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Updated: March 21, 2013 15:42 IST
Past Continuous

Drumbeats in the head

P. ANIMA
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The drumbeats were a headche to the British inhabitants of colonial Calicut. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup
The Hindu
The drumbeats were a headche to the British inhabitants of colonial Calicut. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

When tom-toming was not music to the ears of the British

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

The drums are a vital player in our cultural festivities. But at the turn of the 20 th century, “tom-toming” used in the literal sense, meaning drum-beating, proved a headache to the British inhabitants of then Calicut. Tom-toming in the neighbourhood was not only an annoyance but one that demanded action against the offenders, considered the British. However, the issue created confusion at various administrative levels including the police and the judiciary. The administrators were cautious as religion was at play.

The tom-toming problem is first highlighted in a letter written in 1898 by Lieutenant- Colonel T.J. Hackett Wilkins, the district medical and sanitary officer. He draws the District Magistrate’s attention to tom-toming in his neighbourhood. If the “drunken men singing and quarelling along the roads” were not enough, he now has to deal with “incessant beating of tom-toms going on up to 1 a.m.” He manages “to get the names of the culprits” and reports to the police.

It is the response of the police, which he attaches to his letter, which prompts Wilkins to approach the Magistrate. Wilkins doesn’t forget to add a doctor’s warning on the possible repercussions of tom-toming. “If this beating of the tom-toms is allowed, which as you know is most objectionable and noisy, I fear patients suffering from serious illness getting worse,” he writes.

He further warns that the noise might make him unfit for work. “If I have a headache, the continued beating of the drums makes me infinitely worse and I feel quite unfit for work the next day,” he writes.

We understand that Wilkins is annoyed as the police refuse to help him. The police, in turn, cites a recent order of the DM which says, “the police cannot prevent tom-toming in private houses or temple. The police can only prosecute cases in which tom-toms are played after 10 p.m. in a public street or thoroughfare.”

The Inspector of Police in his letter to Wilkins says, “I believe that on the night in question, tom-tom was played in the temple situated in the vicinity of your house. I do not think the police will be justified in prosecuting the parties. I have however sent a constable to make enquiries into the matter.”

Following Wilkins complaint to the DM, the Magistrate’s office recommends action against the offenders. A note to the Inspector of Police says, “Persons who beat tom-toms or make noises in private premises in such a manner as to cause annoyance to the public or people in general who dwell in the vicinity have committed the offence of public nuisance defined in section 268 IPC.” The inspector is instructed to “lay a complaint before the sub-magistrate without further delay.”

A harried sub-magistrate writes to the DM on January 3 describing his efforts at cornering the offenders. “The police at first cited only Dr Hackett and his peon to prove the cases. I asked the police to enquire and report whether annoyance was caused to anyone else.”

From the proceedings from the DM’s office on January 6, we gather the sub-magistrate had acquitted the accused “on account of the discrepancies in the evidence.”

But tom-toming continues to bother. The police appear particularly confused as to what to do about tom-toming. In February 1899, a letter goes from the office of the Superintendent of Police to the DM requesting clarity on the matter. He writes, “I am still at a loss to what should be done in future.” He gives further details of Wilkins case and describes the grey areas. The Superintendent writes, “the evidence in the case proved that Colonel Hackett and his family were annoyed by being kept awake all night but there is also overwhelming evidence that most if not all the other neighbours liked the noise.”

It is the Superintendent’s letter that for the first time gives a perspective on the others in the neighbourhood. He poses the question, “whether it is sufficient for one or two of the neighbours to complain or whether a majority is required. “ He also says that Colonel Wilkins is the only European in the locality.

The matter doesn’t rest and another letter arrives for the DM from the Superintendent in March. This time he says there are more complaints from individuals and requests judicial co-operation. “Each time the accused are put before the magistrate they are either discharged or else sanction to prosecute is not given…request some hard and fast rule may be laid down so that the police can be guided by it,” he writes.

It has to be assumed that the Superintendent’s letter created some flutter in the judicial circles, for what follows is a detailed letter from the sub-magistrate to the DM, explaining his action. The sub-magistrate says, this is the time when “annual festivals in the various temples in Malabar are celebrated….use of tom-tom is always necessary on such occasions.” Since it is “religious rite and ceremony” he says free use of tom-toms sometimes for the entire night is inevitable. Though it might be a nuisance to some, he says, it “ought to be tolerated by a government ever ready and willing to respect the religious feelings of the different sects of people.”

He confesses that the religious angle deterred him from taking stringent action. “I was afraid that I would be found fault with for unnecessary interference with the rights of people…though I wanted to please the Doctor as much as I could.”

A strict order from the DM follows this letter where the sub-magistrate is almost poked fun at. It says, “The sub-magistrate considers that to keep ones neighbours awake all night is a religious exercise which the British Magistrate should regard with tolerance.” In a strongly worded message, the DM says the law should take its course, “The sub-magistrate should remember that it is his duty as a magistrate to enforce the law, instead of allowing persons to set it at defiance.”

Source: Regional Archives, Kozhikode

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