A season to sing
The monsoon is not unique to India: indeed monsoon in Asia covers a wide swathe that extends all the way to East Asia. What perhaps makes the monsoon so special in India is its association with music. While rain making by drums and horns and cymbals is not exceptional to the subcontinent, the extraordinary poetic meanings invested in the season are certainly special. Just recalling the several melodic modes associated with the rainy season—Megh, all forms of Malhar, Amritavarshini—is enough to reflect on the power of the monsoons in fuelling imagination.
The joy of the first patter after a long hot summer, the drenched feeling of love and contentment, the perfect setting for a heroine suffering the pangs of unrequited love have been celebrated time and again in poetry and songs. What interests me especially is how this aesthetic inheritance was carried on and how through generations of listening, we have come to appreciate it albeit in very individual registers but which takes recourse to the same language. So, when Gangubai Hangal sings a ghana gagana garaja in Raag Brindavani, our minds reach out to something intangibly beautiful which has partly to do with her exquisite rendition, partly to what we associate the lyrics with and partly to the extraordinary quality of the raga—which like a beautiful colour is indescribable—and partly to what the rains mean for us.
Why is this so? Is it because we have grown to associate the season with strains of Malhar and Megh, put together by poets and musicians and thereafter, media managers so much so that we have come to expect a set of meanings in a musical phrase or in a passage that speaks of barish and barkha? Or, is it because the long summer ending with the monsoon has come to give us a particular mental scape that is as familiar as is the actual visual landscape of rolling clouds over the plains of India warmed by the heat of the summer? The reasons perhaps lie in between. While I do believe that a lot of our taste and identification is socially constructed through a long experiential process over which we may not have complete control, I also believe that there is the simple and almost instinctive appreciation of the elements when they are in full spate, and this would apply as much to the onset of the monsoon as to the sheer play of notes that make up melodic music.
The celebration of monsoons in music in a myriad ways brings home to us even now the intimacy of the season with our quotidian lives. It is the reason why India is able to grow water intensive rice cultivation; it is what gives us our seasons; it is what we wait for; and it is what inspires spontaneous expressions of joy in our everyday lives. What is impressive about the celebration—the common and joyous refrain of barkha ritu aayi —is how deeply the annual event has inscribed itself in the cultural history of the subcontinent and how we have come to order so much of our artistic expression around it. In the case of music, anecdotes abound on the power of the melody on the weather and vice-versa. Anyone even remotely familiar with the stories of Tansen and Baiju will recollect how singers could urge lamps to light spontaneously and the rains to fall at will and how they still have the power to thrill.