Capturing the monsoons
It's a season that inspires and engages everyone, from the farmer to the policy maker. From the scientist to the travel writer. From the economist to the music critic, and from the botanist to …
Drops for the economy
The words, rainfall and monsoon, hardly find a place in economics textbooks. For millions of people in India, however, normal or poor monsoons can make all the difference between meeting basic economic needs, and a plunge into poverty and destitution. With the meteorology department announcing a largely a deficient rainfall till July, the outlook appears grim.
The southwest monsoon system ensures that most parts of India get adequate rainfall from June to September, enabling a rich agricultural economy. Traditionally, the agricultural sector drove the Indian economy. The first blow of a poor monsoon fell on agricultural output bringing down the overall economic growth. The second effect was to reduce the demand for non-agricultural products. A poor harvest brought down the income of the farmers and hence the demand for many products including white goods, two-wheelers and even gold went down. The third—and perhaps the most pervasive—effect was on agricultural prices.
This led to inflationary tendencies not only through higher food prices, but also through higher prices for industrial inputs like cotton. The fourth effect was on employment and poverty. Since the majority of the population was employed in agricultural or ancillary sectors, and a large number of them had very limited incomes, the failure of monsoons had significant effect on poverty.
Apart from these direct effects on the economy, a shortfall in rains affects both fiscal and monetary policy adversely.
Since crop failures tend to push large sections of the population into poverty and distress, governments have to step in with increased expenditure on crisis management. To spend more on such policies, they usually cut back on public investments or other critical expenditures like those on education, bringing down long run growth rates. Crop failures affect monetary policy as well. As we have seen in the past few years, food inflation can very easily ignite the fires of aggregate inflation. This happens partly due to the importance of food in our consumption baskets and partly due to what economists call “inflationary expectation”.
This catch-all term encapsulates the various ways in which the inflationary process feeds on itself, converting what is essentially a sectoral price rise into an aggregate inflationary process. As a result, prospects of crop failure and food inflation lead to very nervous reactions from monetary authorities with the pushing up of interest rates and squeezing liquidity out of the money markets. Such tight monetary policies again hamper the long- run growth of the economy.
So, the deficient rainfall has led to widespread concerns about impacts on the economy. The growth rates have already taken a beating due to the fragile international economy. Will a less-than-normal monsoon push it down even more significantly? In the 1970s, 1980s or even in the 1990s, the answer would have been a definite yes, as the agricultural sector and the economy were completely vulnerable to such shocks.
Looking back at recent trends, however, one can be optimistic. Certain important changes have taken place in the structure of agricultural production and in the overall economy, which has led to more resilience in the economy, at least in terms of growth rates.
Firstly, compared to the 1970s and 1980s, there has been some improvement in irrigation facilities, at least in the northern and western parts of India. Secondly, the rabi (winter) crop—that is far less susceptible to the vagaries of the monsoon— now provides more than half of the annual agricultural output. Thirdly, the agricultural sector now plays a much smaller role—compared to industry and services— in output and growth. All these changes have meant that poor monsoons have lost the kind of destabilising effect that they had on growth rates earlier.
Unfortunately, however, annual growth rates are not the only concern that a poor monsoon raises. The poor monsoon will definitely have an adverse effect on rural employment. Poverty and distress are likely to rise, not only due to the poor kharif crop, but also due to the high inflation rates that will ensue. And, any attempt by the monetary authorities to bring down the inflation by raising interest rates will also affect the economy’s long-run growth.
One of the major weaknesses of the Indian growth story is that it is fairly lopsided—low and fragile growth in agriculture coexisting with robust growth in industry and services.
Poor monsoons send us a strong reminder about this unbalanced growth.
Pinning hopes on the monsoon might be construed as hoping for divine help, particularly in a god-fearing country like India, but the fact of the matter is that not much had not been done in the past 20 years to improve irrigation and soil productivity.
The fretting over monsoon does not extend to a concern for storing rainwater. Instead, there is serious advocacy of expensive and environmentally disastrous ideas like interlinking rivers, which was even advocated by a former President and a former Prime Minister.
