A spurt of creativity
This piece on the monsoon is not about the fascinating phenomenon of the northward shift of the sub-tropical jet-stream that triggers the monsoon or the economic importance of the monsoons. It will also not engage with the fact that till about 40 years ago, 75 per cent of people in India depended upon agriculture for their livelihood and that even today more than 50 per cent of India’s population depends directly on agriculture as a source of sustenance, that 56 per cent of all land under cultivation in the country is irrigated through rains and 80 per cent of all rain in India comes from the monsoons.
But these figures should help foreground the centrality of monsoons in the life of those who inhabit South Asia. Something that has so deeply influenced the conditions of life and existence of such a large population is bound to find reflection in creative expression.
One of the most celebrated passages in reference to the monsoons is in the Meghdoot by Kalidas. A yaksh (demi-god) has been sent on a punishment posting by his master, Kuber—the lord of wealth. The yaksh longs for his beloved but cannot be with her because he has been ordered to stay in this god forsaken hole for an entire year. One day he notices a huge cloud ascending a mountain, the yaksh asks the cloud, “Will you carry a message to my beloved?” The beloved lives in the North, the direction that the cloud has taken. The yaksh wants the cloud to tell her that he is well but misses her all the time.
The yaksh describes the route that the cloud has to take and as you begin to read the text you slowly come to understand what the monsoon does to the landscape and to everything that lives—birds, animals, flowers, insects and all those who rely on it for sustenance. The yaksha talks of the myriad ways in which the monsoons regenerates life, how it spurs trees and plants to grow and flower and how birds, animals and humans rejoice in the coming of rains.
The journey of the cloud messenger written almost 1,600 years ago is a classic of world literature and is just one example of how monsoon has impacted creative expression in the subcontinent. A translation of two verses from the Meghdoot will help us grasp the range of the text
The cool breeze bearing the scent of the earth is refreshed by your showers
Elephants inhale this pleasing breeze that ripens wild figs in the forest and gently fans you,
you who desire to proceed to Devgiri
The “you” in the text is the cloud and the fact that on its northward journey the cloud has to pass through Devgiri (in present day Maharashtra) would suggest that the yaksh is located either in the present day Maharashtra or further south. So one gets an entire sweep of the journey of the south-west monsoon in its northward journey to the Himalayas.
The reference to the scent of the earth in the verse brings us to another link to the monsoon and the persistence of the monsoon in popular memory. Try to imagine the parched earth of the plains that has been baking in the sun for months. This parched earth cracks, grasslands turn brown, trees wilt under the incessant glare, village streets are deserted and even children stay indoors. Everyone waits with bated breath, waits for the giver of life and sustenance to arrive, and then suddenly dark clouds gather and rumble, lightning streaks across the horizon and the heavens open up.
The crops have been harvested and there is little or no agricultural activity till after the monsoons. This is the time for weddings in rural areas, primarily because people have a lot of free time, when not attending marriages people keep themselves occupied with weaving baskets, repairing agricultural implements and fixing their thatched roofs. Then as the earth soaks up the first downpour it releases an intoxicating aroma: the fragrance of parched earth getting soaked. It is heady and refreshing at the same time. Our perfumers devised a technique to extract and preserve this aroma. It is called Itr-e-Gil, Persian for the fragrance of earth.
If you want this perfume you will have to visit Gulab Singh Johri Mal in Dariba Kalan in Chandni Chowk area of Old Delhi. The perfumers have been in business since 1816, it is expensive at 216 rupees for 1ml, but it is worth it. Perfumers in Kannauj and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh and some other places also make the perfume.
The presence of the monsoon is not confined merely to classical Sanskrit literature or in the craft of the perfumer; in fact creative expressions inspired by the monsoons are as numerous among our artists and musicians as are references to Holi or Basant, the spring.
In miniature paintings, one comes across several streams that depict monsoons. Among the most often repeated themes are paintings that fall under the raagmala series and were drawn to depict the central mood of many ragas of Hindustani music. Paintings depicting Raag Megh Malhaar or Raag Miyan Malhaar, for example. These pictorial representations of the raags invariably showed a young lady who seemed to be scared of the dark clouds and bolts of lightning that streaked through skies.
