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A season of doomed love and longing

Few literary works have captured monsoon feelings as acutely as Kalidasa's 'Meghduta'

A common trope associated with the monsoon is that of the ‘abhisarika nayika’—a lovelorn woman on her way to meet her beloved, braving the inclement weather. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A common trope associated with the monsoon is that of the ‘abhisarika nayika’—a lovelorn woman on her way to meet her beloved, braving the inclement weather. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Meghaduta, ‘The Cloud Messenger’, by fifth-century Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, is one of the most famous and widely circulated poems on monsoon feelings. A young man has been exiled from home. He is a yaksha, a nature-spirit and caretaker of nature’s gardens in the service of the Lord of Wealth, Kubera. His banishment is his punishment for having neglected his master’s garden, probably while he was enjoying romantic interludes with his young wife in the monsoon rains. Almost one year of loneliness and despair has passed, when the yaksha sees an elephant-shaped rain cloud hovering over his dwelling on a hill. The presence of the monsoon messenger raises his spirit and hopes. He approaches the cloud with flattering words to waft a message of love and longing to his wife:

You, offspring of the world-renowned cloud family of the Pushkaravartakas, servant and being of rain god Indra […] You, refuge, rescue and water for the parched, oh cloud, carry a message to my beloved for me, as I am torn away by the wrath of the Lord of Wealth.

The cloud halts. Maybe it is listening to the yaksha’s words? The young man describes to the cloud its path for the journey to deliver the message. In his poetic instruction, the beauty of the Himalayan landscapes during the rainy season comes to life: rivers flow with the energy and grace of dancing women, mango trees yield ripe fruits, and wild elephants play in the forests. The air is full of the intoxicating fragrances of flowers and wet soil. The yaksha advises the cloud to enjoy the sensual pleasures of the erotically charged atmosphere. At the same time he reminds the cloud not to slow its journey too much or to forget its duties to expend monsoon feelings through raining, sounding and colouring the sky. The cloud must play the part of a thundering drum in the evening worship of Lord Shiva in the temple of Mahakal, where the devotees hail the monsoon clouds for their colour that matches the deep blue of Shiva’s neck. If the cloud needs to rest, it should do so by spending gentle rain in the palaces of Alakapuri, where the beauty of the women, the colours of the flowers that decorate their braids, and the shine of their jewellery match the rainbow of Lord Indra, god of rains.

Your path may become curved, yet be not averse to encountering the scenery on the roofs of the palace of Ujjain in the North. Your eyes would be treacherous, if the sight of the women’s quivering eyes, trembling under your brilliant wreath of lightning, would not cause you lust and delight.

Having enjoyed and expended monsoon pleasures, the messenger must then move on to find the yaksha’s house and garden. The cloud shall feed the garden fountain with new water, make the peacock dance, and awaken the creepers and flowers from the fatigue of summer heat. The cloud will find the yaksha’s wife in tears, her hair dishevelled, as she lies lonely on the bed and dreams of the reunion with her beloved. Her body is overheated from the burning feelings of separation. With gentle sounds, a cooling breeze, and drizzling raindrops the yaksha imagines the cloud easing his wife’s pains. The dream of her relief, joy and pleasure makes the yaksha delight in monsoon feelings himself. A wind blows and the cloud moves north.

The yaksha is a connoisseur and master of monsoon pleasures. The poem can be read as a lesson in monsoon sensuality. Did the cloud learn to feel and spend the sensual pleasures of the monsoon appropriately? The poem does not tell: whether the cloud took the recommended route, whether it learned to feel the monsoon, whether it aroused romantic feelings in the yaksha’s wife. But the history of the poem itself tells us that the voice of the yaksha taught many generations of readers, performers and audiences of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta about the monsoon’s manifold sensual pleasures. Copies, transcripts and translations into many Indian languages belonging to different centuries, as well as references to the Meghaduta in works by other poets, suggest that the poem has been circulating throughout the South Asian subcontinent for the better part of two millennia.

It is not only Sanskrit scholars who have emphasised the poem’s status as cultural heritage of national significance. Since the late nineteenth century, monsoon arts became increasingly nationalised. A 1960 stamp depicts the yaksha instructing the messenger cloud. As a symbol of his message of love and longing the young man releases flower petals into the monsoon wind. A group of cranes seems to carry the message towards the raincloud and the logo ‘India postage’. A line from Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (Purvamegha, verse 2), adorns the bottom of the image: ‘On the first day of the month of Asadha, he saw a cloud over the forested mountain side, which looked like a playful elephant stooped to bunt the hills.’ The stamp was issued on the first day of the month of Asadha, the beginning of the monsoon season in the Sanskrit calendar, on 22 June 1960.

Kalidasa’s Meghaduta is one example of a canon of monsoon arts and symbols that are presented and perceived today as conveying the ‘naturalness and essence of Indian national culture’. Another example is the peacock, an essential symbol in monsoon arts, poetry and music, and India’s national bird, chosen for its ubiquity in Indian religions, legends, arts and traditions. The nationalisation of the monsoon is based on the image of the monsoon as a reliable, ‘unchanging friend’ (bandhavo nirvikarah)—to use Kalidasa’s expression from the Ritusamhara, a canonical poem on the characteristics of the seasons. The national image of the monsoon suggests that the eternal seasonal cycle has created a common realm of experience and attachment for all those who have lived on the soils of the Indian subcontinent past and present. The feelings that monsoon arts represent and elicit are taught to be feelings of national belonging: feelings of attachment to the soil and devotion to the clouds that water the fields; feelings of vitality and virility; feelings of longing and fulfilment.

Excerpted from Monsoon Feelings: A History Of Emotions In The Rain ( 1,750), edited by Imke Rajamani, Margrit Pernau and Katherine Butler Schofield with permission from Niyogi Books.

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