In ritual settings, the sonic often provokes sensations that are difficult to render into discourse. What is behind the peculiar power of the sonic in such settings? What is the relationship between the sonic and the body? Is there a particular link between the sonic and the holistic nature of public religious performances that exceeds what can be seen, heard, smelled, and tasted? Does the sonic constitute a kind of knowledge of its own that we tap into when we are immersed in such performances, or get close to them, connecting us to others in a somatic way?
In the megacity of Mumbai, processions on the tenth of the Islamic month Muharram have long been among the most spectacular religious events. These are commemorations of the tragic events of the battle of Karbala, which took place in the Christian year 680 in what is now central Iraq, and in which Hussain, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed along with members of his family in a struggle over the leadership of the community of Muslims. Indeed, in the nineteenth century these processions were widely acknowledged as the most prominent religious event in the city, only to be eclipsed by the Ganapati procession at the turn to the twentieth century when Hindu nationalist mobilization became more forceful. With their dramatic displays of mourning and highly decorated floats they were also sites for the display of masculine bravado, neighborhood pride, and the power of strongmen that informally ruled them. They also became sites of violent clashes, inviting bans and regulation from the British colonial authorities in Bombay. As the result of such intervention, the processions adopted a more Islamic, and finally Twelver Shi‘i character, and the ‘ulema assumed a prominent role in them.
These massive ritual events in urban space have not lost much of their spectacular character. Masses of participants and onlookers, many wearing black clothes to express their mourning, stream through the streets along the route of the processions. Groups of devout Shi‘is, often organized in guilds tied to the places of origin from where their families migrated to Mumbai, carry ornate floats, highly decorated replicas of the tomb of Hussain, as well as battle standards displaying the signs of the family of the Prophet. To some of these standards, blood-smeared shrouds are tied in order to underline the drama of mourning for the dead members of the family of the Prophet. This is accompanied with rhythmic chanting of devotional poetry, expressing loyalty and grief for Hussain and other members of the family of the Prophet, as well as outrage over their killing, sometimes describing the tragic events of the battle and its aftermath in heart-rending detail. In some locations, ritual participants also restage the tragic events of the battle of Karbala, reliving them in the most literal way.
Groups of men with bare upper bodies engage in rhythmic and bloody self-flagellation with knives or by hitting their backs with razor blades tied to the end of metal chains. The thumping sounds of scores of men beating their breasts in unison in a show of bereavement can be heard, along with the sounds of drummers in the streets. Launching oneself into the processions is an exercise in sensory intensity.
Ever since the conflicts around them in nineteenth century and early twentieth century colonial Bombay, the Muharram processions have shown that contestations over the right to the city have been inseparable from the performance of public religion. From its beginnings, such collective ritual on particular days of religious calendars has not just been public by virtue of its massive spectacle in urban space. It has also been a focus of public debates and media coverage. In such debates the position and prominence of particular “communities” in the city associated with the rituals and processions have been central. Nowadays, the instant mediatization of such ritual practice is a ubiquitous, almost banal feature. Indeed, the filming of the processions and the sharing of videos through social media appears an integral part of the practices themselves. Shia organizations and guilds involved in the procession often release edited video footage on YouTube or more specialized Shi‘i video portals.
Given the jostling for public space and prominence between people defined as communities, often in religious terms, for which Mumbai/Bombay has long been notorious, the overall marginalization of Muslims in post-independence India lends the Muharram processions a particular significance. With the political hegemony that Hindu nationalists have been able to establish more recently against the background of a history of anti-Muslim violence and Muslim exclusion and ghettoization in the city, this predicament has become even more acute. For members of a Muslim minority, a sectarian minority within a minority, there is more at stake than ever in publicly claiming a right to the city. In a manner distinct from public debate and the deliberative dimensions of the public sphere, the religious ritual with its sensory intensity operates in a different register of recognition. It is an appeal to recognize Shi‘i Muslims’ right to the city through establishing an undeniable presence in urban space that cannot be argued away. This highlights the importance of the felt and atmospheric dimensions of recognition, by giving particular neighborhoods a certain “feel” of belonging to a particular group. This feel is intimately linked to processions as multisensorial spectacles.