One of the finest depictions of this theme is a miniature. I am not quite sure of its provenance, perhaps Pahari or may be Rajput, but certainly post 18th century. It consists of a marble building on a marble terrace and a marble fence; a lady in white is bent forward as if running into a strong wind; she is shown trying to cover her head in an orange chunni even as she runs towards the open door; above her head atop the building one can see a peacock perched calmly waiting for the rains while in the right hand top corner of the frame one can see dark clouds looming low, almost ominously while bolts of lightning streak across them.
Then there is a painting that shows a lady being coaxed to come indoors by her maid while the rest of the scene remains by and large the same as described above. There are numerous other themes depicted in miniature paintings, both secular and religious but all pertaining to the monsoon. There is Krishna being carried in a basket across the river by Vasudev in torrential rain. Krishna is believed to have been born in the month of Bhadon, the second month of the four-month long rainy season in the Indian calendar consisting of Sawan Bhadon, Ashvin and Kartik.
There are other rain-related paintings as well, like those dealing with the lifting of the Govardhan Hill by Krishna in an ego clash with Indra, the God of Rain. Indra is intent on punishing the residents of Vrindavan for some transgression and he sends dark clouds, thunder and lightning to drown and devastate Vrindavan, but Krishna lifts the Govardhan on his little finger and all of Vrindavan takes shelter under the hill till Indra concedes defeat.
Monsoon is also the mating season for many animals, triggered probably with an increased supply of both grass and insects. Herbivores and birds tend to mate and reproduce during the rainy season and for the same reason. Carnivores find a much larger population of relatively defenceless prey to meet their increased needs.
During monsoons, the need to be together with one’s beloved was felt more strongly and if the beloved was away the feelings of longing became stronger during the monsoons and thus you have depictions of birha or separation in barahmasa songs and paintings dealing with the four monsoonal months, Chaumasa.
The manner in which monsoons have left their footmarks on Indian music whether classical, folk or popular is something that does not require any detailed explanation. Even a cursory look at our film songs will bear this out from “O sajna barkha bahar aayi”, and “Pyaar hua iqraar hua” to “Ghanan ghanan ghir aaye badra”. Our film music is full of rain songs, not only because it gave an opportunity to the director to cash in on the voyeuristic by dressing the heroine in a body clinging attire and drenching her in make believe rain, but also because songs of monsoon strike a deep chord among all south Asians.
From the iconic Ab ke sawan ghar aaja sanwariya sung by Begum Akhtar to Sawan ki boondaniyan by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi or Amma mere bhaiya ko bhejo ri ke saawan aaya ascribed to the 13th century Sufi poet Amir Khusrau to the Kajri, Jhoola and Chaumasa of the light classical and folk music, the contours of the Indian music cannot be adequately defined without an exploration of the monsoons. According to eminent vocalist Shubha Mudgal, the impact of the monsoons can be felt even among the exponents of traditional devotional music centered around the Vallabh Samuadaye, the Nath-Dwara Temple and the Kakraoli Kirtaniya where Sawan and Varsha compositions are a regular feature during the four monsoon months.
Monsoon time is also festival time. There is the festival of Teej more popular among women and young girls, where women would gather in gardens, throw rope swings on trees, swing and sing songs and spend an entire day with their friends. And of course, there is Raksha Bandhan, again a festival primarily of women who would go to meet their brothers and tie a string on their wrist to remind them of their obligations towards their sisters. Raksha Bandhan coincides with the full moon of the month of Sawan.
When writers, painters, musicians and festivals have all been drawn to the monsoons, can epicures be far behind. Come the monsoons, sweets and savouries begin to grace the shelves of every self-respecting halwai. The delicacies are too numerous: andarse ki goli, a sweet made from rice flour that has been fermented with yeast, mixed with sugar and coated with white sesame seeds before being deep fried, ghewar made from yeast fermented white flour batter with dollops of rabri and dry fruits, besni roti or besni tandoori paratha eaten with hot and tangy pumpkin curry or with a curry of green chilies and mince meat cooked with curd and followed by the king of fruits, the mango—dussehri, langda, chausa, kesri, him sagar and rataul.
The joys of monsoon are endless. Each region celebrates in its own way; I have listed only a fragment of the creative outpouring. Next time you are caught in a sudden downpour, do not curse the rains. Get drenched. Like so many other remarkable privilege like air and sunshine the rains too come free. Enjoy them long as you can. No human-made shower can beat a full-bodied monsoon shower.