Monsoon Ragas

Though rain has inspired joyous dances and music all over the world, India has a unique heritage of Monsoon Ragas which were composed and sung by legendary masters like Mia Tansen to initiate welcome showers to India’s parched forests and fields so that the land would be blessed with plenty…The music they composed has   inspired painters, dancers and writers for generations……

‘A lifetime of showers moistens the soul’, says an ancient proverb. And the shimmering, crystal-clear nuances of these beautiful words apply more to India’s colourful Monsoon culture than to any other art movement in the world. Rain and the magical season of Monsoon have always been the throbbing heart of Indian life and culture. Whether we are talking about music – classical, folk as well as devotional – dance, painting or sculpture, rains and their incessant music are a recurring theme in India’s many-splendoured art treasure, and not without excellent reason! It is well-known that India’s entire economy depends upon the timely coming of the Monsoons. Vignettes of farmers looking longingly at the skies for the first signs of fleecy black water-bearing clouds are familiar in our daily life. Folk songs welcoming the first thunder showers and streaks of lightning are sung in every village even today. The diverse dialects of India’s far flung villages are replete with songs welcoming the rains and their message of bounty.

Indeed, the ancient Vedic culture of India believed in the propitiation of the rain gods to bring life to the parched plains of India where the Aryans settled in the pre-historic age. The Parjanya Sukta and the Aap Sukta of the Rigveda and the Varuna Sukta of the Yajurveda were sung in scientifically worked out metres and recited with specific musical notes to initiate the onset of rains each year before the season of showers set in. Musical geniuses in ancient India believed that specific notes, sung in certain phrases, could encourage the skies to darken and bring a downpour of rains. In fact, this practice of propitiating the rain gods continues even in modern India whenever there is fear of a delayed Monsoon.

The Monsoons in India had another wonderful nuance. Many men, travelling away from their homes as army-men or businessmen, returned home when the skies became heavy with rain and were reunited with their waiting wives or lovers! The joyful yearning of romance after long separations, the meeting of lovers under umbrellas on dark, rainy nights and their clandestine trysts in thunder-lit forests – all these were themes of songs in classical as well as folk literature and were sung to specific melodies or Ragas, woven with specific notes.

Somewhere along the way, these phrases of musical notes became known as Monsoon Ragas in the classical music system of India. Many scholars say that the birth of Monsoon Ragas – as they are known today – happened during the Medieval Ages when Rajput Rajas and Mughal Emperors as well as Kings and Nawabs in various states, created an era of prosperity and riches rarely seen in Indian history. Many rulers of such dynasties patronised musicians, dancers and painters at their royal courts and treated them with great honour. The jewel among such artists was unquestionably Mian Tansen (1506-1589) who was counted among the Navaratnas – nine gems – at Emperor Akbar’s court. Honoured as the greatest musician India has produced, Mian Tansen (born Tannu Mishra in Gwalior in a Hindu family), was the disciple of Swami Haridas, a famous scholar-musician of the times. Mian Tansen not only learnt the basic Ragas of Hindustani music from his guru but also created his own melodies adding his name Mia to several of them. Tansen was deservedly called the Nada Siddha or the Achiever of Godhood through music and melodies! Tansen recognized six basic Ragas of Hindustani music among which was Megh which he described in his own words, "Raga Megh manifests itself when the rain clouds crowd the sky.” Tansen mastered all Ragas and created his own melodies which are a proud part of India’s music heritage even today. He raised his singing to such a divine level that legends say that he could actually bring on rains when he sang Monsoon Ragas like Megh, Megh Malhar or his own compositions like Mian Ki Malhar. He could tame wild elephants with his music and bring flames to unlit lamps by singing the Deepak Raga.

However, Monsoon Ragas became a popular theme during this golden age of Indian music. History says that Mian Tansen and one of India’s greatest poet-saints, Surdas, were close friends and shared their musical expertise. Surdas also created the Monsoon Raga Sur Malhar. His father Ramdas too, was a learned musician and contributed Ramdasi Malhar to the rich cornucopia of music! Other than these, Monsoon Ragas that found expression during this creative age were Madhu Malhar, Mishra Mel Malhar, and Dhulia Malhar and of course the more gentle Goud Malhar! There were several varieties of Malkauns, Sarang and other ragas which were specific to the Monsoon.

Akbar’s reign became the golden age of Hindustani music with 36 great masters singing at his court. Abul Fazal writes in Ain-e-Akbari that Akbar himself was a great scholar of music and that he hand-picked each of the gems at his court. However, as was the style of those days, these Monsoon Ragas were sung in conservative compositions called
Dhrupads and Dhamars, which were steady and serious in expression.

It was much later, at the decadent court of Mohomed Shah Rangeela (1719-48) that two new musicians – Feroz Khan and Niamat Khan – began to sing in the more vibrant Khayal Gayaki style, bringing a fresh, romantic ambience to the magical renditions of the same Monsoon Ragas composed some centuries earlier. History says that Mohomed Shah was so crazy in his love of music that these two musicians occupied seats before him in his durbar and that they were called Sadarang and Adarang in their innumerable compositions, which are sung even today.