In this forum on “Rethinking public religion: Word, image, sound,” one might well remember W. J. T. Mitchell’s contention that “there are no visual media.” Mitchell pointed out that in acts of perception and circulation, whatever is visual about images interacts with and is embedded in other modalities of the sensorium. Extending the argument, it would follow that there are no auditory media either, as acts of listening are equally and inextricably embedded into a holistic sensory experience. Publics come about through circulating interplays of images, sounds and discourses, and acts of circulation are often also acts of perception. Given the sensory and mediatic turn in the study of religion that provides the backdrop to this forum we might ask for ways to account for the irreducible holism of publics instead of dealing with image, sound, and discourse separately. Others have pointed out how compared with the burgeoning field of visual culture in the study of religion, the field has been relatively slow in engaging with the sound-related aspects of religious practice. Some have even seen this as evidence for the field’s “deafness” and ocularcentrism, a charge that many have long seen as defining characteristic of North Atlantic intellectual traditions more broadly. But a renewed focus on the auditory dimensions of religion, while valuable, is not enough to redress this bias. How then does this admission sit with the idea of sonic privilege, the title I have chosen for my intervention?
What do I mean by sonic privilege? This is the privileged and proximate relationship of the sonic to the holistic character of sensory religion. In saying this, I recall the important distinction between the auditory and the sonic. The former pertains to the sense of hearing, the perception of acoustic phenomena through the hearing apparatus. The latter stands for the entire breath of traveling energetic and vibratory phenomena that include, but also go far beyond, what can be heard and can potentially be sensed by the entire body. The auditory is therefore just one among several dimensions of the sensory complex of religion. The sonic, however, lies in close proximity to the holistic Gestalten, the atmospheric core of the sensory spectacle of religion. This atmospheric core cannot be reduced to single sensory impressions, but emerges prior to the singling out of such impressions, whether visual, auditory, or otherwise. The peculiar power of public religion lies in this seemingly ineffable holism that resembles what the German neo-phenomenologist and theorist of atmospheres Hermann Schmitz has called “synesthetic characters.” Synesthesia is here not to be understood in the sense of an interplay of separate dimensions of the sensorium, nor in the medical sense of a “confusion” in a subject’s sensory modalities, such as in hearing colors. Instead, the synesthetic rests in the holistic character of atmospheric perception that is upstream from the singling out of particular sensory impressions. It is a prior Gestalt that transcends seeing, hearing, smelling, and the like. How then, would this holistic Gestalt that accounts for the difficult-to-specify “feel” of a situation, religious or otherwise, align with the sonic?
Atmospheres as the holistic core of religious sensory spectacle intermingle with felt-bodies. They thereby exert stirrings and suggestions of movements that stand in relationships of analogy and similarity to the integral Gestalten that provoke them. The sonic as traveling vibratory phenomena does not just exceed the realm of the audible, but also provides an overall paradigm for such meaningful stirrings and suggestions of movement that atmospheres bring about. The sonic is the broader energetic flux from which the acoustic derives. It contains the suggestions of movement around which the perception of atmospheres revolves. The rhythmic chanting of lament, the drumming, breast-beating, and the movement of large numbers of people carrying colorful ritual objects through the streets converge in a prefiguring of movements felt by the sentient bodies of those exposed to them. It is in this sense we can call such suggestions of movement sonic, as they are about energetic flows that do not respect boundaries between objects and people, filling a pre-dimensional space with their emotional force. Suggestions of movement are the common denominator responsible for the overall feel that public religious spectacles such as the Muharram processions generate. They are the central mechanisms in a process of world-making that feed into the contestations over the right to the city that religious processions in Mumbai have long been about.