A good monsoon always brings cheer, but thought must be spared for eventualities like a bad monsoon. With global economic output decelerating, the rupee sliding and investment going down, a bad monsoon could ground the economy and cause more hardships to the poor. The current “subsidy phobia” in policy making is unlikely to help their cause.
Theoretically, it has been shown that changes in these factors can be predicted a little beyond two weeks; scientists call this the limit of atmospheric predictability. They hypothesise that predictability of such factors can translate to predicting atmospheric circulation and rainfall. On this hypothesis rests the scientific method for seasonal monsoon rainfall prediction. But the year-to-year variation of the summer monsoon rainfall due only to the boundary conditions is the only potentially predictable component of monsoons. The remaining variance is driven largely by fast varying day-to-day weather or intra-seasonal variations and is difficult to predict. With our current state of knowledge, meteorologists can predict extreme years—wet or dry.
For seasonal prediction of monsoon, two main approaches are used. The first approach is based on the empirical statistical method. It draws from the historical relationship between the Indian summer monsoon rainfall and predictors derived from global atmosphere-ocean parameters. However, while such a statistical approach is reasonably accurate for the country or the subcontinent, it has been found wanting for forecasts at smaller spatial scales such as state, sub-division or district.
For monsoon circulation and associated rainfall, meteorologists rely on what they call dynamical approaches: the Atmospheric General Circulation Model (AGCM) or Coupled General Circulation Models (CCGMS). The former is primarily driven by separately predicted SSTs. In contrast, CCGMs are driven by the SST simulated within the model structure. ACGM-based forecast systems are widely used around the world for seasonal forecasting because they have low computational cost, but they have been found to be faulty for monsoon prediction. In comparison, CGCMs have a better record in forecasting the evolution of anomalous SSTs over equatorial Pacific—ENSO. This has been possible mainly due to improved knowledge of the phenomenon, more and more powerful computers, and a very good operational observation system over the Pacific. As ENSO is the main source of interannual variability for monsoon, improvement in forecasting it should also lead to improvements in seasonal monsoon forecasting.
However, the situation has become a bit complicated with the recent weakening of the Indian monsoons relationship with ENSO. Though CGMs have shown better skill than AGCMs in understanding this phenomenon, improvements in model physics is necessary for these models to be used for operational forecasting. With this in mind, the Ministry of Earth Sciences in India has recently launched a National Monsoon Mission project to improve dynamical models for short- to long-range monsoon forecasting.
In recent times, coupled models have shown improvements in forecasting monsoon’s intra-seasonal variability, which was earlier thought to be nearly unpredictable. Intra-seasonal variability also plays a substantial part in the annual variability of monsoons and improved prediction of such variability should help generate better forecasts of monsoon on smaller spatial and temporal scales.
But the projected impacts of the global warming on the mean monsoon circulation and rainfall patterns, and on monsoon teleconnections throw up new challenges in monsoon prediction and these call for continued efforts in improving the global observational networks and the models as well.
The first week of rains revive the dry ponds and wells in the villages. The water is still muddy and brown and the showers only succeed in making the trails slushy. In Temurpalli, that village in Malkangiri district, the earth gets so sticky that walking or cycling through the village is an ordeal, with the wheels getting completely clogged up. That’s when one envies children as they move about on stilts: when they reach a home they lean their vehicle on the fence and hop over, clean-footed! The air is also muggy during these weeks that the forest fills up with clouds of mosquitoes.
After the monsoon breaks the village takes on the work-rhythm. Dykes are built to channel the water in the rice fields, hill-slopes cleared and spaded for millet, begging and borrowing sufficient grain to sow. Not everybody knows how to make a rain-hat and the demand for good bamboo craftsmen goes up; some people use an umbrella but this is impractical as one hand is tied up holding it! Besides, one can’t move efficiently in the forest with an umbrella. The usual guests, malaria and diarrhea, appear with glee by mid July and we have frequent trips to the bush to relieve hurting stomachs. The combination of these two ailments can be lethal; one year we buried twelve people in a month. The government hospital was locked up as the doctor was afraid of falling ill.