It was during this time that Hindu-Muslim (Sufi) cultures graciously merged to create a culture of celebration and romance with rain and the monsoons as their common theme. The romance of Radha and Krishna, the eternal lovers, became a theme of rain songs. So did the constant longing of a beloved waiting for her lover to return home. This latter theme attracted many poet saints of India and a vast body of devotional compositions based on Monsoon Ragas became the rage. For example, Surdas wrote “Nisdin Barsat Nain Hamare…Sada rahat pavas ritu hamper, jabse Shyam sidhare...(My eyes have not stopped raining…For me, it’s Monsoon forever since Krishna has left me). Tulsidas, the great author of the Ram Charit Manas, sang, “Ghana Ghamand Nabha Barsat Ghora, Piyabin Tarsat Man Mora ” in a Monsoon Raga to allude to the allegory that just as all rain water falling from the skies flows to merge with the ocean, all living beings flow finally into the shining pool of divinity. Meerabai, Kabir, Surdas, his father Ramdas, Tulsidas – and many other poets and saints of the middle ages were reportedly not only spiritual masters, but also master musicians and sang their songs in Monsoon Ragas whenever they wanted to express longing for the divine soul.

The object of their single-minded devotion, Krishna – whose name Ghanashyam indicates that he is dark like the Monsoon clouds and who was born on a rain-stormy night in the holy Monsoon month of Shravan – became an icon of the Monsoon season and songs dedicated to him were composed in these soul-soothing ragas. As the Krishna-Radha romance permeated into folk music and dance as well as into the celebration of festivals, songs about their love created a treasure-house of Kajris, Shravan jhoolas, chaitis, thumris and other light classical music compositions with an edgy eroticism.

So also, folk songs acquired the glittering border of Monsoon Ragas to describe the romance of these divine lovers. Krishna himself became the icon of the Raga Megh Malhar and was seen in many paintings as the initiator of the Monsoon! This legend found itself not only into Hindu culture, but also in the Sufi and Sikh thought. A vast number of schools of miniature paintings expressing the concepts all these religions showed Krishna as the central figure of romance and the embodiment of the magic of the Monsoon with melodies specially written for the season. Krishna, according to all these poets, was the quintessential god of love, romance and benevolence who came in the form of rain to ‘shower’ his mercy and love on the world.

It was natural to associate him with Monsoon Ragas, songs, paintings and dances! For example, Guru Arjun Dev, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, included the Raga Megh Malhar for his songs in the Guru Granth Sahib. These are accompanied by a beautiful painting of Krishna as the personification of the Raga Megh Malhar, blowing his divine conch to invite the rains. Krishna stands under a cloudy sky, watched by two Gopis, while cranes fly to the safety of their nests as lightning flashes in the sky! The same thought is expressed beautifully in the Sufi poetry of Kahlil Gibran:

“I am dotted silver threads dropped from heaven
By the gods, Nature then takes me, to adorn
Her fields and valleys.
I am beautiful pearls, plucked from the
Crown of Ishtar by the daughter of Dawn
To embellish the gardens…
The voice of Thunder declares my arrival
The rainbow announces my departure
I am like earthly life, which begins at
The feet of the mad elements and ends
Under the upraised wings of death

Centuries have passed since all these masters sang Monsoon Ragas and wrote rain songs to celebrate water as the life-giving force of this earth. The beauty and appeal of Monsoon Ragas has not diminished even in this age of Bollywood beats and memorable songs like Bol Re Papihara in Miyan ki Malhar (from the film Guddi) and Ghanan Ghanan (from the film Lagaan) continue to haunt music lovers. The importance of water as the symbol of the fluidity of life has not lessened even today and an urgent awareness of environment conservation has become a world-wide movement.

*Translation of the Parjanya Sukta from the Rigveda sung in Monsoon Ragas with specific metres:
“Then the winds blow…
Then the lightning’s fall…
Then, the flora sprouts and grows
Then the space overflows,
Then the land prepares for the welfare
When Parjanya the Rain God protects the earth by waters!”
 Rigveda 8.53 Parjanya Sukta

* Translation of the Aap Sukta from the Rigveda also sung to Monsoon Raga with specific metres.
The waters that rain in the skies,
The waters that spring themselves from below the earth
And flow in the canals
And go towards the ocean
The waters that are clean and sacred
These goddesses of water may protect me here”

Monsoon Ragas were so popular in the artistic renaissance of India that every school of miniature painting used this theme to create some unique and cherished paintings. Of specific interest are the Ragamala paintings based on the concept of illustrating musical modes in a pictorial manner. The popular melodies were verbally personified with great details in the Sangeeta Ratnakara, a music treatise of the 12th century which lists the presiding deities of each Raga and the painters used these to create collections of paintings based on the images created by words and music. One of most beautiful paintings in this style is the picturization of the Raga Megh by artist Madho Das of Narsinghgarh; it is presently on view at the National Museum, New Delhi.

Legend says that Emperor Akbar, the patron of Mian Tansen (who is honoured as the greatest musician of India) wanted to meet his Guru Swami Haridas. He was told that if he went as the Emperor, the music-master would not see him. So Akbar went dressed as an ordinary man, holding Tansen’s Tanpura as his assistant and became a devotee of Swami Haridas ever after. When Akbar said that Mian Tansen was the greatest musician ever, Tansen replied that he could never match the music of Swami Haridas because while Tansen sang to please an emperor, Swami Haridas sang only for the ‘emperor of emperors’ – namely God.

The Jehangir Nama mentions that when the great Sufi Saint Shaikh Saleem Chishti was on his death bed, he asked Emperor Akbar to fetch Mian Tansen to his bedside so that he could hear his music before he quit his earthly body!

Also see
1.    Note that Tansen was born Hindu but died as Muslim. To see Tansen’s tomb in Gwalior Click Here
2.    Three pictures show one Monsoon ragas painting, two Tansen in his younger days and three Tansen in his old age.


Monsoon ragas painting
Tansen in his younger days
Tansen in his old age

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