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 the epicure. In a year in which the monsoon has played truant, Down To Earth invited a cross section of writers to unravel its myriad aspects
Capturing the monsoons
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.
The seasonal concern
On June 4, the then Finance Minister and now President, Pranab Mukherjee said, “A normal southwest monsoon has been predicted for 2012-2013 and there has been a rapid decline in international oil prices in recent weeks...These factors should help in the recovery of domestic growth momentum.” The minister’s statement is significant from more than one standpoint. Besides being a testament to the policy maker’s annual concern for the monsoon, the statement highlights the fact that economic significance of good rains is no less than that of global oil prices. But policy makers do always hold the two big drivers of our economy in the same esteem. For most oil-price obsessed officials, monsoon is a matter of seasonal interest.
For the 69 odd per cent of the country’s population living in rural areas, the rains are, however, a constant issue. Directly or indirectly, their livelihood depends on monsoon and rainfall patterns in the country. In the past 20 years with the direction of the economy changing, the focus of economic policy has shifted away from agriculture. But as Mukherjee’s statement shows, a good harvest remains critical. Despite being an economic superpower, irrigated land as percentage of total agricultural land in India was a low 35.12 per cent in 2009. Most farming in India is dependent on rainwater.
A good monsoon matters even more in an inflation-hit economy. Though prices did stabilise somewhat by end of last year, inflation has made a comeback this year to haunt policy makers. Many commentators believe that the recent upward trend in prices of commodities, particularly food and essential items, is because of supply shortage. The importance of food and essential items in economics derives from their being the “wage goods”. In simple words, food is necessary for any kind of worker in the economy. So, a rise in food prices has an immediate fallout on wages and prices of other goods. This, in turn, adds to the existing inflation.
Some economists have called for import of foodgrains in case of a bad monsoon. However, volatility of international food prices (which can easily be compared to the volatility of international oil prices) has often landed India in trouble. Though not much publicised, this has also seriously undermined per capita food availability and internal food security in the last decade. The importance of a good harvest cannot indeed be overstated.
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.
Gift of good life
An oft-recited Vedic verse goes, “May the rains come on time; may the earth bend with the weight of foodgrains; may this land be free of scourge; may the learned be fearless; may the poor become wealthy and may all live a hundred autumns; may the childless have children and those with children have grandchildren. Lord, give all people a life of well-being.” It refers to rain as the fertilising power for land, as well as the promoter of human welfare and the longevity and health of generations.
“Monsoon rains are a unique feature of the Indian subcontinent,” says Gautama Vajracharya of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Monsoons are considered the prana or life-force of India. According to Vajracharya, an art historian, this connection with the monsoons is expressed in the three religions—Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism—through sculpture, literature, art, music and dance. Countless heritage monuments of these religions feature full-bodied men and sensually-endowed women, well-fed animals and richly-plumed birds. The sculptures or frescoes of Barhut, Amaravati, Sanchi, Ajanta and Ellora as well as innumerable temples of every historical age show apsaras, celestial beings and godlings as being amply endowed and ornamented with luxuriant hair.
Even the figures of the Buddha and all Jain Tirthankaras—who were mendicants with shaven heads—are never shown as emaciated or hairless. Similarly, animals—real and mythical—portrayed in sculptures or paintings are “healthy”. Many sculptures show the abundance of fruits and flowers together with the animals. Rarely do we come across an emaciated animal or human figures in Indian monuments. According to Vajracharya, this is because these sculptures indirectly celebrate the bounties of the monsoons.
In the Barhut, Amaravati and Sanchi monuments, stylised figures of frogs, (some verses of the Rigveda and the Atharvaveda are about frogs), makara, the mythical crocodile, peacocks, swans and cattle as well as men and women who look prosperous illustrate this unflinching devotion to the monsoons. There are many references to the ashwatha, the peepal and the vat, the banyan tree in ancient literature and sculptures as both are considered the symbols of rain.
A huge body of dance and music is devoted to the romance and theme of rain. One of earliest celebrated poems devoted to romance and rain was Geeta Govind, written by Jayadeva in the second half of the 12th century. This poem has inspired not only Odissi, Kathak, Bharata natyam dance styles but also folk dances all over India. The romance of Radha and Krishna under a blue cloud- laden sky or under clouds illuminated by lightning is enacted by thousands of dancers in every part of India. Some of the most cherished miniature paintings in the Ragmala series and Rasleela series have rain as the motif.
