Porosity and Equal Temperament: “What Border?”

Image courtesty of The David Rumsey Map Collection

1. At the New Delhi launch of Himal Southasian Quarterlya news and analysis publication that has developed critical socio-political perspectives on South Asia through long-form Journalism, the eminent historian, Romila Thapar addressed circulations of civilizational lines, border-making and the ascent of cartography. She outlined the essential qualities of borders as porous spaces that are “zones of movement” and in movement, to stress—as rivers changed course, lands came under cultivation and forests blotted out territorial qualifications, the recognition of landforms and their narratives of belonging have also consistently shifted. 

In the brief address, Thapar cited her conversation with a group of Maganiar folk musicians, who maintain an ancestral music tradition within the Thar Desert region, spread across parts of Western India and Pakistan. She inquired whether the border between these two nations had significantly affected their livelihood—assuming the musicians were unable to access patrons and audiences now divided between the border running through desert folds. What would happen at those weddings and other festive occasions where generations of Manganiars have performed before partition of the subcontinent?

In response, the musicians had laughed, and said: “What Border?” 

National borders are security-infested volatile territories ripping into civilizational continuities—we know this too well. Now perhaps, the unrealized task would be to narrativize these affective cartographies that not only “exceed” borders but refuse them by developing mechanisms as well as a behaviour of porosity. By casting modes of inhabitation beside formal ownerships of territory.  

While both figures—almost contemporaneously—altered tuning history, it is unlikely the two knew of one another. It would seem that as two strings vibrate at an equal harmonic ratio, the temperaments of thought-matter and events of history also arrive at intersections of sympathetic time. It is at such a juncture that modern rationality collapses, to be taken over by the very gestures of non-conformity it has stifled. In the sixteenth century, two prominent figures—musicologist and mathematician Prince Zhu Zaiyu of the Ming dynasty in China, and Vincenzo Galilei, an Italian lutenist and music theorist—both established the system of twelve-tone equal temperament. Zhu Zaiyu drew from the acoustic calculations of early pitch pipes and calendric recordings found in Yuelü, the ancient ritual tone system, finally inventing the formulation with an eighty-one-bit abacus. In the late Renaissance, Galilei studied string tension and proposed a system of equal intervals for tuning the lute. With this equal-tempered scale, he challenged still-dominant Pythagorean traditions in music theory. 

A music score by Taiwanese composer Chen Sizhi [1911-1992] titled Breezes Through The Banana Leaves from his series “Taiwanese Sketches” [1939] when exhibited alongside geographer Herman Moll’s A New Map of The Whole World With Trade Winds [1736], acts as an emplacement outlining a “third” fictional cartography. The first is a sonic act that maps the surrender of banana leaves to the irrational call of wind, depicted as a string of music notes leaping across the page. The second is a re-charting of the world through the observational plotting of variable seasonal winds and a shower of arrows outlining their shifting pattern. This map was realized by the same figure who earlier plotted fanciful cartographies for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

While Chen Sizhi provides a topographical sketch of the banana field as a breeze-induced score, Moll’s map is also a score for empires colonizing territorial pockets, composed in the pitch of wind pressure arrows piercing the belly of his world atlas. If we go by the Law of Contagion as it relates to magical thinking, once these materials become co-actors within a shared biosphere, they continue to affect one another’s given temperament even after physical contact has been severed. The act of placing beside is seen here as an interruption rather than an expression of direct association. It argues for a transgressive geography between time, place, and things of incommensurate worlds.


Gene J. Cho, The Discovery of Musical Equal Temperament in China and Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press), 2003

James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012). First published in 1890.

Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability,” Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 30 (October 2001): 319–334.