Mushrooms sprout in a given order, each kind marking a stage of the rainy period, telling us how much rain has passed and how much more to expect. The shoots of various bamboos and about thirty species of fish from the streams and the rice fields are the other treats. Many amaranths are gathered during this time, often cooked in bulk and eaten at all times of the day, the most easily available side-dish served with mahua. It’s perhaps the intake of greens during the monsoon that makes night-blindness, common in some parts of central India, take a backseat during this season.
After a month into the wet season comes the festival of the moonless night to mark the end of sowing. By now the feet have a peculiar problem – known as chodden getel in Durwa – due to long hours in the wet fields; the skin between the toes split and hurt, making walking painful. The condition of the human body too functions like a calendar: combine it with the specific mushrooms that sprout, the level of water in the well and the call of the bullfrog and fine-tune the monsoon almanac.
In these wet fields one spends most daylight hours weeding. Very small mosquitoes hover before one’s eyes and manage to get inside our clothes and bite. We carry pots with rice-husk for a fire that smokes and provides some respite. The one reward of weeding days is the small crabs that appear in the water and are picked up for the evening meals. They are cooked with a little tamarind gravy, most preferred with some colocasia.
Like it announced the onset of monsoon the FM bulletin also predicts the onset of the dry season. Curiously, the IMD does not bother much about how the monsoon will retreat; instead it begins the analysis of the monsoon that went by, giving us figures and tables about the rainfall in different districts in India, marking out drought-hit areas and flood zones, about the relief funds demanded by various states, etc. On the other hand the FM bulletins send out news about the season to follow. The large Nephila spiders that weave their orbs across the path; the Marking Nut tree begins to bloom; and most of the fish and mushrooms we’d been eating the last months vanish. There are fewer mosquitoes in the forest. The ground gets harder and more difficult for the wild boar to dig up the tubers that it likes. Instead, it begins to invade the fields around the village. It’s time now to construct machans in the fields to guard the ripening grain.
Clear skies ahead!
Blandford had observed a curious fact—during the monsoon failure of 1877 and 1878, the atmospheric pressure over the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean had been abnormally high. To compare this abnormal situation, Blandford requested information on atmospheric pressure conditions at this time from other meteorological observers around the world. When the request from Blandford landed at his table, Charles Todd of South Australia was intrigued. Australia also had experienced in 1877 and 1888. Todd concluded that “there can be little or no doubt that severe droughts occur as a rule simultaneously over the two countries.” This tendency for Indian and Australian droughts to occur at the same time was one of the many “teleconnections” that the meteorologists were speculating at that time.
But doubts persisted; were these “teleconnections”—relationship across different parts of the globe— mere coincidences? Walkers’ statistical approach provided an unambiguous answer. By using the tools of statistics, specifically “regression” and “correlation”, Walker ventured to make sense of tonnes of raw weather data collected all over the world by the British imperialists. Further, he ventured to do things a conventional meteorologist would have balked at; he argued, if Blandford’s local factors are not responsible, then perhaps distant factors influenced the outcome of the monsoon. In his perception, meteorology was not seeking grand theory, but was a colossal problem of statistics.
In addition to usual weather parameters such as rainfall, pressure and temperature, he also gathered unconventional data such as river flood stages, mountain snowpack depths, lake levels and sunspot activity for his analysis. He obtained 40 years past records of these data from whatever weather stations he could mobilise. Until then meteorologists would average the year’s rainfall or temperature and get a “figure” to work with. But Walker changed this. He realised seasons are too important to be lost sight of and hence averaged the data over seasons. Thus for every year he obtained four values for each parameter. For example, he took rainfall, a variable and averaged it over a season for a particular station and obtained four-time series variable for each station. In like manner he got average of all other factors for every season and grouped them. By using the statistical tool of coefficient of correlation, he attempted to find if any two phenomena were varying in unison over a series of years across the weather stations located at random places. He also tried to find if one factor in one location could be impacting another factor in another season Essentially, his method implied that if the correlation between two phenomena was 1.0 then both were strongly related and so by observing one could predict another. On the other hand, if the correlation is 0 then both phenomena are unrelated. But if the correlation coefficient is -1.0 then it means both phenomena are related in a seesaw pattern; occurrence of one would imply non-occurrence of another.
