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Seeking the summer raga

Shubha Mudgal on how the season crops up in different guises in Hindustani classical music

Shubha Mudgal in performance. Photo: Anushree Fadnavis/Hindustan Times
Shubha Mudgal in performance. Photo: Anushree Fadnavis/Hindustan Times

Cultures around the world have always responded to the phenomenon of weather through music—the cyclical nature of seasons inspiring many compositions. In Western classical music, for example, there are the popular violin concertos Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi and the Spring Symphony by Benjamin Britten that celebrate the seasons.

In Indian classical music, the association with weather is primarily a feature of Hindustani classical music. The Carnatic classical tradition in southern India draws more on devotion to the godhead and less on seasons for its ragas. In the Hindustani tradition, spring and monsoon get pride of place when it comes to specific ragas, though summer is not entirely absent, so says Shubha Mudgal, the acclaimed singer, who explains over a phone interview just how the summer season is evoked in Hindustani classical music. Edited excerpts:

In what ways does summer connect with Hindustani music?

Despite the fact that there is no specific raga in the Hindustani system which is associated with grishma ritu (the summer season) in the manner that the Malhars are associated with varsha (monsoon), or ragas Basant and Bahar with basant (spring), the impact of elements of nature and the seasons on Hindustani music is so pervasive that grishma is not altogether neglected or dissociated from its repertoire. The blistering, scorching heat of summer is often mentioned and described in the narrative of the baramasa, a song form that is part of the thumri-dadra repertoire. Of course, baramasa (meaning, literally, 12 months) covers 12 months, but summer is very much part of that narrative. There are mentions of the month of jyestha when summer is at its absolute peak.

The path-breaking composer and vocalist Kumar Gandharva also began his composite programme, titled Geet Varsha, with a composition in Raga Marwa describing the parched earth as it thirsts for rain, the stifling stillness of the air before the monsoon breaks.

Are there any pieces in your repertoire that you associate with summer?

Apart from the khayal and thumri-dadra repertoire that I have inherited from my gurus, I have also been studying temple literature from the Vaishnava tradition. Traditionally presented as part of ritual worship in Krishnaite temples, this seemingly inexhaustible treasure of song-texts contains countless verses meant to be sung during the summer. While I do not belong to the tradition of kirtaniyas, who conventionally hold the qualifications to present these beautiful verses in temples, I follow the example of many Hindustani classical musicians in the past, and draw on this plentiful source of song-texts to create compositions which have become part of my repertoire. One can compose it for khayal, thumri, dadra and sing it in a variety of ragas.

One such verse describes Krishna and Radha on the occasion of Chandan Yatra or Akshay Tritiya: chandan pehray naav Hari baithay, sang Vrishbhanu dulaari ho (adorned with a cooling paste of sandalwood—against the scorching summer heat—Hari or Krishna, and the beloved daughter of Vrishabhanu, i.e. Radha, set sail in a boat).

Another verse from the same source says Kou maai aamba bechan ayi, describing an episode where Krishna arrives at Radha’s doorstep, dressed as a woman who sells mangoes door to door. The verses, therefore, also include information about flora, fauna, rituals and festivals associated with summer.

Why do you think there is not a single raga directly associated with summer?

The monsoon and spring are, of course, the two seasons that have inspired a large part of musical repertoire. Perhaps these are also seasons which in a largely agrarian society provided some time for leisure and activities like music making. In addition, fertility remains an important aspect of these seasons, and possibly the artist’s mind too reflected the same fertility when creating compositions and music inspired by these two seasons.

‘Jyestha (May-June)’ from a Baramasa set, Jaipur circa 1780-90. Photo: British Library London
‘Jyestha (May-June)’ from a Baramasa set, Jaipur circa 1780-90. Photo: British Library London

Does the connection between the weather and Hindustani music have a deeper significance?

The weather and the seasons are described in great detail in song-texts, but so are the seasons of the mind. The parched, cracked earth in summer therefore becomes a metaphor for the destruction caused by the fire of viraha, or separation, that leaves the nayika (heroine) scorched and withered. In Meerabai’s baramasa, there is a description of the pain felt by the separated nayika, the virahini—it’s like the heat of the scorching sun on the fish that is out of the water.

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