction. It is inescapable and totally pervasive, unrelenting in intensity and exhausting as a result. Yet it is one of South Asia’s greatest characteristics, something that no visitor can forget, nor would they ever wish to forego. To those people, the following soundscapes will be familiar, each part of the sub-continent’s complex tapestry of noise.

Traffic Jam (Flickr credit: meg and rahul)

Traffic Jam

A tired engine groans beneath a heavy burden, echoed moments later by another vehicle carrying far more than it was ever designed to bear. Metal scrapes against metal; bumpers rattle across the tarmac. Each pothole induces a muffled thump, accompanied by the aching creak of rusty suspension. A horn bellows, not out of aggression but of acknowledgment. A different horn responds, and then another. And another. Soon, a symphony of horns join together in an unending crescendo.

The traffic moves no faster.

A Banquet

Laughter. High and rhythmic, resounding and sincere, broken only by mouthfuls of curry-soaked chapatti bread. A radio in the corner crackles into life, spitting forth sirens and sitars in a distorted fuzz, elevating the atmosphere to a heightened conviviality. A cascade of chai gurgles while poured, beside pots that bubble and stoves that hiss. Conversation narrows to a single speaker, who holds the stares of all around with an unfamiliar story spoken in familiar tones. Tension builds. Breathes are held. A punch line is delivered.

The group collapse into laugher once more.

Street Hawkers (Flickr credit: mckaysavage)

Street Hawking

Conversation babbles like a stream, a murmured backdrop to an unremarkable day. Men discuss the latest cricket score, making their arguments with heavily exaggerated gestures. A tourist walks past: a customer, an opportunity. Voices rise to sell their wares, renewing final deals and undercutting the competition. Languages merge and arguments flare, an impassioned exchange of offers and counter-offers, of needs and means. A smile indicates it’s all a sport, but in this match both participants are winners.

A deal is struck.

Call to Prayer

The palpable stillness of a silent morning is shattered by a sudden lone wail, cracking against the quietness like a glass smashing against a floor. It twists and turns, rises and falls, never settling for more than a few seconds. It pierces the air and invades every home, luring listeners to its core. Within it can be heard a mélange of emotions: desperation and faith; solemnity and belief; dedication and suffering.

The call to prayer is never ignored.

Images by meg and rahul and mckaysavage


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