To undertake this huge task of comparing immense information, the data were to be first complied, compared and analysed. The tedious tasks were performed by a battery of “native” human computers, recruited in hundreds. These assistants computed correlation coefficients for every set of two phenomena, however seemingly they appear to be unrelated. It was in this process of searching the proverbial needle in the haystack that Walker hit upon unique, but puzzling correlations. The barometer readings from the weather stations of Tahiti in eastern Pacific and the Darwin, Australia in western Pacific showed a remarkable -1.0 correlation. That is when barometer pressure increased in the east, it usually fell in the west, and vice versa. Based on this “seesaw” effect of atmospheric pressure, he coined a term “Southern Oscillation” to describe it. His statistical analysis showed that occasional failure of the monsoons in India often coincided with low pressure over Tahiti, high pressure over Darwin and relaxed trade winds over the Pacific. This condition also affected the rainfall in Africa and the temperatures in western Canada. Walker noted that these phenomena, spread around the world, were interrelated.
The Southern Oscillation was significant for Indian monsoons. Southern Oscillation, Walker said, “Implied high pressure in the Pacific and South America is associated with low pressure in land round the Indian Ocean, with low temperatures in tropical regions and the centre of North America, and with abundant rain in India, Java, and Australia, and high Nile floods, while the rainfall is scanty in Chile.” If the Southern Oscillation was abnormal, then it implied poor Indian summer monsoon. The Southern Oscillation occurred about six months before the onset of Indian summer monsoon. “Here was the key to forecasting the monsoon”, he said.
Walker was, however, unable to provide any physical mechanism governing these oscillations. He speculated ocean circulation and temperature may play a role but could not demonstrate it on account of paucity of data. In his time, he was not that much appreciated, for his results were seen as outlandish. That weather in India could be influenced by occurrences half way across the world mystified contemporary meteorologists.
After about 50 years of the discovery of the Southern Oscillation, the physical mechanism that causes it was discovered by Norwegian meteorologist J Bjerknes in 1969. Periodic warming of the east Pacific Ocean called El Nino, and the complex relation it has to the sea surface temperature and the atmosphere above the equatorial Pacific, Bjerknes showed, resulted in the Southern Oscillation. He also found that due to these intricate interactions, air in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean sinks, while the air in the western equatorial ocean rises up resulting in a circulation of air over Pacific Ocean. This circulation was named after Walker.
Any fluctuation in this circulation has a significant bearing on the Indian summer monsoon rainfall.
These names are not merely synonyms but refer to various kinds of rain or point to its varying qualities and ferocity. If you read the statistical handbooks, you will know that Sohra gets an average of more than 750 inches (1 inch= 25mm) of rain per year, and often as much as 29 inches in a single day. All this rain normally falls between April to mid-September, although, in some years, it can continue right up to the first week of October. But this is hardly the complete picture. We often get the first rain of the year as early as January or February. This early rain, however, is intermittent and does not become fierce and incessant till about April.
You can see how incorrect the claim of the book, Where the Rain Is Born: Writings about Kerala, is. Kerala is not the birthplace of rain in India. While it gets its first rain in June, we get it in January or February.
The rain, coming from the hills and driving through the land with a fury, would scare people, especially at night, for no one could be sure when it would switch to the terrible Sohra erïong, the dark tempest. When the tempest blows, trees collapse as forests swing violently to and fro; hills growl; the night groans; and the overhanging rocks tumble down the precipices, making people in Sohra and the adjoining areas feel faint-hearted, as the rain rolls down in cascading waterfalls to wreak even greater havoc in the plains of river Surma in present-day Bangladesh. This is the season of darkness for weeks on end when
The sun too is not there that rises or sets;
Only now and then would it peep from the cloud that is dense,
At the sea frothing white and the gleeful waterfalls.
Many of my friends do not share my enthusiasm. Why should I feel so much pride for the relentless rain? Had it not, according to Nigel Jenkins, author of Through the Green Door, dismayed even the “webfooted Welsh” missionaries and driven “many a demented Company (British East India Company)wallah to suicide”? But how do I make people, who are scared of getting their feet wet, understand that we used to jump for joy when it rained. We would tear off our clothes and rush out with bars of soap to bathe naked in the downpour? And bathing we would sing:
Ther ther lapbah lapsan,
Ban dup pait ka maw ka dieng,
Ban dup tat u kba u khaw.
