It was the monsoon of 1997; I was lazily turning sides in the upstairs of my grandmother's airy house in Pune. Oh, the oily green palms swaying all around, oft-shedding onto open terrace galleries, the fine grilled windows playing Tetris with rain drops and the cold granite floors documenting outdoor anecdotes in muddy imprints. So soothing was the sound of rain stonily pattering on the roof. My eye-lids refused to part, I preferred to take in the experience from my dark-inner space than watch the family swing rust a little more this season, and spot stray cats run about helter-skelter through their self-created garden shortcuts. But, then, there was a faint rasping noise that emanated from my grandfather's creaking transistor that woke me up like a baby.
"Neon signs a-flashin', taxi cabs and buses passin' through the night; A distant moanin' of a train seems to play a sad refrain to the night. A rainy night in Georgia, such a rainy night in Georgia;
Lord, I believe it's rainin' all over the world
I feel like rainin' all over the world"
Brook Benton's Rainy Night in Georgia was spinning out and blending into the moist airspace so fittingly. And then, every time it rained anywhere, I thought of that moment I came spiralling down to catch the last words that crooner spelt out. In music, rain finds sentiment, at times a sombre gray, at times a playful hazelnut. The story of monsoon, well at least the cultural formation it inspires, finds perfect expressions in music.
Of course, in a country where community spirit runs parallel to the size of the season's yield, the source of life called rain is both celebrated and revered. To initiate the monsoon, the parjanya sukta of the Rigveda and the varuna sukta of the Yajurveda were sung in scientifically worked out metres and in specific notes. These vedic chants were recited by priests at yagnas to move the rain gods to tears. The flattened 'ni' note in these songs was believed to induce the flowing of water. The meend or the gliding from one note to another was fluid, and so had an immediate connect with water; the taans or the vocal sound also resonated with the sound of water falling from a great height. The medieval era or the renaissance age of Indian music saw legends like Tansen and his poet-saint compatriot Surdas compose their versions of the monsoon raga Malhaar. This is said to have propitiated rains in the sprawling gardens in the Mughal courtyards. Call it an urban legend, but believers claim that on September 15, 1991, priests from the Yogiraj Ved Vignan Ashram in Solapur performed a yagna to end the drought their region was facing, and on the seventh day about 2.4 inches had fallen.
In art too, one finds a million allegoric references to the monsoon and music. The most overt ones are the Ragamala paintings where a blued Krishna is seen fluting out love tunes in the rain drenched lawns of Vrindavan, setting aflutter, love-mates and peacocks alike. These have inspired renditions in Carnatic and folk music. A more literary approach to the subject is Kalidasa's Meghdutam, which conveys the journey of the cloud as a pilgrimage.
And then, Bollywood happened. What took off with the Raj-Nargis exchange of glance under a big black umbrella was later swept away by fleshy women draped in saris, that turned a notorious translucent under a very obvious man-made outpour. Of course, there are marvels like Shubha Mudgal's Ab Ke Sawan and Colonial Cousins' Indian Rain, where rain is seen strumming personal chords.
Even though rain songs, as a genre, seem to disappearing from Bollywood, the culture thrives on. Mumbai's undying spirit is reflected in its cultural festivals, especially the ones woven around its core season, the monsoon. The Megh Malhaar Utsav held at the Nehru Centre and the Barkha Ritu conducted by the Banyan Tree Events, are an annual convergence of performers and notable audiences. Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, who has recently composed his own version of Sawan Malhaar, feels, "The monsoon has a very strong interpretation in the raga world and I have had some very memorable concerts where I played the monsoon raga". The powerful melody also lives on through dance performances. Sharmistha Mukherjee, a noted Kathak danseuse, adds, "The ragas are an eternal source of inspiration for dancers. The slow alap in deep sombre notes can be used in depicting a gradual build up of clouds and the fast-paced sitar jhala could be interwoven with Kathak footwork to interpret the rhythm and sound of the falling rains."
The soothing duet of rain drops and an old song on the radio, the story of monsoon and music might be an eternal one, but it's also a story that leaves you with a lesson on living in the moment.