BEFORE I RETURNED TO MUMBAI with my family, for nearly 15 years, every Friday or Saturday, depending on where we were domiciled, around 12 noon, fresh after a bath, my mother  in Kerala, would park herself besides the phone in the living room waiting for a call from us.  The gist of each call made was pretty much the same : pleasantries, inquiries about health, medication, regularity of the home nurse and house maid, et al. But the tone, pause, pitch, volume and spontaneity was different at each call.  The listeners at both ends “looked”  for clues for anything amiss or fresh and the conversation at times took unexpected turns depending on what was discerned in the act of listening.  It was during these calls that I realized the importance of the human voice and soon it became a matter of habit to observe in each voice that I listened to, a whole range of qualities : interest, earnestness, energy, indifference, fatigue, empathy, honesty, tenderness, enthusiasm, pretence and  even Freudian slips!!

AMIDST “THE INFINITE PROFUSION OF  HUMAN VOICES” I was also lucky to stumble upon Anne Karpf’s interesting  book titled “The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent” (Bloomsbury) where I learnt that “air filtered through our larynx produces the human voice” and that “to speak, you need to control the movement of the larynx, glottis, soft palate, jaw, lips and tongue, as well as be able to synchronize the respiratory cycle with the activity of the vocal chords.”  And, “saying ‘Hello, how are you” requires the coordinated use of more than 100 muscles”! Besides, “voice acts as an exquisite psychic barometer.”

I HAVE ALSO FELT AN  INCREDIBLE ASSOCIATION with voice, time, and memory.  During the radio days in the early  70s, 7.25 am meant invariably listening either to Shankaranarayanan, Gopan, Sathyendren, or Rani reading the Malayalam news on All India Radio and by the time it was 7.55 am it was always a memorable song from K.L. Saigal on what was then Radio Ceylon that my Dad insisted on listening till it was Loma Time – 8 am for adjusting our watches.  The radio then became alive again at 9 pm for the news in English and this time it was either Melvyn D’Mello, Surajit Sen, Pamela Singh, or Lotika Ratnam.  The voice overs for all the Films Division documentaries that preceded the main  feature film screenings that we were sparingly allowed to watch were invariably Pratap Sharma or Zul Vellani.  One also remembers John Tusa, Michael Ashby and others who read the news on BBC broadcasts long before the advent of television. And who can forget the ever fresh Ameen Sayani on Binaca Geet Mala ?

ALL GREAT VOICES HAVE WELL KNOWN STORIES associated with them – be it that of Churchill’s or Dylan Thomas’s.  Nearer home, last year, I read an interesting autobiography of one of Malayalam cinema’s leading dubbing artistes, Bhagyalakshmi, titled “Swarabedhangal”, which loosely translated into English would mean “Modulations”.  It won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2013.  The book has very interesting tales related to the tough grind that dubbing artistes face.  It is a pity indeed that their talents are not accorded the recognition they deserve.  Very recently, in an engaging article in The Hindu, titled “Recognizing ‘Behind the Voice’ Actors”, Radha Rajadhyaksha, laments about the recognition that was denied to dubbing artistes like Mona Ghosh Shetty and Rita Koiral while lending their voices to Deepika Padukone and Kiron Kher respectively.  On the other hand, she also tells the story of John Abraham who publicly acknowledged his debt to dubbing artiste Viraj Adhav.   In context, she cites the interesting plot of R. Balki’s film Shamitabh where the key issue explored is who should get greater credit – the dubbing artiste or the actor who employs the former’s voice “since voice and dialogue delivery undoubtedly amount to half the performance ”   She also tells us the not so well known story that the credit for mentioning the names of Hindi playback singers against the songs they sung on records as well as on screen goes to Lata Mangeshkar who had to wage a battle for getting this recognition first way back in 1949 for her famous song “Aayega, Aayega, Ayega Aanewala” in Kamal Amrohi’s film “Mahal”

THE BEST VOICE THAT I EVER LISTENED TO  is that of Scott Hicks, director, expounding on his memorable film “Shine”.  It was a bonus feature on the film’s DVD.  And when I find the going dull, I switch on my iPod and listen to Shreya Ghoshal, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohamed Rafi, Kishore Kumar , Yesudas and Chitra. Favourites apart, I continue to think about voices in distress, voices that are ecstatic, voices that reassure, argue and plead, as well as lullabies and sweet nothings – all of which provide the sum total of human experience itself.

LISTENING TO VOICES IN OUR MIDST requires a certain degree of attentiveness – besides, the focus we give to the person who is talking to us is also a measure of respect that we bestow upon the person. Attentiveness to sounds, let alone speech, is, as we all know,  exceedingly sharp in the case of the blind and there are particular challenges that the deaf encounter when they try to decifer the lip movements and gestures around them. Their challenges have been set out by the late Oliver Sacks in his beautiful book “Seeing Voices”(Picador), which is a must read.

AS SOMEONE PERENNIALLY IN LOVE WITH THE HUMAN voice, I was thrilled to read an interesting report titled “Kahaani (short story) makes a comeback on Radio” by Joeanna Rebello last week in the Sunday Times of India. It speaks, amongst other things, of a collaboration between Rajkamal Prakashan and Radio Mirchi for the series Ek Purani Kahaani (An Old Story) that is aired every day at 11 pm. When it aired stories by Saadat Hasan Manto, its RJ Sayema received a response even from Manto’s grandson in Lahore !!  One couldn’t help thinking that in these days when reading is on the wane, at least the spoken word can restore our interest in beautiful stories and help us understand life itself !

LASTLY, IT MUST NOT BE FORGOTTEN THAT the  voice of every human being on this planet is different and distinct and this analogy is also applied appealingly to what one writes as well.  The  best advice I received as I began writing full time was this : FIND YOUR VOICE.

P.S. This piece was originally written on April 16World Voice Day