(Strike, strike big rain, great rain,
That the stone the wood would break,
That the rice the paddy would be cheap.)
or this song:
Ah, ah, ah, ba la ther u lap Sohra!
Syngit ki jaiñ ngi pynjyndong,
Shong kali kulai tom tom.
(Ah, ah, ah, that the rain of Sohra has bombarded!
We tighten our clothes and make them short,
We ride on horse-drawn carts.)
We had never seen these horse-drawn carts, for the British who rode them had been long gone, but that never stopped us from singing about them. At times, we would dash naked to the playground near our house, where rainwater had gathered in deep pools among the tall grasses, to roll on the ground and engage in fierce fights called kynshait um (water splashing). That was one of the most enjoyable games I ever played, particularly pleasing because there were no losers and, therefore, no hard feelings. Our parents never chided us since the water was always clean— there being no mud in Sohra, only pure sand and pebbles. A very popular saying still floating around in the area is, “Utslap Sohra u long dawai” (The rain of Sohra is medicinal). I don’t really know if this is for a fact, but no illness ever came to us from our frolic in the rain.
Rain time was story time. Mother would choose a dark pre-monsoon April night to tell us about famous places in Sohra, behind every one of which is a tragic tale. It was amidst the blinding flashes of lightning and the ear-splitting crashes of thunder that mother told us about Likai and how her horrible fate had endowed the waterfall with the unhappy name, kshaid noh ka likai, literally meaning, “the plunge of ka likai falls”. If it hadn’t been for the rains, I doubt if mother would have had the time or the inclination to tell us all those stories.
The monsoon is also the season associated with Mumbai’s eponymous fish, the Bombay Duck or bombil in Marathi. This tiny lizardfish is abundant in the Arabian Sea and is thus popular among the Konkanis, Maharashtrians, East Indians, and several Gujarati-speaking coastal communities, particularly the Parsis – all of which make up Mumbai’s diverse population. Two beliefs prevail about the possible origins of its English name: one, that the British were simply unable to pronounce its indigenous version correctly; or two, that the distinctive smell of the dried bombil was associated by the colonial masters with the Bombay Mail, the train on which it was frequently transported to Calcutta. So the fish is said to have derived its name from dak, the Hindustani word for mail or post, rather than having ornithological antecedents. When it is fresh its skin is a translucent grey with tinges of pink and the white flesh moist and almost slithery. Even at its freshest best, however, this fish is no beauty. But looks as we know are deceptive; the Bombay Duck can be an acquired taste but once you have acquired it there is no turning back!
During the dry months, rows of bombil hung on ropes, akin to traditional clothes lines tied to bamboos dug into the ground at each end, can be seen in Mumbai’s numerous fishing villages; their strong smell often precedes the sight by considerable distance. In the monsoon, when fresh fish is scare on account of the seas being too choppy for fishermen to take their boats out, these sun-dried bombil work as the nutritional substitute of their fresh counterparts. Dried bombil, lightly roasted or fried to a perfect crunch, makes a delicious complement for a comfortingly mushy dal rice meal on a rainy day; each bite of its salty crispness combined with a strong fishy scent bring back memories of the ocean. But a dry bombil preparation that can perhaps be considered most ‘native’ to monsoon Mumbai is a fiery chutney made by the East Indians, the original settlers of the city, with garlic, vinegar and ‘bottle masala’, the signature spice mix of their community.
For me, growing up in Mumbai, the monsoon was not as strongly associated with bhajias or bombils as with another, somewhat quaint ingredient: a humble edible weed known as luni in Gujarati. As a child, I often accompanied my grandmother in her daily visits to the market in south Mumbai’s Bhuleshwar area. Bhuleshwar is a neighbourhood that was inhabited by Gujarati Jain and Vaisnhav families from colonial times and to date remains one of the best places to source ingredients required for vegetarian Gujarati cooking. During the high monsoon season, when the narrow lanes of this market tend to get particularly slushy, my grandmother would be full of a childlike enthusiasm to brave the muck and grime just to buy this unusual plant called luni.
