The call of the Asian Koel is everywhere these days – real or recorded, writes Stephen Prins Kept in the mind’s archives for reference can be the strangest bits and pieces of memory. Usually these are leftovers, or crumbs, of recollection. The mind retains only fragments, and these come to represent the whole memory of [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The Koha, the Flute and the Arrow


The call of the Asian Koel is everywhere these days – real or recorded, writes Stephen Prins

Kept in the mind’s archives for reference can be the strangest bits and pieces of memory. Usually these are leftovers, or crumbs, of recollection. The mind retains only fragments, and these come to represent the whole memory of a certain experience. This is especially true of childhood memories. Such as the sound of a Koha calling on the soundtrack of a film we saw when we were 12 years old.

The film was “The Flute and the Arrow,” a nature documentary couched in the form of a narrative about a boy and a leopard. It was set in India, and apart from a hazy image or two of jungle and rice fields, and a stunning full screen close-up of a tropical flower shuddering under the impact of a falling raindrop, we recall nothing else about the film. But the memory of going to see the film – one drizzly afternoon in 1961 (or ’62), in the company of Older Brother – comes back every 12 months, at this time of year, when the Koha sounds its plaintive mating call.

The film came highly recommended. Our neighbour, David Gordon, also 12 years, rolled up to our gate on his Raleigh bicycle to tell us that “The Flute and the Arrow” was simply marvellous and “not to be missed.” We mentioned this to Older Brother, who had also heard praise for the film, and off we went that afternoon to the Empire Cinema in Braybrooke Place, Colombo 2.

It is hard to say why the Koha cry should stand out in a film viewed half a century ago. It may be that the Koha call, already familiar to us, who spent much of our childhood in trees, in our quiet leafy neighbourhood, was familiar and therefore exciting to hear in the dark of a cinema. The cinema hall was where we went to discover and revel in unfamiliar worlds. The Koha cry was a sound we could relate to in the visually unfamiliar landscape of central India, where the film was set. The landscape was exotic in the way India is exotic to a Ceylonese or Sri Lankan: it’s like our world but is not our world.

How we cherished that Koha call, that long-ago afternoon, inside the Empire Cinema hall. And ever after, when the Koha cries, we recall the film, and the voice of the bird’s Indian cousin. Mostly, we recall coming out of the cinema and being long haunted by emotions stirred by the film. Today, when the Koha calls, the mind’s eye sees a symbolic flute and arrow among the leaves of a mango tree where we imagine the shy Koha to be hiding.

Here is a case of Life recalling Art, and of Art bringing things vividly to Life.  For years we thought we had lost all trace of “The Flute and the Arrow.” And then, reassuringly, the film turned up on the computer screen during a “surfing” session two days ago. For this writer, the Koha call is forever synched with the 1959 film by the award-winning Swedish filmmaker Arne Sucksdorff. “The Flute and the Arrow” is set in the jungle world of Bastar, in the state of Chhattisgarh. The “actors” are members of an aboriginal tribe known as the Murias. We will download the film, which has a music score by Ravi Shankar, and save it to see on a rainy afternoon.

From a lifetime of film-going, and the enjoyment of what is essentially a visual art form, the unusual experience of a sound memory proving stronger than the visual memory also occurs in the case of two other, totally different, films. We recall fleeting images and scenes from both films, but it is a single auditory memory in each that persists.

The hugely popular 1961 adventure war film “The Guns of Navarone” has a suspenseful night scene of a distant building with a couple of lighted windows and the faint sound of radio music coming from some corner of the screen. So realistic and yet so faint was the radio that many of us in the audience thought someone in the “gallery” of the Savoy Cinema was playing with a transistor. The sound produced an extraordinary effect, a directorial master stroke. It is the artistic detail of that out-of-sight radio that survives for us from a film famous for its booming guns and detonations.

The 1965 “Lord Jim”, a Richard Brooks film of the Joseph Conrad novel, was described by one critic as a “big, gaudy, clanging colour film.” The film was partly shot in Cambodia and Malaysia. Out of all that gaudy, clanging colour, this filmgoer remembers only one thing, 47 years later: the sound of Buddhist monks chanting pirith in the distance in a night scene of tropical jungle. There again, it was the familiar sound of “gaatha” arising from unfamiliar surroundings in a fictional celluloid world that sticks in the memory. And it is true that the sound of pirith-chanting from a neighbourhood temple often brings back the 1966 memory of going by taxi with Mother and Younger Brother to the Rio Cinema in Slave Island to see “Lord Jim.”

In an essay about the making of the film “In Cold Blood”, the American writer Truman Capote, who wrote the book on which the film is based, says art makes life extra real.

As children, we had a verandah view of the birds that came to feast on the Surinam cherry in the next garden. The female Koha with her speckled cuckoo look and fiery red eye was an exciting visitor to behold. The cherry tree, which grew in the garden of Dr. F. N. (Noel) Spittel, was ornamental in a Japanese woodcut way. The tree was old, we were told, and its bark was a silver grey. The sparse branches spread out at the top and were delicately leaved. When the fruit changed colour, from green to yellow to orange and red, the berries looked like little electric lights hung up for a children’s party. The Koha was like a party guest. We would be very still, careful not to scare off the cuckoo, which looked almost outsize on this dainty tree.

Come to think of it, we cannot recall seeing the female Koha in all the years since she was a visitor next door, long, long ago.
This afternoon, travelling by bus, we heard the call of the Koha. We looked out of the window, hoping to glimpse the elusive bird in a tree inside Vihara Maha Devi Park, when we realized the Koha was calling from inside the bus – from the bus radio.

It seems to us that the cry of the Koha is not as omnipresent this year as it used to be. Five years ago, on returning to Sri Lanka after two decades overseas, the sound of the Koha was like a welcome song. It was everywhere, at all times of day and even into the night. This year the Koha is less of a presence in Colombo. It is sad if the bird is yet another victim of habitat loss – the result of excessive tree-cutting and runaway urbanisation.

If indeed we are hearing less of the real-life Koha, that is a tragic diminishing of the country’s natural wealth. But at least we can hear it on radio and on television.

The Koha is very much on the Avurudu soundtrack.

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