Where is Your Silence?


This article was originally published in September 2014.

As a child, I have had the pleasure of playing with Padma Bhushan Harindranath Chatopadhyay almost every other day (he would drop in every morning after his walk for a cup of my grandmother’s percolated filter coffee). The very first time I heard his poem Rail Gaadi was under the dining table. The gleeful, infectious relish with which he recited it was filled with his characteristic expressions, modulation and pauses. I will never forget that space under the table… it was our fortress, free from distractions and bumbling adults.

Years later, in 1994, I read the commencement address made by the Grammy Award-winning musician Sting, at the Berklee College of Music, USA. “Paradoxically, I’m coming to believe in the importance of silence in music,” he said. “The power of silence after a phrase of music for example; the dramatic silence after the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the space between the notes of a Miles Davis solo. There is something very specific about a rest in music. You take your foot off the pedal and pay attention. I’m wondering whether, as musicians, the most important thing we do is merely to provide a frame for silence. I’m wondering if silence itself is perhaps the mystery at the heart of music? And is silence the most perfect music of all?”

Space, silence, nothingness. I have realised that silence and emptiness are the most underestimated aspect of both photography and life. It is also the most misjudged. Our entire search in photography begins with trying to find something to put into a space. How many times has a student of photography been told… “Here is a subject. How will you shoot it?” I would now much rather be asked… “Here is space. How will you use it?”

Every rule of composition, be it in music, poetry recitation, or photography, is constructed around space and silence. I remember reading a quote by Harindranath Chatopadhyay on the back cover of one of his books… “You who do not acknowledge my presence, will forever be haunted by my absence.” And haunted we are! I cannot think of a more apt quote for us today.

Tags: Composition, K Madhavan Pillai, music, August 2012, Silence, Harindranath Chatopadhyay, Poetry