‘Tannoy’ is not a word you’d expect to encounter in an academic essay. If the essay is by a Bengali academic, you might think it a typo for ‘Tanmoy’, or a misspelling of ‘to annoy’. Tannoy is not even a word that most people know: in fact those short of forty are quite likely never to have heard it. Like xerox and frigidaire, it began life as a manufacturing corporation and was driven by the singularity of its success into becoming a common noun—or, according to Wikipedia, a genericized trademark term for a public address system. Given the number and loudness of tannoys in India, the nearness of the word with ‘to annoy’ seems serendipitous and might have excited Saussure no end. But we only know for a fact that it once excited a happy memory in Sudipta Kaviraj, for it features in an academic essay by him entitled ‘Reading A Song of the City: Images of the City in Literature and Films’.
The dry intellectual march of the standard academic essay is, once in a while, tripped up and enlivened by a different kind of narrative. The author digresses, dips into Wordsworthian reminscences of childhood, and recalls those days long ago when the need to earn his living in a university hadn’t stuffed his head so full of high thoughts and a specialized vocabulary. Evocatively episodic nostalgia of this type, in which the author allows memory freedom from filtration through Foucault & Co., is not infrequent in Kaviraj’s essays and hugely increases their readability. Permanent Black has published three superb ‘Ideas and Politics’ essay collections by him (The Imaginary Institution of India; The Trajectories of the Indian State; The Enchantment of Democracy and India), all now available in reasonably priced paperback editions. A fourth collection, comprising essays on ‘Literature and Ideas’, is under preparation and includes this essay which, temporarily keeping at bay Bankim and Rabindranath in the manner that Moses kept back the Red Sea, begins with this charming personal contextualization of subsequent politico-philosophical analysis:
… Nabadwip was a historic religious centre for Bengali Vaishnavas as the place of birth of the fifteenth-century bhakti saint Chaitanya. Nabadwip in the 1960s was a strange but lively mixture of the traditional and the modern. The town’s main reputation came from its association with Chaitanya’s birth. Though others with deeper knowledge of Bengali cultural history would have known that it was the great centre of Sanskrit knowledge—particularly in Navyanyaya logic and in Smriti. It was a major centre of Vaishnava pilgrimage, particularly on significant occasions of the Vaishnava calendar—like the ceremonies of the jhulan purnima, the raslila, or janmashtami. Like other great religious centres, it was a centre for thriving commerce, and the modern railway made it more accessible to pilgrims.
Its second claim to fame as the traditional centre for esoteric Sanskrit learning, and the seat of a highly specialized system of ritual legality, was by then completely dwarfed, almost forgotten by its ordinary people. Few inhabitants of the city felt any pride in great logical schools. Also unnoticed by its pilgrims, and behind the spectacular religious aspect, it was by this time a considerable centre for the production of cotton sarees. The commercialization of its religious life fed directly into modern developments like cinemas, and a booming business in speakers and tannoys, which local shops and businesses used for advertising their wares, or announcements of upcoming films by cinemas, of public meetings by political parties, and municipal announcements by the local authorities. Aurally at least these tannoys and their blaring sounds were, in a literal sense, an inescapable part of our existence.
This sociological structure produced a very specific economy of sounds in the town—of various, different, often conflicting parts—and in this the tannoys played an indispensable role. That was the ubiquitous technological link between the blandishments of commercial advertisements, the enticement of the romantic films, and the exertions of the police to control the vast crowds streaming through the narrow streets at times of festivals. But this sound was distinctively modern, demonstrating the power and vulgarity of modern things. In a crowd of other sounds, they always pushed their way through. Because there were many other sounds in the town, Nabadwip was among other things a city of unceasing music. The Vaishnava sect around Chaitanya had developed a new communal form of worship, which took two unusual forms. On festival days there were religious processions in which devotees sang, played a drum called the khol, and collectively danced on the streets, which set this sect apart from most other Hindu worshippers. When Chaitanya first initiated this form of collective dancing and singing, it created a scandal among the orthodox brahmins of Nabadwip, who complained to the Qazi and implored him to suppress the uproar. But more routinely, in hundreds of small local temples, round the year lower-level performances called palakirtan went on. In these, a small troupe of kathaks (literally, tellers of tales) or performers enacted segments of the stories of the love of Krishna and Radha through a fascinating combination of simple narration, mimed enactment, sung passages recounting their famous trysts or verbal exchanges, and dancing.
