KARNAN SABA

Silence / Worth

In the Indian classical music tradition every concert or rehearsal begins with a sound known as a tanpura or tambura. It is a harmonic drone which plays continually throughout the duration of a performance. All instruments tune to the fundamental note of this drone as its ‘tonal centre’ and as you improvise and explore melody, this harmonic drone stays present as a canvas and a pivot, a point of departure and resolution. I spent some time in my late teens discovering this music and in my mind this particular sound still holds something sacred and meditative because it evokes a state of reverence.   

But once the music has begun, our brains acclimate and filter this sound out leaving an impression of depth and a resonance that hangs in the air. We listen to this harmony without direct attention and it disappears. It creates an interesting phenomenon because as soon as the tanpura stops playing you are faced with a new kind of silence. You know when the compressor motor in your fridge stops momentarily? Your hearing is instantly attuned to the absence of this electrical noise that’s been running the whole time. You feel this deeply at the end of a classical recital. People come back to their senses, we applaud, the sacred drone is gone and the world feels very different for the brief time that we walk up the stairs to leave the auditorium.

Yet this silence carries real weight when we initiate it out of our own volition. If we think back to the moments in our lives where we’ve observed them out of ritual, we reach for this power beyond just an auditory experience. Two minutes silence after a tragedy. The hearse after it has left a funeral service.

This is common theatre-speak I assume but early on in my time working with Tawata – there was a question that was posed by many people that changed how I see music – at what point in our story do we use silence? What is so powerful to have earned that moment where we ask for our audience to be still and reflect? There is such immense power in this shared experience of silence that we begin to hang on to it within our tonal palette and language with care.

As I reflect on Ahi Karunaharan’s The Mourning After, I remember this key detail in the season we presented at Circa Theatre in 2012. It gave us – Miria, Ahi, Laurie and myself – a chance to really work with dialling in this silence. The sound of the Indian Ocean became this sacred meditative drone that is ubiquitous in the writing. Its function is the same – to bring everything that we throw on this canvas to life. Shekar is greeted with it at the house when he goes back to Sri Lanka, you hear it faintly inside, you hear it from the window in his room. It’s loud at its point of crescendo, and then eventually deafening when it’s not there. 

The end result was silence in the show for a total of 30 seconds for two moments – where longing and the bottled up loss of time and significance are laid out. No sea, no music. We come to our senses, we go inwards. A man knocks on a door with the treasure he has spent years searching for, another man asks if after all these years he is remembered. Both ask of their worth. At a point where the story speaks the loudest, the sea has to go quiet, the people who left long ago and no longer live by this ocean are now present through us. A layer of a past life is shed and then we return to the water. ‘Laurie, can we bring in the crows and the sea back at this point?’

The Mourning After is just one point in a continuum of creative work from South Asian artists in New Zealand. With Indian Ink and the Untouchables Collective before it, in the last ten years, we’ve seen this body of work expand greatly, and become more ambitious and confronting as it gets diverse. 

We can acknowledge now how our world is changed by our growing representation. However, we can also reflect on how much representation changes us. When we are ready, what our craft as artists offers us is this opportunity to unburden ourselves from things we carry around in our personal history. Because the real stories here that we pass off as too hard, that seem to ask for too much compassion, are playing in our psyche. The ones that your family will replay at gatherings at home to each other. Nostalgic glances back at an awkward adolescence, the coming of age through trauma, anxiety starting new lives in new homes. Those stories of people struggling to manage and express difficult emotions for fear of judgment. The many different versions of ‘this is who we are’ and ‘what will they think of us’. These are well integrated into our identity and self-worth, playing beneath our awareness like a drone. We continue to live these stories and the sacred tanpura of our psyche draws more of these life experiences to us. Until there is a break and we are forced to see this in front of us.

We see it In the movies, the books, the plays, the poems, the songs. The richness of this tonal palette and language which we exchange with each other expands. That is the place from where we come to our senses, we go inwards. 

It’s not surprising that I rarely think of the music in that show apart from a few things. I had to jog my memory to remember the name of the aria that plays throughout. I remember recording lots of guitar and ukulele and writing to my friend Sum in Sri Lanka who recorded some yak beraya (low country drums) for us. Making music and sound for theatre takes on a familiar routine after a while but those questions about silence and worth will still kick me around.

Image Credit Aneta Pond


The Mourning After by Ahi Karunaharan, World Premiere Season 16 October 2012, Circa Theatre, Wellington.

Karnan Saba is a music producer who has worked on sound designs and original music for 12 show seasons with Tawata since 2010. His independent music production credits include Bird of Paradise and collaborations with Avantdale Bowling Club, Gift of Gab, Christoph El’Truento, Jet Jaguar and Amin Payne.