2. Drawing Room
The mediated world of a film or media production appears through the narrative depiction of a site shown on the screen and heard in the assembled sonic environment. The audience engages with the mediated worlds of audiovisual production by perceiving the relative presence of the site within this constructed world. The embodied experience of presence can vary in degree and intensity, depending on the art and craft of the media practitioners and their intention to attend to the visual and sonic details of the recorded and represented site during the production process. An audience believes in the constructed world when the resonance of the site reverberates in their ears long after the media experience. It is not surprising, then, that creating the sonic presence of the site is of paramount importance in convincingly conveying a narrative development to the audience.
How is a domestic location or indoor site recorded and produced in film and media artworks? There are certainly specific methods and creative strategies for constructing or evoking the presence of a site within the mediated environment using media technologies that help create a relatively convincing universe. What degree of presence is achieved in practice? Or does the site still remain absent when we listen to these works? In the case of film as a mediated environment that creates a convincing universe, the cinematic experience is essentially crafted by recorded materials that are assembled with a narrative structure in mind (Bordwell and Thompson 1997). The audiovisual material may or may not be recorded directly or synchronously recorded at the site. However, the strategic combination of these disparate materials is designed to suggest the presence of a real site within which the actors move and the story takes place. It is a matter of to what degree spectators experience association and immersion, and how resoundingly present a site emerges through the stages of the production process.
As Susan Hayward has observed, the introduction of sound in cinema introduced “a crucial element to the registering of authentic reality” and sound film “was touted as being closer to reality” (Hayward 2006: 359). The addition of sound to the screen allowed for a perceptually realistic delineation of the site through the process in which “the experience of sound may become more spatially defined. In contrast with a two-dimensional image, the temporal nature of sound becomes related to the hearing subject’s own location in any given space” (Bloom 2014). The spatial aspect of sound was recognized and explored as an anchor within the story-world that one could associate with one’s lived experience of place. Sound recording also opened up a new palette for film practitioners from which they could choose materials specifically related to the site in terms of spatial details. In this palette, background material – including environmental, atmospheric and other site-specific sounds – along with other vocal and musical elements could contribute to the realization of a room ambience.
In the Indian film Charulata (The Lonely Wife 1964) by auteur Satyajit Ray, ambient sounds from street vendors and their aural antics intrude into the drawing room of a lonely wife waiting for the days to pass by. They give the viewer a sense of the seclusion and idleness within the residence of an elite neighborhood in Calcutta (now Kolkata) circa 1870. As a period piece, the film captures a number of indoor sonic details, some of which can still be found in the drawing rooms of decolonized Kolkata today, such as the grandfather clock. I have argued elsewhere that Ray’s later films are relatively wordy, relying on dialogues to form the narrative (Chattopadhyay 2018). These films lack the realistic treatment of sound that evoked a sense of site or situatedness in his earlier films. Ray’s limitations due to his failing health resulted in increasingly domestic auditory settings and very few outdoor scenes. Ray’s last film, Agantuk (The Stranger 1991), is a delicate drawing room drama, revolving around the unsolicited visit of an old anthropologist and traveler from the West to a middle-class family in Kolkata, claiming to be their relative. His visit disrupts the household’s protected acoustic environment with new sounds, utterances, and a global tone that call for a reconfiguration of the interior room tone. In a pertinent indoor scene, a heated debate takes place in the living room of the host family, between the visitor and an unfriendly neighbor, a lawyer. The discourse reveals the protagonist's personal history in light of the differences and intersections between Eastern and Western cultures – a traditional, tribal life and modern, technological society, respectively – with a questioning tone that is aimed at revealing the stranger’s intentions in visiting their home. As the debate grows in intensity, the harmony of the domestic space – the room tone as a monaural mix with small details, voices and their hollow reflections within the social confines of the drawing room – is disturbed. The claustrophobia of an otherwise engaging conversation reverberates inside the room – to break away from these domestic confines, the stranger leaves for a tribal village the next morning. The intrusion of the outside world into the close limits of this interior space arouses the curiosity of an otherwise narrow-minded middle-class family. Providing a setting in which the realization of a nomadic life unfolds to expand the site of home might be considered an apt swansong.
How is the tension between private and public spaces reverberating in a drawing room conveyed in film sound? Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover (1992), based on Marguerite Duras’ novel of the same name, is an example of the creative use of room ambience to evoke the emotional complexity of a drawing room. Set in Saigon, the film explores the love and loss of a doomed romance during Asia’s colonial era. In a moment of domestic intimacy, the protagonist listens to the incessant urban clamor outside – people moving carts, murmuring, selling, and storing their supplies in a bustling marketplace – just beyond the quiet acoustic setting of the room. In a voiceover, she tells the audience that she feels exposed in this private room invaded by public sounds while searching for a close quietness to express her tenderness.
In media art productions, this subjective focus and attention to certain sounds can be more personally determined. In 2007–2008, I was commissioned by the Calcutta Art Research Foundation to develop a series of sound works. One of these works was based on listening to the sonic environments of drawing rooms in middle-class Kolkata. At the time, I was still a film student and eager to take on this commission as my first freelance assignment. In researching everyday household situations in a number of accessible joint families, I discovered that there are differences between the sonic world of drawing rooms in the poorer and more traditional North Kolkata and the affluent and upwardly mobile parts of South Kolkata. The sounds of daily chores, room tones, and Bengali accents differ, and yet, collectively, they represent the soundscape of an intimate and insular indoor life and its dynamics with the vibrant city outside. By recording sounds from early morning into the night, I was able to observe that a certain predictability emerged from day to day. The sounds in a typical Kolkata drawing room interior are most often generated by speech, television and smartphones, music players, sounds from the adjacent kitchen, and the extant room tone: sounds from electrical devices and, most importantly, the intrusion of surrounding city sounds. For the project, these sounds were recorded, compiled, and rendered as a composition of the sound environment and its dynamics within a fluctuating cityscape. While collecting field recordings, I focused primarily on three different households and drawing rooms for their specific acoustic elements. Two of them were located in North Kolkata, and the third was in South Kolkata. Although I was studying film, I decided to process these ambient recordings into a sound composition without visual accompaniment. A composition of the recorded, everyday sounds of urban households could powerfully evoke the intimate details of the auditory environment of a living, urban microcosm. The work revealed a precarious interaction between indoor and outdoor spaces due to the intrusion of public sounds into the domestic setting. Kolkata's continuous urban expansion over the last three hundred years has resulted in a diverse, cosmopolitan settlement full of distinctive Bengali residential and domestic culture. The northern part of the city is older, more archaic and traditional than its southern part, which has developed into a metropolis over the last two hundred years. During this process, sounds inside and outside the home have evolved; aural characteristics of domestic life have shifted with the emergence of new sounds – predominantly those from televisions and smartphones, electronic gadgets, and digital devices – that are entering a backdrop of increasingly less prominent sounds from older media, such as shortwave radio and the gramophone. However, a typical North Kolkata drawing room still retains the memories of these lost sounds while accommodating newer sounds in its cumulative, yet transforming, room ambience.