The Monsoon Raga
The Monsoon Raga. The images sketched by the great poet in this lyrical ode to his favourite season is but one of thousands of works inspired by dark, drifting clouds lining the skyline and life nourishing showers emanating from them inspiring poets, musicians and artists alike.
The first drops of rain bring with them the confluence of sweet fragrance of parched earth and cool breeze, which gladdens the mind, heart and soul. Rains and their incessant magic have been a recurring theme entwined with the life and culture of India - through classical and folk music, dance, painting and sculpture and romantic poetry that used clouds as metaphors to carry messages of lovers troubled by the pangs of separation.
The ancient hymns of the Rig Veda are replete with prayers to Parjanya, the God who brings rain and nourishes life...with our ancestors invoking him in their hymns as ‘Parjanya by whose grace plants shoot up and food springs abundant in all beings and at whose behest plants assume all colours.(Rig Veda 5.083.07).
The ancient Vedic culture also used hymns from the Aap Sukta of the Rig Veda and the Varuna Sukta of the Yajur Veda to propitiate the rain god in order to bring life to the parched plains of India where the Aryans settled in the pre-historic age.
The fragrance that emanates when the dry, cracked earth scorched by relentless heat is kissed by the first monsoon showers, the different hues of green that sprout to life and colourful flowers that bloom under its munificence, the verdant landscape where nature seems to rejoice with every drop that comes from the skies is what makes monsoon the most endearing of all seasons.
In India, whose entire economy depends on the timely arrival of the monsoons, one is all too familiar with the picture of a farmer looking up longingly at the skies one hand shielding his eyes from the scorching sun rays as he waits for the first signs of the dark rain bearing nimbus clouds that decide his fate. Folk songs heralding the onset of monsoon, like the “Ghanan ghanan ghir ghir aaye badra” depicted in the film ‘Lagaan’, celebrate this momentous occasion.
Monsoon that nurtures life also symbolises romance - the joyful meeting of lovers holding up colourful umbrellas, clandestine trysts in thunder lit locales, paper boats let off in swirling waters depicting the innocence of childhood, and the benevolent showers of grace that descend on a devotee put to endless trials by the gods in various tales from mythology. The monsoon also stands for tempestuous emotions with thunder, lightning and storm depicting the turmoil of a grief stricken mind or shattered dreams.
Kalidasa one of our greatest Sanskrit poets was a trendsetter in “Sandesha Kavya” (messenger poems) through his greatest work ‘Meghdhoot’ (cloud messenger) a lyrical poem in 111 stanzas. In this work a ‘yaksha’ or a celestial attendee of King Kubera (the god of wealth) after being exiled for a year to Central India for neglecting his duties, convinces a passing cloud to take a message to his wife at Alakapuri the mythical city on Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas.
The cloud accomplishes this by describing the many beautiful sights on the northward course to the city. Kalidasa paints a visual imagery of the clouds whose drifting transience is described beautifully along with the imposing mountain tops and dancing peacocks in the lines below:
“The silver clouds that vie with the whiteness of white lotuses are kissing the black boulders of mountains on mountain tops, while the mountain sides are bestrewn with mountain rapids and widespread debut, dancing peacocks and this is introducing a carnival like visual revelry”
The great Telugu poet, playwright and translator Devulapalli Krishnasastri’s lyric in the Telugu classical hit ‘Malleshwari’ seems to have emulated Kalidasa in his song ‘Akaashaveedhilo haayiga Egirevu’ (You drift happily in the vast skyline) where the lovers in their different surroundings convey their feelings to the clouds described ever so beautifully as ‘Meghamala’ or garlands of clouds. The lines mentioned here again use the meghamala as a messenger:
Naa manasu baavaku cheppiraava”
(O garland of clouds that know of my love,
Can you convey my state of mind to my beloved?)
