Monsoon Melodies: A Symphony of Raindrops
Editor’s note: It’s a shame that Indian classical music often feels inaccessible to so many of us. Even if we enjoy listening to a performance or an artist as a layperson, we rarely understand the rich tapestry of tradition that gives them meaning. So we are delighted that Harini Calamur—who is a writer, veteran journalist and also a classical music aficionado—has put together this series on Hindustani music. Each instalment of this beginner's guide comes with its own delightful playlist:) Enjoy!
At the end of a long, hot summer come the monsoons thundering into our lives—soaking the parched earth and providing succour for the scorched soul. For a primarily agrarian land, the rains are rejuvenation—a chance for a fresh beginning. It is also the time of love and longing. It is not uncommon to see Indians across the country walk around with a big smile as they get drenched in the fresh rain. In the film Lagaan, Ashutosh Gowarikar visualises the longing for the rains, with this fantastic AR Rehman composition.
In Hindustani classical music, the arrival of the monsoon is vividly portrayed through a set of ragas—over 35 ragas—classified as Monsoon or Varsha Ragas. There is of course Shudh Malhar (pure torrential rain) and then there are variants like Megh Malhar, Miyan ki Malhar, Gaud Malhar, Ramdasi Malhar, Surdasi Malhar, and many many more—all of which are associated with heavy rains. It is said that a master musician, by just singing or playing this raga, can bring torrential rains to earth.
One of my earliest encounters with the Raga was from the film Guddi, with Vani Jayaram singing Bole Re Papi Hara. The song's lyrics and melody takes the audience on a journey, painting a picture of lush landscapes washed by rain. In more modern times, below is a composition by the Sufi Boys that is sure to open up the skies and drench the parched earth.
The Legend of Tansen
Folklore tells of a tale involving Ustad Tansen. The story unfolds with him being manoeuvred into performing Raga Deepak—a request from Emperor Akbar himself. Deepak was a Raga so potent that when sung well it was believed to light fires. To counterbalance the imminent blaze, Tansen taught the cooling strains of Raga Megh Malhar to his daughter and another disciple.
Tansen's performance of Raga Deepak was so intense that not only did it spontaneously light the diyas in Emperor Akbar's court, but his body too began to radiate a fiery heat. Simultaneously, the soothing melodies of Megh Malhar, sung by his disciples, invoked the monsoon clouds. The heavens opened, pouring down rain, which doused the fires and thus saved the life of the legendary Tansen. A mesmerising display of the extraordinary power of music, the story is a testament to Tansen's unmatched mastery over his craft.
Krishna and the rains
Much of Hindustani Classical music borrows from folk traditions—and the plains around the Ganga and Jamuna. And, in this region there was nothing more all encompassing than Krishna, and his love for Radha; and the Gopis, and their love for Krishna.
The word Krishna means dark, GhanShyam is the duskiest, darkest cloud that will bring rains. The birth of Krishna was accompanied by torrential rains so severe that the Yamuna got flooded. I often think that the rain at that time would have sounded like this explosive recital of Raga Miyan Ki Malhar by Bhimsen Joshi—you can feel the power of the rains in full flow in this performance. Power is the word I would use with this brilliant piece by Suresh Wadkar for the film ‘Saaz’—Badal Ghumad Badh Aaye—in Raga Miyan ki Malhar.
Raga Megh (or Megh Malhar) is supposed to have been created by Lord Shiva who used the beat of the damru to ward off the heavy rains that descended on Vrindavan, when Krishna asked the villagers to worship the Govardhan instead of worshipping Indra.
But it is not just about the fury of rains, the ragas are also associated with waiting for one’s lover to return. The hope that birha (or pangs of separation) will end with Megha (rain clouds) is a theme often repeated. It possibly harks back to the fact that those who travelled a lot, in ancient times, would get back before the monsoons.
Megh Malhar as Instrumental Music
If the raga is so associated with Krishna, it is but natural that there are incredible compositions for the flute in this Raga. And, if it is the flute, who better than Hari Prasad Chaurasia (below) to play it? Another variant of Malhar is Surdasi Malhar—attributed to the poet saint Surdas. This lovely recital by Nikhil Banerjee is a fine representation of the Raga.
Desh Malhar is yet another variant of Malhar—more folksy as the name suggests. Not as prolific as the Miya Malhar or Megh Malhar, but it still has its followers.
Raga Malhar as Vocal Music
In its most ancient form, Malhar was sung as Drupad. This lovely recital by the Dagar brothers gives you a sense of how this raga would have sounded, bouncing off the walls of temples with stone walls.
Another variant of the raga is Ramdasi Malhar—attributed to the poet saint Ramdas. These two pieces by Veena Sahasrabuddhe and Ustad Amir Khan (below) are exquisite samples of the raga — one mellow, and the other vigorous.
Gaud Malhar is another popular variant of Malhar—an amalgamation of the now extinct Gaud Raga, and the ever popular Malhar. The nature of the Raga is such that it can move from depicting the gentle drizzle to the magnificent storm. This is Mukul Shivputra with a rendition in Raga Gaud Malhar.
And to conclude the mellifluous voice of Kesarbai Kerkar who with this piece, not just brings home the rains, but also the beloved she longs for.
We have created a handy playlist with all the tracks mentioned on splainer’s Youtube channel. ICYMI, you can check out Harini’s playlist on Raga Bhairavi here, Raga Puriya Dhanashree here, Raga Lalit here, Ragas of Spring here and Raga Darbari here.
PS: If you need a list of all the amazing music shared by Harini:
- ‘Ghanan Ghanan’ by AR Rahman
- ‘Raga Shudh Malhar’ by Kumar Gandharva
- ‘Bole Re Papi Hara’ by Vani Jayaram
- ‘Raga Miyan Ki Malhar’ by Bhimsen Joshi
- ‘Badal Ghumad Badh Aaye’ by Suresh Wadkar
- ‘Garjat Barjat Sawan Aayo Re’ by Suman Kalyanpur and Kamal Barot.
- ‘Megh & Miyan ki Malhar’ by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan
- ‘Miyan ki Malhar’ by Hari Prasad Chaurasia
- ‘Surdasi Malhar’ by Nikhil Banerjee
- ‘Desh Malhar’ by Kala Ramnath
- ‘Raga Miyan Ki Malhar’ by Dagar Brothers Sr
- ‘Ramdasi Malhar’ by Veena Sahasrabuddhe
- ‘Ramdasi Malhar’ by Ustad Amir Khan
- ‘Gaud Malhar’ by Mukul Shivputra
- ‘Gaud Malhar’ by Kesarbai Kerkar