Without the monsoon, there may be no swaying green fields bearing rich grains of crops. In modern India, the observatories begin to forecast the coming of monsoons as soon as the summer is over, and conjectures on whether the rains will be adequate for crops or not begin to hog media headlines.
Getting the bulletin right: EL Nino and the new challenges
In the PBS documentary, Monsoon, the poet S P Kurada notes, “The wild monsoon winds blow with abandon, swaying everything in their path. Rivers flow and flowers bloom in celebration of the monsoon as the world is transformed under its spell.” The poet’s sentiments are no exaggeration, for the socio-economic destiny of millions of people in the Indian subcontinent are bound to the timely arrival and an even spatial distribution of the Indian summer monsoon.
The first attempts at forecasting Indian monsoon rainfall, a strong component of Asian monsoon, began following a devastating famine in the late 1870s. In spite of its regularity, monsoon exhibits large variability in space and time. In India, the meteorologist has to look for variation in rainfall within a few kilometers as well as within the entire country. Then there are temporal rainfall variations: they range from daily to interannual (year-to-year) to multi-decadal and even millennia. It is the interannual variations which are a major concern for many sectors like agriculture, water resources and power generation. A weak monsoon year with significantly low rainfall can cause reduced crop yield, even droughts. In contrast, a strong monsoon favours abundant crop yield, and can also cause devastating floods. Skillful forecasting therefore is crucial for the socio-economic wellbeing of India.
The first seasonal forecast of Indian summer monsoon rainfall covering India and Burma was issued on June 4, 1886 by H Blandford who established the Indian Meteorology Department in 1875 and was its first chief reporter. Blandford used the inverse relationship between preceding winter and spring snowfall over Himalayas and subsequent monsoon rainfall that he identified to issue the first official forecast.
Gilbert Walker made seminal contributions in identifying the relationship between summer monsoon rainfall variability and atmospheric variability over tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans, a phenomenon which we now know as the famous El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). He used these findings in a statistical regression model to issue the first seasonal rainfall forecast based on large-scale atmospheric circulation features—this still forms the basis for forecasting systems. (In statistics, regression analysis helps understand how the typical value of the dependent variable changes—rainfall in this case—when any one of the independent variables vary.)
The predictability of a climate system such as the Indian monsoon depends upon our ability to understand and model the mechanisms causing its variability. It is a complex affair. This is because the atmosphere is very unstable and the systems responsible for the events that we are trying to predict, such as clouds or a monsoon depression (in which thousands of clouds are embedded), are the culmination of the instabilities and involve non-linear interaction over spatial scales ranging from a few kilometres (as in a single cloud) to hundreds of kilometres (as in a monsoon depression or a hurricane).
The seasonal mean monsoon circulation and rainfall are affected by changes in factors such as sea surface temperature (SST), snow cover and soil moisture because of changes in the large-scale organised convection—these factors are called boundary conditions.
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.
A trusted met body
A few July’s ago, it did not stop raining for eleven days and most of us in the village ventured out only when we had to. The ponds and other waterholes that a month ago were nothing but small swamps, with hundreds of toads fringing the water, merged with other waters and formed a continuous sheet, all flowing down to meet the Kanger River to the north.
This unbroken spell of rain kept us around our smoky fires, shifting position to avoid stinging eyes when the wind blew. There was no dry firewood in the world. We munched on popped corn, roasted mahua flowers and siyadi seeds (Bauhinia vahlii), and cursed the rain that we had invited with the performance of the frog marriage a few weeks ago!
When the old man dashed out of the hut, grabbing the rain-hat while on the move, he was not cautious. The boys had placed a lump of wet earth in the hat where the head rests, as a prank, and laughed as the mud dripped down the old man’s face. The roar of water had become a part of the landscape. We realised it only when, one afternoon, the rain suddenly stopped to breathe and we heard the silence. We came out of our homes, like monitor lizards come out of their burrows to enjoy a sunny moment, quite taken by surprise.
It’s fortunate that most adivasi people in central India have no clue about the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and pay no heed to the practice of its medieval art which it passes of as a science! This year too we come across the usual guesses, based on statistics. The IMD is “hopeful of an improvement in the upper air cyclonic circulation….”; it’s Director General, L.S. Rathore, added that things could improve in the coming days and weeks and that the monsoon would “most likely” be normal. Apparently, the Agriculture Ministry is also “closely monitoring the situation”; though Ashish Bahuguna, Agriculture Secretary, is prepared to face any eventuality, Abhijit Sen, Planning Commission Member, said enigmatically, that “… there is some cause for concern but not a great deal… and there is no reason to ask farmers not to sow. They must be prepared to sow in time.”
