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Raining Ragas

Raga and time and raga and seasons,how can there possibly be a link?

Written by Arunabha Deb | New Delhi |
June 30, 2013 4:44:17 am

Raga and time and raga and seasons,how can there possibly be a link?

It happened nine years ago,but I remember the day vividly. The second year of college had come to an end and I was back in Calcutta for the summer. The phone rang in the afternoon (being an efficient Bengali,I was taking a three-hour power nap). It was a friend from Delhi,frantically asking about a “misprint” on a CD jacket. “I am listening to a bandish by Kankana Banerjee that says Room jhoom badariya barse. The listing says its Gaud Sarang. Is it a misprint? Shouldn’t it be some sort of a Malhar?” my friend asked. I asked him to play the bandish and hold the phone close to the speaker. Banerjee’s robust voice travelled from Civil Lines in old Delhi to College Street in north Calcutta. I confirmed that it was indeed Gaud Sarang and there was no misprint. “So is it a monsoon composition or not?” asked my friend. “No it’s not,” I said. Gaud Sarang is a mid-day raga; it has nothing to do with the monsoon. There was no room for debate and I wanted to get back to sleep. But my friend’s response jolted me awake. “How weird,yaar. Cheekh cheekh ke the words are talking about the rains and you are saying it’s not a monsoon composition. What is so ‘mid-day’ about this composition?”

I didn’t have an answer to his question then,I don’t have one now. But this otherwise unexceptional track by Banerjee has remained a touchstone for me. As a student of Hindustani music,it prods me with the uncomfortable question,“What links the Malhars to the monsoon and the Sarangs to mid-day?” So when I was asked if I had anything to say about the intrinsic link between the rains and the ragas,I said that I do indeed. There cannot be an intrinsic link between a season and sets of notes. The link is manufactured. It has sat snugly for centuries amidst the many certitudes that inform Hindustani music. And like most things “traditional”,it is now beyond the reach of rationale or discussion.

I execute a simple exercise. I gather a group of friends,some philistines and some trained in Western classical music. But no one trained in or exposed to Hindustani music. I play a series of recordings and ask them to jot down what season and what time of day they associate with each piece. It is tempting to indulge in detailing the riotous responses,including that of one friend who slotted Puriya as a “dry summer” raga and Jhinjhoti as a “humid summer” raga (neither is a seasonal raga,according to the rules),but the exercise essentially reveals that the untrained ear will not necessarily map the Malhars against the monsoon or Bahar and Basant against spring; it may find strains of dawn in Darbari (which is a late night melody) or afternoon languor in Bhoopali (which is an evening melody). It was also telling that more than the notes,the pace of the piece dictated the responses: almost all drut compositions and jhala segments evoked the rains.

Is there a “correct” answer,then? Raga and time,and raga and seasons,for as long as anyone can remember,have been made bedfellows by practitioners and scholars of Hindustani music. Each raga corresponds to one of the eight prahars in a day,and is meant to be performed accordingly. In addition,there are the ragas that correspond to different seasons. The emotive response of a listener is supposedly heightened when s/he listens to a raga at its designated time/season. Clearly not,when it came to my friends. They are not conditioned listeners of Hindustani music. But that is the point,isn’t it? If a raga is meant to be the abstract bridge between definite notes and a definite season/time of day,then why should the ability to make that connection presume training or conditioning? Of course,once you have been told that a certain combination of notes form a night melody,you will tend to associate similar melodic groupings with the night.

But even this association on the basis of familiar melodic structures doesn’t hold when it comes to the Malhars,the ragas that comprise the main corpus of monsoon melodies. There are several varieties of Malhars; among the ones that are more commonly performed are Miyan ki Malhar,Gaud Malhar,Ramdasi Malhar,Nat Malhar,Surdasi Malhar,Meerabai ki Malhar. I tried to think of a melodic characteristic that is common to all these and couldn’t come up with one except the phrase Ma-Re-Pa. Surely,it would be a stretch to classify an entire group of ragas on the basis of this one phrase.

I did what every student of Hindustani music does (or at least ought to do) when confused. I called my guru (sarod maestro Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta). I don’t live in Calcutta anymore,so I couldn’t go over to his house,as I would have loved to. He heard what I had to say and his response was succinct. There is no one common characteristic that binds all Malhars. The Ma-Re-Pa phrase is common,yes,but its application and context differ widely from Malhar to Malhar. There is nothing in common,say,between Miyan ki Malhar and Surdasi Malhar. I pushed further. Then how did this grouping come about? “Convention,” he said,with a smirk,“Will someone who is untrained in Hindustani music find strains of the monsoon in the Malhars?” I asked. He replied with his characteristic candour. “A jhala in any raga may evoke the rains in a lay listener’s mind. It need not be a Malhar.”

The big question,then: why do we sing and play the Malhars only when it rains? Why do young musicians start glossing over their Malhar bandishes in the third week of May and abandon them in late August? It is true that most vocal Malhar bandishes contain lyrics that refer to the rains. But it is unanimously accepted that lyrics don’t form a defining feature in Hindustani music (otherwise the aforementioned Room Jhoom have been a monsoon melody). Also,instrumental compositions have nothing to do with words. So,again,what’s the monsoon connection?

In an interview last year,while talking about the relation between ragas and the time of day,vocalist Ashwini Bhide Deshpande told me that we all have a body clock that gives us the time of day. That is why,even when we are within the confines of an auditorium,it feels odd if someone sings an evening raga at 10 am. We don’t need the sunshine; our body tells us that it is 10 am. The late and legendary musician-writer Sheila Dhar (author of the must-read Raga’n Josh) put it in a different way. In an informal conversation,she said that listening to a morning raga in the evening would feel like having bacon and fried eggs in bed on a hot summer morning in Delhi. Something would not be right.

Would a Miyan ki Malhar in March also feel like bacon and eggs in summer? Do our bodies have season clocks? If a group of influential artistes collectively decide to sing Malhars round the year,will it remain a monsoon melody after 50 years? While you ponder,the good news is that it is July and the Malhars are out of hibernation. *

Arunabha Deb is a freelance music writer

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