Films in Hindi, Telugu and various regional languages have many beautiful songs that celebrate the monsoon as a symbol of romance and passion. They also provided the perfect excuse to show heroines at their sensual best, their flimsy chiffon sarees wet and clinging as they danced and swayed to evergreen lyrics.
While the monsoon brings connotations of wet earth, thundering clouds and all that is pleasing in nature it is the monsoon ragas in our classical music that strike the right chords that tug at our heart strings. Hindustani classical music includes the Malhar group of ragas, which are some of the oldest and most melodious ragas inspired by the mood of the monsoons. This raga is heard when thunderbolts rock the sky and raindrops descend on the ground gladdening hearts and causing nature to rejoice after months of longing.
Musicians have associated distinct Malhar ragas with different stages of the monsoon. ‘Mian ki Malhar’ goes with incessant rains, ‘Gaud Malhar’ is played when the monsoon is well advanced and in a playful mood and the ‘Surdasi Malhar’ is for the end of the season where there is an interplay of sun and rain. A scholarly book called the ‘Raga Malhar Darshan’ lists about 30 types of Malhar named after those who created them. The most enduring story from the Malhar group is one that involves the talented singer Tansen one of the nine gems of the Moghul Emperor Akbar’s court who could light lamps, tame wild elephants and bring rain through his melodious music.
Tansen whose music lit several lamps , with his rendering of Raag ‘Deepak’ was saved from the smouldering flames caused by his rendition when his daughter Saraswati sang raag ‘Megh Malhar’ that brought the welcome showers to extinguish the flames.
Carnatic music too has its share of monsoon ragas like Varunapriya, Jalarnavam, Megharanjani and the extremely popular ‘Amritavarshini’.
Muthuswamy Dikshithar one of the famous trinity of Carnatic music along with Thyagaraja and Shyama Sastri is said to have composed and sung ‘Anandamritakarshini’ in this raga after which the rains came pouring down to alleviate the drought in Ettayapuram where he lived. Classical dances like Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and the North India Kathak too have dances set to compositions in rain invoking ragas that can bring changes in the atmosphere.
Krishna the god described as ‘Ghanshyam’ has many rain songs centred on his romance with Radha with the monsoon being an inseparable part of stories that abound him. Not only was he born on a dark rainy night, he was also the protector, holding aloft the Mountain Goverdhan on his little finger saving his people from rain and storm. Both Surdas and Tulsidas the saint poets of India have composed vast body of devotional songs based on the monsoons. Many devotional songs allude to the allegory seen in the shloka below:
“Akashat patitam toyam sagaram pratigacchati
Sarva deva namaskaram keshavam pratigacchati”
(Just ever rain drops descending from the skies joins the sea, salutation to all gods reaches kesava the ultimate divinity)
Kahlil Gibran the Lebanese American artiste, poet and writer in his poem ‘Song of the rain’ strikes a philosophical note comparing rain to earthly life in these lines
“The voice of thunder declares my arrival:
The rainbow announces my departure
I am like earthly life which begins at the feet of mad elements
And ends under the upraised wings of death.”
‘Raindrops and roses’ may top the list of favourite things as noted from the lovely song from the ‘Sound of Music’, but monsoon also has its food cravings. Crunchy fries, yummy snacks and that wonderful brew called ‘Coffee’ find extra favour during the monsoon. There is an interesting story about the discovery of the acclaimed ‘Monsooned Malabar Blend’ that lends credence to this argument.
In the olden days when coffee beans were transported by sea from India to Europe, the moisture of the sea winds made the beans turn pale brown from green altering the taste of the coffee. When motorised ships and faster transport became available traders still asked for the old variety so even today ‘Monsooned Malabar’ variety is produced by introducing moisture through artificial means.
The whole of creation exults as the gentle monsoon winds (Komala Malayasameeram) cast their magic spell bringing down silver threads that fill the fields and valleys and quench the thirst of the parched earth longing for succour. As the temperatures soar the longing for those refreshing showers that the poet Walt Whitman calls ‘the poem of the earth’ only intensifies.