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Gained in Translation: The remnants of a raga

When I arrived in Delhi, I suddenly felt that I have been banished from a raga. When I saw the last tree of my village diminishing away, the absence of that raga made its home within me.

Written by Manglesh Dabral | Updated: November 12, 2017 8:52 am
Raga Durga, harmonium of German reeds, Gained in Translation, Manglesh Dabral, Indian Express Hills usually have the custom of ragas with five notes. Their rhythm also matches the nature of the hills (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Father had a melodious harmonium of German reeds. In the dim light of a lantern, he played the Durga, Malkauns, Sarang, Bhopali ragas and soulful songs of distant dialects of Jaunpur-Jaunsar. Malkauns and Durga were perhaps his favourite ragas. He immersed himself in music as he sang the basic composition of Durga “Sakhi Mori Rum Jhum, Badal Garaje, Barse”, which is often taught in curriculum.

Hills usually have the custom of ragas with five notes. Their rhythm also matches the nature of the hills. Songs that are sung during festivals or by women as they perform their daily chores are mostly based on these ragas. Father’s notes would emerge from the harmonium like small ethereal clouds and waft around the misty glow that enveloped the home. It was still dark outside, glowworms twinkled through the black wind and Father draped the home with music as he sang the next stanzas: “Rain andheri kaari bijuri chamke, main kaise jaon piya paas (Lightning flashes in the dark night, how do I go to my beloved).”

I sat before Father as a pup sits before a gramophone on the records of His Master’s Voice. The entire family gathered around him as he sang a foot-tapping melody from the tribal region of Jaunpur-Jaunsar; full of rare and restless imagery. Mother, sisters and neighbours surrounded him and listened in rapt attention to the song that meant: “Organs will be played, so will drums and trumpets. O tall woods, bow a little, let me see my village. O my silky kerchief, let me see my village. A female pheasant flew from a forest named Radi and halted at a forest named Durwali. Blow away o fog of the forest, and let me see the village of my mother. O my glass of milk, let me see the village of my mother. Be like Duryodhan if you want to be a Kaurav, and like Bhim should you choose the Pandavs. This girl will go to her in-laws only after the snow in the forest melts away.”

Father’s harmonium was soulful and sonorous. Built of German reeds, as Father, a connoisseur of plush living, music and food, would say. It was manufactured by a Calcutta-based company. Its black wooden keys had worn down after repeated use. Father had played it in Radheshyam Kathavachak’s Parsi dramas such as Vir Abhimanyu, Bhakt Prahlad, Vilvamangal and Satya Harishchandra, which he directed, designed costumes for, decorated the stage for, and even played the role of Vidushaka in them. These plays that were staged in a big courtyard near our home also drew people from neighbouring villages.

After some years, when I arrived in Delhi, I suddenly felt that I have been banished from a raga. When I saw the last tree of my village diminishing away and crossed the thin river flowing down the village, the absence of that raga made its home within me. As if this raga had sustained my life and filled it with a deep echo. My home, it seemed, was perched on its foundation.

I looked for Raga Durga in Delhi, bought cassettes of Vinayakrao Patwardhan and Mallikarjun Mansur and the beautiful composition of Bhimsen Joshi that was somewhat different from the Durga I had been listening to — Ras kaan tu in slow tempo and Chatur Sughra Balmava in allegro.

Years later, I listened to the Durga of Kumar Gandharva: “Amona re”. The magic of this raga dawned upon me in multiple forms as I listened to it in the voices of Mallikarjun Mansur and Malini Rajurkar, and a modified rendering by Ali Akbar Khan on his sarod, where it got the new name of ‘Durgeshwari’. On each occasion I felt a stream of compassion flowing through its blithe compositions. Whenever I made a rare journey from Delhi to my village, on the way, the composition of Durga would suddenly come to me as if it was my final refuge, a nest that would immediately cradle me. At home, I often requested my father to play the raga on harmonium and sometimes he would oblige. Although, by then, his life had halted at an unexpected place; he was dejected by his only son’s aversion to the family and had stopped playing the harmonium. He had kept away the harmonium in a box. Had he hidden it from his glance, or secretly wished to make the box its coffin? The raga collapsed along with the disintegration, decay of the home.

Durga is a simple, melodious, pentatonic raga — Sa, Re, Ma, Pa, Dha. It does not have much space for variations, but Bhimsen Joshi was among the singers who rendered it with rare melody and complex ‘taans’ for longer durations. In 1991, I wrote a poem about my experience of listening to Joshi’s Durga. It ended with these words: “When everything was callous and there was no simplicity/When even the last tree was on the verge of dimming away/ And I rambled here and there thinking/ What it was that did not come to mind/ Whose absence did not cause pain/ Only then did I hear Raga Durga/ Floating like the relics of a civilisation/I moved on towards it/Its ascending scale rising like grass/ And descending scale flowing like water.”

Durga was like a civilisation – a restless raga that floated inside a thin layer of darkness and was composed of elements like water, trees, grass, river, rocks and birds. A raga that now survives in its remnants.

Manglesh Dabral is a contemporary poet. Translated from Hindi by Ashutosh Bhardwaj

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  1. Dr. Prithipaul
    Nov 12, 2017 at 9:40 pm
    It is so refreshing to read one soulful evocation of the beautiful Durga raga. It ought to be a regular feature of the leading dailies to offer such an article now and then, if not regularly, in order to stimulate the taste for the beauty of classical music, which is unique in the world. The spirit of the raga is to ultimately listen to silence, for the spirit of the raga is also an expression of the transcendent which the listener may experience depending on the way the raga is interpreted. It is so sad that the organized noise of so much that goes under the rubric "music" in Bollywood has in the past post World War II films, with very few exceptions, corrupted the taste of good music among the middle class. The disappearance of raga based film music is a significant cultural regression in the midst of rising economic prosperity.
    1. M
      Nov 12, 2017 at 4:38 pm
      Thank you Manglesh Bhai. Have you heard Kishori Amaonkar sing Durga ?? I went into a trance over her Vasant Bahar and Malkauns. But if she sang Durga I do not know. In Carnatic Music there is a Raga called Durga. I am in no position to compare the two renderings or confirm to you the Arohan-Avarohan from the notes you have given in the essay. I AGREE with your sense of LOSS of the RAGA as you came to Delhi. In Tamilnadu's Villages of the 1950s, 60s, many plays from the Mahabharatha, Bhagavatam were staged with wonderful singing. In a Village called Melattoor, they still do Bhagavad Mela. My elders recall "Harischandra", "Savithri Satyavaan", "Chandramathi", Prahlada Charithram and Valli-Subramania Vivaham. Have you heard Pakistani Singers, mat Ali, Nizamat Ali's recordings ? Their Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, on a trip to London sang Rag "Charukesi" to an audience of Indians and Pakistanis. He brought tears to my eyes, I remember. Shame about the Machine Music of Bollywood..
      1. Mukundan Menon
        Nov 12, 2017 at 12:08 pm
        Sir, I recommend Raag Durga by Meeta Pundit and Pt.Venkatesh Kumar. They offer great listening pleasure!