All these pronouncements printed in our newspapers with utmost seriousness makes me conjure up images of farmers grabbing handfuls of grain ready to broadcast and then, the hand with a fistful of grain held back as the IMD changes its prediction. To sow or not to sow, that is the question.
Instead of all this mumbo-jumbo about Long Period Average with model errors of 5 per cent either way, we could get real and see how the Muria or Durwa highlander in Bastar read their data. Their information is available in the Forest Meteorological (FM) bulletin, extra-net, to anyone who can observe and read. For free! These peoples’ data comes from a collective knowledge-base of several thousand years, (as against 1901-2000 of the IMD), and has space for aberrations. Most importantly, the Muria depends on his own observations and interpretations! The IMD can only add another year’s figures to its data base.
After the last of the summer showers in May the new leaves of koliari (Bauhinia purpurea) become a part of the menu in most homes. This is the first of many bulletins of the FM department, followed very soon by the flowering of the nowdeli (Schefflera roxburghii). The liti warbler has by now built its nest, with the entrance in a direction exactly opposite to that of the approaching monsoon wind. The wet season – known variously as munsud, musud, barsa, in different parts of Bastar – has begun. The FM bulletins are area-specific: different elevations within a region would be reflected in differences in nowdeli-flowering dates or the entrance-position of nests between the two places. No hiding behind district averages and El Nino when one misses the target.
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!
Predicting monsoon averting famine
Gilbert Thomas Walker was famed as a brilliant mathematician, evident by his lectureship at the illustrious Trinity College. His thesis related to electricity and magnetism was read in The Royal Society. His qualifications ranged from mathematics to music (he was an accomplished flautist); from water colour painting to ice skating and mountaineering; from ornithology to study of the dynamics of African folk toy-boomerang—all except meteorology. So, when in 1903, John Eliot chose him to be his successor to the post of chief meteorological reporter to the government of India and director-general of Indian observatories, Walker would have appeared a most unlikely candidate. We have no way of knowing what Eliot saw in Walker, but it was worth a gamble. Walker not only made an indelible mark in Indian monsoon research, but also changed the way meteorology was practiced.
It is not the famed English obsession with weather that made the colonial administration in India to give importance to meteorology, but politics. Weather and weather prediction was politically emotive. The colonial rule witnessed recurrent famines—there were 18 famines between 1875 and 1900 and the Indian Famine Commission of 1880 had come to the conclusion that poor rains resulting from failure of monsoon is the root cause of the famines. Thus, the Famine Commission solicited the colony’s first meteorological reporter, Henry F Blandford, in forecasting the variations in the monsoon rains.
The famines of 1877 and 1899 were horrendous. Coupled with failure of monsoon they resulted in widespread starvation and large number of deaths. It was also the period of the birth of Indian Nationalism. Perhaps in the past no one paid much attention to the famines, content to remain passive, blaming fate for the misfortune; but the incipient national movement projected the colonial government’s ruinous economic policies as the root cause of starvation deaths. Political agitations by the nationalists impelled the colonial government to act; meteorology was reorganised and the Indian Meteorology Department was established.
Seeking to predict Indian summer monsoon, Blandford initially speculated that the local factors such as amount of snow in the Himalayas, the summer heat or winter cold in central Asia and Tibet, and storms in Persia influenced its quantity and quality. He said by collecting these data and studying for relationships, we can find a way to predict the monsoon. However his forecasts were not successful; so were the monsoon prediction model adopted by Eliot, his successor. Repeated failures in prediction not only resulted in failure to prevent starvation deaths, but also severely embarrassed colonial government.
It is in this context Walker was invited to take the position as the chief meteorological reporter to the government of India. His task was daunting; he had to somehow make forecasts about the monsoon using the data being collected from various weather stations, both in India and world over. He had to succeed where two of his predecessors had utterly failed.
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.
Longing for the rain
I love everything about Sohra or Cherrapunji— which we still fondly call the wettest place on earth—for it was there that I was born and raised, my mother had taught me to talk, and I walked its paths as a child. But most of all I love its pure, wild rain which has baptised me with its holy waters, again and again, linking my soul forever to its cloud-tending wind and its cherubic mists hanging from summer trees in sanctified woods. I never tire of reading poems and writings on the Sohra rain:
This is the famed rain,
making a fool of sorry umbrellas!
