Travel

Backwater symphony

FITTING BACKDROP: The gently lapping waters... PHOTO: W. CURT LAFRANCE, JR.

FITTING BACKDROP: The gently lapping waters... PHOTO: W. CURT LAFRANCE, JR.  

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It's bliss losing oneself in the varied music made by nature, motor and man

The sounds of the Kerala backwaters in the morning are a living symphony; some sounds melodious, some, part of a cacophony. They range from the pianissimo to forte, and all the instruments are accounted for in this orchestra of nature, motor and man.

The piece opens in the early morning darkness under starlit skies, when all is silent, broken only by a quiet splash of a fish feeding on top of the river.

The night’s slumber is abruptly suspended sharply at five in the morning as music from a local temple echoes through the village. Shortly thereafter, prayer recitations sound over a loudspeaker in the distance.

Bird song

Nature answers with an allegro chorus of bird sounds following the temple music, with a soft “whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop” of the poola. The rising notes of a rapidly repeated “do-re” by the kuyil (Malabar whistling thrush), along with the varying tune of a “whip-o-will” like sound of the kuyil are heard. The thatha’s (parakeet) high pitched “peep-peep-peep-peep-peep” and a myriad of other chirps, whistles, calls, and songs announce the animal kingdoms contribution to the piece. A goose honk finishes the movement, at a distance.

At 5.30 a.m. a church-yard bell tolls, the rings in succession, followed by the rooster’s morning call, crow cawing, and dog barks.

Quiet percussion is added with the brush of sandaled feet on dirt road, heard from early risers on their way to worship. The rhythmic putter of a two-stroke engine outboard motor beats softly from the water. The strings present, as just before sunrise, dawn brings an occasional mosquito buzzing past one ear before moving on to look for another meal.

The brass enters with an alternating high-low noted horn on a car warning people walking on the road.

Traffic increases, first with soft trickles of water from the thin paddle of a “country-boat” skiff.

Percussion accompanies with syncopated sounds of motorcycle motors and wheels, and clanging fenders on bicycles weaving through the pot-holed roads.

Adding to the percussion are women splashing and clashing “cymbals”, clanking utensils and cups, washing out pans from the breakfast meal. Hollow pops are heard as a man cleans his shirt winding up and swinging it against a flat stone.

The chorus joins as the alto voices of children call out to their mothers in preparation for the day. Next at 6 a.m., the voices of tenors join with men hailing each other from boats.

An interlude of the drill-like droning rise and fall of the Indian cicada, “Won-de”, is heard in the trees.

Bird calls and fish plops are not the only animal sounds. In crescendo fashion, a cow’s trumpeting low, sends a loud horn-like bleat from a nearby yard.

Grand finale

By 6.45 a.m. the morning song ends in the grand finale, as the first Kettuvallam / rice barge-like houseboat passes, its speakers booming with low pitch bass munadunda drum, flute and violin, playing Kerala music, announcing the day’s travels. As the boat passes, gentle rain patters, as drops dot the river surface in the closing notes.

Encore: Off in the distance through the coconut palms, a choir of Indian Christians sings a hymn in their native Malayalam tongue in praise to the Composer of this beautiful symphony, as they begin their day following their Conductor, inspired by the sound of His Music.

The writer is a neuropsychiatrist in the US.

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Printable version | Dec 11, 2019 4:36:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/Backwater-symphony/article16886011.ece

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