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Music to bring down the skies

The stuff of legends, raga 'Malhar' and its variants have become synonymous with the Indian monsoon

A Mughal miniature shows Akbar (left) watching Tansen (centre) and his ‘guru’ Swami Haridas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A Mughal miniature shows Akbar (left) watching Tansen (centre) and his ‘guru’ Swami Haridas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The laws of music are ever so mysterious compared to those of nature. How else does a set of notes, employed in a specific combination in a raga, evoke thunder, lightning and rain? Performed by legendary musicians, such music could even control the elements, as Tansen, one of the nine gems at the court of emperor Akbar, was said to have done. Possessed of a superhuman gift, he could light fire by singing raga Deepak or bring down the skies with a rendition of his very own creation, Miyan Ki Malhar.

Miyan Tansen (the honorific was bestowed on him by his regal patron) is believed to have introduced this most majestic among the Malhars, named after him, though its parent raga, Malhar, appeared to have predated him. Musicologists claim he modified it by introducing the komal nishad (the minor seventh), along with the familiar shuddha nishad (the major seventh), into its structure. Tansen also emphasized the use of andolita swaras, in which one note glides gently into the other, which has become one of the signature phrases of the raga.

Tansen’s god-like role of being a rainmaker may not have passed down to subsequent generations of musicians but raga Malhar, especially the version of it he popularized, has endured for centuries. In various classical (dhrupad, dhamar, khayal) and, to an extent, semi-classical (thumri, dadra and ghazal) repertoires, as well as in popular culture (remember the song, Bole re papihara, from the 1971 film, Guddi?), raga Malhar and dozens of its variants have enjoyed a vibrant afterlife in public memory. Like Beethoven’s Für Elise, which, thanks to mobile phone ringtones, has become embedded in our lives, the Malhars, too, are deeply nestled in India’s collective subconscious, in lyrics, dhuns, folk songs and films, without always explicitly alerting us to their presence.

Traditionally, the Malhars are performed to evoke a range of emotions: from joyous relief at the end of the scorching summer months to plaintive longing for the beloved, usually while suffering the throes of viraha (separation) from them, made ever so poignant by the erotic charm of the season.

Next only to the classical repertoire, the fullest expression of such myriad feelings is perhaps to be found in the varsha (monsoon) segment of the seasonal songs composed by Rabindranath Tagore, collected in Gitobitan, a compendium of all the lyrics he ever wrote. From paeans to the flora and fauna dancing in all their verdant glory, to documenting the mysteries of asadh and sravan, the months in the Bengali calendar when the rainy season is at its peak, the poet immortalized the beauty and stillness of the countryside in his vivid imagery. Close to Bengal, kajri, a semi-classical form derived from the folklore of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, also captures the mood of the season poignantly.

The imagistic appeal of the Malhars comes into sharper focus in their influence on the movies. Sitar maestro Vilayat Khan, who directed the music for Satyajit Ray’s 1958 film Jalsaghar (The Music Room), based on a story about the last days of a profligate zamindar (landlord), mined the tragic possibilities of Miyan Ki Malhar to amplify the mood of noble gloom that pervades the plot.

In contrast, Khan’s rival, Ravi Shankar, who worked on Ray’s first feature film Pather Panchali (Song Of the Little Road) in 1955, curiously used raga Brindavani Sarang, an afternoon melody with close structural affinity with raga Malhar, in one of the many iconic scenes in the movie. At the end of a long summer, as the clouds burst open over the village of Nischindipur, where the story is set, siblings Apu and Durga soak themselves in the downpour, as the raga is heard on a high-pitched flute.

It is hard to test the mythical power of the Malhars to induce rain in the post-Tansen era, but the closest I came to witnessing its magic was at a concert in 1999, at the (then newly renovated) Town Hall in Kolkata, where Pandit Bhimsen Joshi performed Miyan Ki Malhar after being felicitated by the mayor of the city. Seventy-seven years old at the time, having come through a surgery to remove a benign tumour from his brain and in spite of several malfunctioning organs, the maestro sang for over an hour, mesmerizing the audience with his robust voice, guttural gamaks, invoking thunder and rain, showering us with lightning-fast taans. At the end of that melody-soaked evening, as my father and I emerged from the spell and stepped outside, we found the streets of Kolkata awash with rain in the middle of August.


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A list of iconic vocal performances of rarely heard monsoon ragas

‘Meerabai Ki Malhar’ by Kishori Amonkar A classic of its kind, the bandish speaks of longing and melancholy inspired in Meera by the hovering dark clouds, which remind her of Lord Krishna. Amonkar performed it on several occasions, and recorded it in 1999.

‘Ramdasi Malhar’ by Mallikarjun Mansur Mansur’s approach to Ramdasi Malhar, an unusual offshoot of Malhar, differs from its more familiar form. His rendition sparkles for his virtuosity, bringing to mind the rumble of thunder and swooshing storms.

‘Desh Malhar’ by Kumar Gandharva Raga Desh pervades Indian life, for it is the template on which the best-known version Vande Mataram is composed. Cast in the Malhar ang, it assumes a verdant flavour, as sung by the inimitable Kumar Gandharva.

‘Megh’ by Amir Khan Amir Khan was the greatest proponent of the vilambit (slow) khayal in the 20th century. His rendition of raga Megh conjures up an overcast sky announcing rain, and the petrichor that emanates as the first drops hit the earth after the parched summer months.

‘Sur Malhar’ by Faiyaz Khan Attributed to Surdas, the 16th century blind poet and devotee of Lord Krishna, it has a lighter chalan (movement) compared to the solemnity of the other Malhars. Faiyaz Khan, the towering star of the Agra gharana, presents an elaborate dhrupad-style alaap, followed by a popular bandish.

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