Zooming in like swarms of fighter planes!
Bouncing back metres high to the sky!
Now it sprints with the wind!
Now it turns waltzing round!
Now it’s a million whips for the gale to lash at pretty legs!
And now, it’s a violent downpour to whitewash the ditches and the roads till at last the fog comes cloaking all
It is because of this multifariousness and its divergent nature that khasis have many names for the rain: slap (rain), lapbah (heavy rain), lapsan (immense rain), lap-theh-ktang (pouring rain, or literally, pouring-from-the-bamboo-tube rain), lap-lai-miet (three-night rain), lap-hynriew-miet (six-night rain), lap-khyndai-miet (nine-night-rain), lapphria (hail-rain), lap-erïong (dark-wind rain/black storm), u kyllang (stormy rain), lapiwtung (smelly rain, because it continues for many days, causing clothes to stink), lappraw (light rain), lap-boi-ksi (louse-swarming rain, because it looks like lice when it settles on hair and clothes), lap-ñiup-ñiup (soft, flaky rain, very light drizzle), lapshiliang (partial rain), laplynnong (rain confined to certain locales), lapkynriang (slanting rain), lapmynsaw (rain of danger, which has both literal and metaphorical meanings) and lap-bam-briew (human-devouring-rain, because it does not stop until some human has fallen to some rain-triggered disaster).
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.
Rain time is food time
There are few cities on the subcontinent that are as fundamentally transformed in the monsoons as Mumbai. The traffic stalls, trains stop, ceilings leak, trees fall, and potholes abound in this season of deluges and downpours. This is a time of mixed emotions as the rain provides welcome respite from the heat of the summer but brings with it a variety of nerve testing inconveniences. What doesn’t seem to change much, however, is the Mumbaikars’ (we used to be called Bombay-ites) enthusiasm for outings and eating.
Despite the rain (or perhaps because of it) the city’s seafronts and beaches are never empty. And despite warnings about waterborne diseases the chaatwalas and sandwichwalas are hardly ever devoid of patrons, young couples are often seen sharing the joy of a warm, spicy cob of corn from the buttawala’s cart on the promenade, and for those who prefer being indoors restaurants promise prompt home delivery services during the heaviest rains. Mumbai is a city that loves to eat and won’t let a few wet months dampen its spirits.
Mumbai’s food traditions are defined, as the city itself, by its immigrant culture. The city, with its long association with Indian Ocean trade networks, has historically catered to the culinary needs of varieties of Indians and foreigners alike. Colonial accounts note how European-style ingredients like celery and lettuce were also brought into Mumbai’s markets from the cooler parts of the country. The interplay of the local, regional, national and often international is frequently seen in the city’s various cuisines (Chinese bhel, anyone?), some of which, like pav bhaji and vada pav have found fame outside Mumbai as well. But is it possible to trace a distinctive culinary culture associated with the mix of sensations and emotions that is the Mumbai monsoon? Are there specific things that people of Mumbai eat during this season?
One of the most common food association that comes to mind for monsoon Mumbai is the kanda (onion) bhaji or bhajia, western India’s contribution to the pakoda family. Most often available at tiny street side stalls tucked away near the city’s iconic sea fronts, these fritters are sometimes referred to as khekhda (crab) bhaji in Marathi because the onion and spiced batter mix takes on a multi-pronged shape that resembles a crab. In the monsoon, their crispness and taste are delightfully enhanced by the lacing of the salt sea spray merged with the whiff of ground garlic with a hint of coconut that rises from the accompanying dry chutney. As the soft drizzle threatens to turn into a forceful downpour, you struggle to balance the newsprint piled with the freshly fried bhajias and the plastic cup of steaming cutting chai; for a fleeting moment you become acutely aware of the comforting warmth that has seeped on to your hands along with the hot oil.
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.
Romancing the rain
Tucked away at an altitude of 700-2,100 metres above sea level in a particularly beautiful corner of Kerala is Wayanad, it comes alive during the monsoons. In early June, I packed my bags and headed off to Wayanad to enjoy one of the better kept secrets of Kerala.
For a truly out-of-this-world experience, you too could, like me, stay in one of the dizzy tree houses at Vythiri Resort— a romantic hideaway cocooned in the lap of the rainforests of Wayanad. You will be on a new high. Literally. These tree houses are perched 22 metres above ground and can be accessed by an indigenous crane-lift that works by a counter weight of water. These luxurious tree houses (with a bath-attached bedroom) are built out of locally available material by the tribals of Wayanad.
