OFFBEAT The Limca Book of Records certifies A. J. Mithra as the country’s first zoomusicologist. HEMA VIJAY meets the Chennai man whose sound sense is unusual
We are in the middle of another blazing and long-drawn summer, but A.J. Mithra foresaw this way back in December. Actually, the tree crickets told him about it. “In winter, cricket calls are generally slow. But last December, it was faster and more aggressive, and this indicated that an exceptionally hot summer was on the way,” he says.
Well, Chennai-based Mithra happens to be a ‘zoomusicologist’ — someone who understands Nature by studying animal and bird sounds. Recently, the Limca Book of Records certified him to be the country’s first zoomusicologist, and the first one in the country to use natural bird calls to compose music records. In any case, zoomusicologists are a rarity even in the West, with only about 20 to 30 of these specialists in the world.
A music teacher in a school, Mithra’s journey began with recording bird calls and setting them to albums. Incidentally, while western zoomusicologists use sophisticated bird call recorders, Mithra still painstakingly records Nature’s sounds on his humble voice recorder.
Despite these limitations, Mithra’s albums sound incredibly good, prompting noted Australian zoomusicologist Hollis Taylor to dub him as ‘Bird DJ,’ and the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology dedicated an entire webpage to his bird music.
“Did you know that the default tempo or beats per minute (BTM) of most music software is set at 120 BTM, which is the tempo of most birds and even creatures like crickets and frogs. How did they choose this perfect tempo?” he quizzes.
But if bird calls caught Mithra’s fancy initially, soon, the connection between bird calls and the larger ecosystem began to fascinate him even more. For instance, he learnt that if the calls of the pied crested cuckoo are heard, it means that the monsoon will be around in a week. And then, one day, Mithra heard a squirrel mimicking the jungle babbler’s call. On closer observation, he discovered that the squirrels and the babblers looked out for each other and ended up producing identical alarm calls.
Fired up by these curious connections, Mithra moved on to recording and studying cricket calls, frog calls, and even tiger calls. Mithra is currently getting ready a research paper titled ‘Zoomusicology As A Barometer for Deducing the Earth’s Ecological Status’.
Currently, we tend to study zoology and ecology in classrooms, predominantly. “But an hour in the outdoors spent listening to the natural world can teach us a lot more. It is crucial that we tune into the sounds of the natural world,” Mithra advocates, and adds, “Even in the city, there are plenty of animal and bird calls to be heard and understood. For instance, if we had listened carefully to the calls of sparrows, we would have understood a few decades earlier that they were fast dwindling in numbers, and we could possibly have averted the present scenario.”