Luni is a trailing plant with fine succulent stems of a purplish hue. Its fleshy leaves are tiny and grow in clusters along the nodes of the stem. Luni leaves have a distinctive salty flavour with a hint of sourness, reminiscent of the sea. They are available only for a few weeks in the rains and during that time are incorporated by many vegetarian Gujaratis, into their regular dishes, particularly muthias, steamed chickpea and wheat dumplings that are normally made with fenugreek or horseradishes. While I loved how our routine dishes were transformed by this seasonal addition, I secretly suspected it to be some sort of a community eccentricity - after all, I had never known of the stuff outside of the vegetarian Gujarati culinary context. Only recently while trying to trace the antecedents of this mysterious plant, I discovered it is known as Common Purslane in other parts of the world and used in many Mediterranean dishes. It is also valued as something of a ‘gourmet’ weed, especially good in salads, among chefs in Europe. How this little weed with marine flavours found its way to the vegetarian Gujaratis’ monsoon cuisine or perhaps travelled to other parts of the world from there is a mystery I have yet to unravel.
Mumbai’s monsoon foods are as diverse as its diverse populations. But in a city that has always had access to varieties of ingredients and cuisines, does the change in seasons really matter? On a recent visit to Bhuleshwar market I struck up a conversation with an elderly Gujarati lady and asked her opinion on what people should eat during the monsoons. She piped up and said, “beta, just eat what you like best”. Ultimately that’s what Mumbaikars do during the rains – eat what they like best.
There was another good reason to visit Wayanad during the monsoons—ayurveda. The Malayalam month of Karkidakam which falls during the monsoons (in the months of July and August) is considered to be the most ideal period for undergoing ayurvedic therapy. Before long, I had slipped into an ayurvedic rejuvenation therapy called pizhichil at an ayurveda centre in Wayanad. Lukewarm herbal oils were dropped all over my body in a rhythmic way for about 90 minutes. It recharged all my batteries.
I rounded off my trip to Wayanad with a bout of boating at Pookot, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Kerala, which is nestled among the wooded hills near the town of Vythiri.
If you thought that the south-west monsoon brings life across Kerala to a standstill, chances are that you haven’t been to Wayanad. There’s nothing quite like heading to Wayanad during the monsoons.
This also means that it rains through the three walking days of the trek. The cheap plastic scarecrow like raincoat did its best to keep the body dry but between the rain and the many streams that have to be negotiated, there is no way shoes can remain dry. After a while we just have to make peace with wet socks and squishy shoes and plod on.
Yet it is the rains to which we owe the magic of 360 degree views. Take a full turn and try counting the waterfalls, streams and glaciers in various stages of melt contained in the nooks of the mountains. Go from the highest reaches to the lowest, from the farthest to the closest. Try to trace the paths all these take to drain into the aptly named Pushpavati river which runs through the valley, still glacial in parts, and then eventually joins the Laxman Ganga. Get distracted by the blues, pinks, reds, purples, violets, yellows, whites, oranges and other colours which defy naming. Lose count, and start all over again. Try to draw the human made boundary lines between nations on the mountain ranges. Feel a bit silly and focus on taking photographs of each flower species in the hope of identifying them by name later.
We walked through as much of the valley as we could, made it to the gravestone of an English botanist who tripped and died in the valley and as the clock neared 4 pm reluctantly turned back. The park is open only till 6 pm.
According to local legend the valley is home to the sanjeevani herb which revived Laxman from death in the Ramayana. Other locations in the country have also laid claim to this story. Legend or not, it sure is an elixir of life.
The return trek from Ghangaria to Govindghat was not as tiring. The stuffy bus ride with the pilgrims from Govindghat to Rishikesh was not as trying on my nerves. It took three days for my feet to feel dry and get back its city dirt. But the feeling of being scrubbed clean within stayed. A place where all that evaporates and condenses - clouds, mist, rain, dewdrops, rivers, streams, waterfalls, glaciers- meets all that buds and blooms does that to you. It’s an experience I tap into this monsoon to overcome the disappointment caused by moisture laden clouds which stubbornly refuse to give way to rain.
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.
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.
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