Monday, April 14, 2008

Of Festivals

March, April and May have traditionally been "festival months" in Kerala. Many Hindu temples (as well as a few houses of worship of other religions) celebrate socio-religious festivals during this season which also witnesses the turn of the Malayalam year. My trip home to Trivandrum earlier this month coincided with the annual festival at a nearby temple. It has been close to a decade since I was last home in time for the occasion. Several things have changed since then. Most notably the noise output has gone up considerably. Loudspeakers heralding the event covered an area approximately 1 Km in radius. As my house is well within this radius I got to hear music (live and recorded, instrumental and vocal), announcements, religious talks and other sounds almost around the clock. My five day visit completely overlapped with the festival's duration of 7 days to the effect that I was almost always raising my voice to talk to my family.

The loudspeakers usually came to life around 6.00 in the morning, more than an hour after the temple opened for the day. They would then blare "devotional songs" for the next three hours or so. The music was periodically interrupted for announcements. Going by voice these were all made by the same person. The announcer typically started by reciting the day's programme. He would then go on to thank individual donors whose contributions went towards paying for the day's events. Names, addresses and the events which benefited were included. He usually ended with a religious greeting.

The speakers were given a break around 10.00 AM coinciding with religious rituals in the temple. Unfortunately this break lasted barely an hour. The next "session" commenced with yet more songs and traditional instrumental music unless there happened to be a religious talk going on. Following another short break around noon the fare would continue well into the afternoon. Unexpected relief arrived on a couple of occasions thanks to the trusty summer afternoon rains. The lightning accompanying the showers forced the operators to shut down their makeshift Public Address system albeit for a short while.

The noise levels went down whenever a ritual was performed in the temple premises. After the main worship ceremony around 6.00 PM the racket would continue well into the night thanks to the "main cultural event" of the day. Such events tended to live performances of music, dance or comedy with the rare Kathakali session thrown in for traditions' sake. Plays and movies used be a part of the fare ten years ago but have since been dropped. Live performances typically ended by 1.00 AM and the PA system shut down shortly thereafter. On one particular occasion however the music accompanying a Kathakali performance started around 10.00 PM and went on until after 4.00 AM the next morning. The best part was when the announcer came on right afterwards to announce - what else - the names and addresses of the donors! I have since been told that most donors actually expect their names to be aired prominently and repeatedly in exchange for their contributions.

The last day of the festivities was marked by a procession featuring decorated elephants. The procession left the temple in the evening and returned sometime after midnight. The sound of the traditional drums accompanying the procession was broadcast for a while until a solitary voice took over to chant "Om....." repeatedly. The chanting lasted for half an hour while the procession re-entered the temple.

Interestingly several otherwise sensitive people seemed not to mind the noise pollution. These were the same folks who bristled when a political party dared to broadcast musical propaganda or speeches for a half day long meeting. One of the supporters argued that there could be no comparison between "devotional music" and "political music". My argument that both impinged on the personal comfort of those not interested was dismissed with a wave of the hand.

I believe this question was posed before the courts some time ago. The only solid outcome of such litigation has been the replacement of old, noisy, ultra polluting horn speakers with modern box models. Very few abide by the prescribed decibel levels and timings.


James said...

Being a ferenghi I probably would have liked to see the elephants and the dancing..but 6 till 1am most nights? I see your point Manoj.


Manoj Govindan said...

@James: You should come down to Kerala during the festival season sometime. I'd be glad to take you around to some colourful festivals where participation (auditory and otherwise) is still voluntary.