South Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - Writing Sound, Disciplining Noise: Sonic Worlds of 19th Century Calcutta

Saturday, July 7
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Location: Willow, First Floor

This paper brings to bear on the city of Calcutta — the erstwhile capital of colonial India — a question that has been immensely productive for sound studies in the West: What did the 19th century sound like? This question, in turn, begs a methodological one: given that the phenomenon of sound is intrinsically temporal and non-representational, how does one search for it in periods prior to the emergence of machinic technologies of sound recording and reproduction?


In this paper, I look at a range of 19th century Bengali and English sources and read them in two ways. First, I foreground sonic animations of everyday life in the city of Calcutta to obtain a descriptive sense of what days and nights of fin de siecle Calcutta sounded like. In doing so, I pay close attention to the verbal means of recording and representing this (differentiated) soundscape, specifically in modes of writing that invite description—memoirs, (auto-)biographies, fiction, etc. Then, against this sonic backdrop, I track the constitution of ‘noise’ as a discursive category in relation to sounds of the city during the same period. Turning my attention to the state archives, I bring into focus the colonial state’s first efforts towards regulating and disciplining what it perceived as a sonic disorder, marking, thereby, the emergence of sound as an administrative and juridico-legal concern. A concern that became increasingly pressing with the advent and socialization of motorized transportation in the early decades of the 20th century.

Sharmadip Basu

Azim Premji University, India

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2 - Writing Sound, Disciplining Noise: Sonic Worlds of 19th Century Calcutta



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