The following morning, I drove down the Chundale-Udagamandalam road towards a hillock known as Neelimala that lies near the town of Vaduvanchal. An easy climb took me atop Neelimala. No sooner was I there than I began to hear the roar of the Meenmutty Falls, one of Kerala’s highest waterfalls. The sight of the waterfalls cascading from nearly 304 metres was exceedingly breathtaking.
On my way back, I came across the Chembra Peak, which at 2,100 meters above sea level, happens to be the loftiest in Wayanad. The rains had enhanced the already exceptional beauty of the Chembra Peak. The south-west monsoon typically sets in here in early June and lasts till late September.
A place in Wayanad called Lakkidi, about five kilometres from the town of Vythiri, receives the highest rainfall in the country after Cherrapunji. Splash, the highly acclaimed monsoon carnival, is held in Wayanad every year in July. An array of adventure activities such as river rafting, mountain biking, mud football and crab catching and zorbing are held in Wayanad as part of Splash. The latter has caught the attention of discerning tourists from across the globe. It has also won accolades for being the most innovative tourism product in the country.
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.
The sky meets the flowers
It took us less than half an hour after commencing our trek to realise that we were misfits in this journey. Clearly me and my friend who had embarked on a trek to the Valley of Flowers many monsoons ago were not in the same league as those seasoned, self-sufficient and mostly solo trekkers with rucksacks on their backs. One km down, with 12 more to go, we had already revised our decision to not hire a porter for our luggage. We were not botanists, ornithologists or serious photographers for whom the valley was a professional treasure hunt. Yet, we were also not like the Sikh pilgrims who could chant their way through the most difficult stretches of the trek.
Indeed, pilgrims had been the largest contingent of fellow travellers since Govindghat falls on the Rishikesh-Joshimath-Badrinath route. The Sikh pilgrims, though, were headed to Hemkund Sahib, the base camp for which is Ghangaria, 13 km from Govindghat, where the trek begins. Travelling in large groups and with a religious destination as their goal, the pilgrims could never come to terms with two young women trekking in the first place, and further not trekking to the gurudwara or the Laxman temple located near the gurudwara. Few had heard of the Valley of Flowers. We attracted curious stares and direct enquiries throughout and yearned for the silence one associates with mountains. In this case, silence was meant to be the reward greeting us as soon as the path to the valley forked out from the route to Hemkund and led to the forest department checkpoint which issues the daily permits to the valley.
Eventually what dulled the constant waheguru chants were gushing, cascading, soothingly noisy rivers in full spate which are constant company through the route. Govindghat is located on the banks of the Alaknanda and the trek begins by crossing the river. Immediately after that the Laxmanganga joins the Alaknanda and took over as our companion up until Ghangaria. A pilgrim trail does have its advantages, though. There are plenty of little eateries all along the trek route and both Govindghat and Ghangaria offer decent affordable accommodation.
The last 3 kms before Ghangaria were particularly difficult. To keep up my confidence levels for the next two days, I told myself the difficulty had to do with an eight-month old ligament tear that had not fully healed yet.
That gave me the excuse to avail the services of the foot masseurs who throng hotel corridors offering to undo the knots and ease the pain of an eight to nine hour trek. The massage and a good night’s sleep at Ghangaria rejuvenated the body and after a quick breakfast we packed up lunch and started out for the valley. Though flowers can be seen right after the official entry point, the valley is still a 3 kms steep climb away. Once there, I realised why paradise has often been imagined as a garden or snow clad mountains or why happiness conjures up pictures of water bodies or why introspection is associated with the image of dense forests.
In the Valley of Flowers all these postcards come alive. Clouds hover and move, opening out newer angles and making each sight a unique one. There is no last look possible; every sight is a first.
The Valley of Flowers is part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve located in the Garhwal Himalayas. A glacial zone, it is home to a large number of plant, animal and bird species. The valley is snow bound from November to April. It takes a couple of months for the glaciers to melt and the white to give way to green. After that a little miracle happens. When the skies open up for the first monsoons, the green is interrupted by a riot of colours: flowers emerge to dance in the rain. It is said to be home to 300 species of rare wild flowers. While entry is permitted from June through October, the valley is in full bloom between mid-July and mid to late august. By September, the plants start to pod making the valley an exclusively monsoonal destination.
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.
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.
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.
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