It was an immensely powerful aesthetic economy—a combination of various narrative and interpretative media, held together tightly by a single theme, animated by a rasa aesthetic that the audience knew intimately and enjoyed in endless re-enactments. The average Vaishnava was strongly urged by his religious sensibility to use aesthetics—visual images, narrative forms, music and dance—to enliven and ennoble his quotidian existence; in other words, to have a fundamental attitude towards life that was aesthetic.
A part of this aesthetic reception of everyday life was a simple custom of singing a standard tune early in the morning. Except in the rainy season, despite its transcendent connections, the town experienced an acute shortage of municipal water supply; but that was offset by the ‘divine’ supply of water from the Ganga. Most people, for most of the year, went for a bath in the river early in the morning, as later in the day, especially in summer, the sand on the wide banks of the river became unbearably hot. One interesting technique of communal worship in the Vaishnava religion was that most of the songs sung in the morning had identical or very similar tunes, generically called prabhati (from prabhat, early morning). Early in the morning, from sunrise to mid-morning, the town hummed with this general melody of morning worship—gentle, pastoral, expressing a sense of restrained and elegant joyfulness.
Those were Nehruvian times, and the ability of authorities to enforce legal rules had not crumbled. Apparently, the municipality had a rule that banned the use of tannoys before eight in the morning. (I might be wrong about the exact hour; it may have been half past eight or nine. But in that town eight in the morning was quite late in the working day); at that exact hour, all the ‘mike shops’ (maiker dokan) on the main street started their tannoys, which usually carried the currently fashionable Bengali and Hindi popular music, instantly reordering the aural economy. This immediately introduced a different music with a very different reading of the nature of human existence.
Hindi film songs used to be vastly popular, despite the widespread belief among older family members that they were corrupting. In some ways this was rather strange. The Radha-Krishna stories were often deeply erotic; compared to them, the Bengali adhunik (literally, modern) songs and the Hindi film lyrics simply expressed a vague sense of romantic longing, in most cases narratively frustrated by immovable and unforgiving family obstacles.
Yet these songs were considered dangerous precisely because they were romantic. Eroticism of a kind was a recognized part of traditional culture. Romantic love was a modern moral ideal. Against the iron laws of arranged marriages, these songs advocated, however vaguely, the individualistic principle of the romantic choice of partners, and described this as a state of divine emotional fulfilment. Family elders might be faulted for their moral principles, but they acted on a highly accurate perception of the sociological implications of this relatively pedestrian poetry. Our family did not even own a radio through which such moral enticements might infiltrate the home. Listening to songs from Hindi films was disapproved of even more strongly, because the disapproval of romantic behaviour was compounded by the Bengali disdain for the general lowness of North Indian culture. They came under three degrees of prohibition—they were romantic, they were from films, and they were in Hindi. I first heard this song in that context.
Ironically, just as the religious music had a compelling repetitiveness, coming back to your hearing every morning and making it impossible to forget that that was the proper way to start the day (in a gentle and subtle attitude of thankfulness), this film music also had its own answering repetitiveness. Since the songs were immensely popular among the young, the shops played them often, many times a day, often during festivals when individual marquees would hire an individual tannoy with a supply of gramophone records. They were additionally often carried by popular music channels of the Delhi-based AIR (All India Radio), and for some curious reason by Radio Ceylon. Thus these songs were not an episodic musical experience; they had their own structures of repetition, which made it impossible to forget them. In a sense, they also came back every mid-morning or afternoon to remind you how to face life in the city. Long before I encountered sociological theories of modernity and tradition or heard of Max Weber, I learnt, vaguely but vividly, through this undeniable line across the musical experience of my everyday, that these two types of tunes represented two immense principles of organizing experience, or the life-world.
The book will quite likely be called THE INVENTION OF PRIVATE LIFE: LITERATURE AND IDEAS. It will be worth waiting for. We hope to publish it before the year is over.