What does an Indian city sound like? The answer is hauntingly beautiful

Finding the beauty in chaos.
Finding the beauty in chaos.
Image: Reuters/Vivek Prakash
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Walk up to the nearest traffic signal. Close your eyes. Listen.

That old autorickshaw passing by, the neighbourhood trinket-peddler, the brass band’s cacophony in a wedding procession, or the simultaneously blaring loudspeakers from temples and mosques—chances are, you’ve never paid attention to this rich soundscape before.

That’s what Cities and Memory, a UK-based global sound art project, is trying to change.

Founded in 2014 by musician and sound artist Stuart Fowkes, the website is a repository of sounds from over 55 countries, including India, that allows anyone to contribute parts of the unique soundtrack of their cities, be it temple chants from Taipei or the sound of vaporetto engines in Venice. These sounds are then presented in their original form on the website’s sound map, accompanied by a re-imagination that turns those familiar noises into works of audio art.

At first, India’s raucous soundscape may not seem likely to lend itself to art. Earlier this year, India’s Central Pollution Control Board revealed that Mumbai, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Delhi, and Chennai were the country’s top-five noisiest cities, frequently breaching noise pollution limits.

But paying close attention to the three Indian soundscapes currently featured on the global sound map proves that sometimes there’s beauty in the chaos. As of now, Cities and Memory traverses three corners of the country: New Delhi in the north, Madurai in the south, and Kolkata in the east.

Each snippet is a surprising introduction to the sounds around us that we take for granted. For instance, the sirens and incessant honking near a bustling station overpass in New Delhi make for a haunting, fascinating listening experience when removed from the realities of a stressful, overcrowded commute.

In August, Fowkes told The Guardian that the goal of the Cities and Memory project is to “help people appreciate the joy of the sounds that surround them every day.”

So, the next time you’re out and about, stop for a minute and listen closely. Even better, send in what you hear to Cities and Memory.